Late Wednesday morning a Ken Rosenthal tweet put Cubs fans on edge: the front office was ‘pushing hard’ to sign Craig Kimbrel. Just a few minutes ago, Rosenthal provided the words we were all waiting for:
BREAKING: #Cubs in agreement with free-agent closer Craig Kimbrel, pending physical, sources tell The Athletic.
— Ken Rosenthal (@Ken_Rosenthal) June 6, 2019
Details have yet to emerge about the agreement, but, per Rosenthal, Kimbrel had been looking for a deal in the three year, $39 – $50 million range as recently as mid-April, a split that aligns perfectly with what Zach Britton and Wade Davis received, respectively. Supposing the deal lands within this range the Cubs will remain under the $246 million luxury tax threshold.
To wit, Kimbrel is better than both of those arms. While Britton had one of the most dominant seasons ever for a reliever in 2016, injuries have kept him from maintaining elite status. Davis parlayed his lone stint with the Cubs into a then record breaking contract with Colorado, having a down season in 2018 before returning to his standard brilliance this year.
The Immediate Impact
Even with Kimbrel reportedly staying in game shape he’ll certainly need to ramp it ump in the minors before debuting with the Cubs. How long that takes is anyone’s guess, but I imagine about a week is necessary before the front office decides to plug him into the Closer’s role. If that holds true, we could see him closing games for the Cubs as soon as mid-June.
A move of this magnitude was sorely needed for the Cubs, and it couldn’t have come at a better time. The inconsistency and volatility of the bullpen has been a nagging issue all season. With Kimbrel the Cubs now have a dominant presence to close out games while reinforcing the ‘pen from the top-down.
Beyond the impact Kimbrel has in the ninth is the domino effect his presence imposes on the rest of the ‘pen. Fresh off the IL, stalwart Pedro Strop pitched a clean ninth inning for a save in Tuesday’s 6-3 victory, and he displayed his typical selflessness when asked about the potential of signing Kimbrel: “It’s not a secret how good he is, if he’s not the best, he’s one of the best in that role. Man, we’d be glad to have him here.”
Slotting Strop back into a setup role provides the Cubs with a dominant one-two punch while allowing Steve Cishek to return to the everything role he was so good at in 2018. With the sturdy veteran presence of both Brad Brach and Brandon Kintzler, a swing-man lefty in Mike Montgomery, and the resurgent Tyler Chatwood, the addition of Kimbrel turns a beleaguered bullpen into a potentially dominant one. It also alleviates pressure on Carl Edwards Jr.,who while much better since being recalled from Iowa (2.38 ERA, 0.79 BB/9 since May 6) can now continue to rebuild his confidence without being required to be a stopgap to the ninth inning.
Since we don’t know if Morrow will ever pitch for the Cubs again, and because there’s still some uncertainty with reinforcements in the minors (Dillon Maples could return this year, and perhaps Adbert Alzolay makes his debut out of the ‘pen) the foregone conclusion of the Cubs needing a late inning arm made Kimbrel the perfect fit.
Is Kimbrel Still that Good?
Over the course of the off-season, with Kimbrel’s future consistently hanging in the balance, a magnifying glass was placed over his recent performance, questioning what he might be in the future. Yes, his walk rate (12.6%) was much higher than his career average (9.8%) in 2018, and sure, his velocity dipped almost a full mile per hour between 2017 and 2018. But when you consider that he was still throwing over 97 mph on average last season and that he was still striking out hitters at an absurd clip (38.9%), the concerns over an elite arm like Kimbrel are nitpicking at best.
Certainly, volatility with regard to relievers is a true concern, but Kimbrel is a work horse with the track record to assuage those doubts. Signing any reliever, especially an expensive closer, maintains both risk and reward. But at the age of 31 he has plenty of life in his career, and the only question about his effectiveness is whether or not he’ll remain a top five closer — not whether or not he can still close out games.
While there are more affordable arms out there via the trade route (Mark Melancon, for one) any trade would require prospect capital the Cubs shouldn’t dip into, and any closer they could acquire via trade lacks the track record and World Series pedigree of Kimbrel. I argued for this move at the beginning of the season, and couldn’t be happier it finally came to fruition.
How the Contract Affects the Payroll
With draft pick compensation no longer attached the Cubs literally lose nothing but money — something they have plenty of despite Tom Ricketts’ assertions otherwise. The potential money saved with Ben Zobrist on the restricted list (upwards of $9 million) mitigates the luxury tax hit, keeping the Cubs underneath the austere penalties that come with breaking the $246 million mark, or $40 million over the luxury tax threshold.
With the Cubs payroll dropping considerably in 2020, sitting at a current projected payroll of ~$141 million (before arbitration figures), the move makes even more sense. The notable contracts of Cole Hamels and Zobrist will be off the books along with some lesser deals (Kintzler, Brian Duensing). This will allow a reprieve for the Cubs from a financial standpoint, able to withstand the luxury tax in 2019 while potentially being able to make acquisitions this upcoming winter without taking a successive luxury hit in 2020. And when you consider the Cubs would be shopping for bullpen help in the off-season, anyway, getting a jump start while helping the 2019 playoff push only sweetens the deal.
It took a long, long while, complete with avoiding a draft pick penalty and some unfortunate savings from the payroll, but the Cubs finally got their man.
Welcome to Chicago, Craig.
Follow Austin Bloomberg on Twitter (@aj_bloomberg) for more Cubs news and opinion.