For the last seven months, quizzical Major League Baseball fans have wondered why closer Craig Kimbrel, a seven-time All-Star, did not have a job.
One of the game’s premier relief pitchers for many years, he had slipped through the free agent colander that eventually grabbed big pay days for position players like Bryce Harper and Manny Machado.
Common sense offered a reasonable explanation. Kimbrel wanted a lot of money. Metrics told teams he might not be worth it anymore. And nothing would be resolved until a team with disposable income ran into bullpen trouble.
On Thursday, push finally came to shove when it was announced by The Athletic that Kimbrel had signed a three-year, $43 million deal with the Chicago Cubs. The Cubs entered Thursday with a 34-26 record, one game ahead of the Milwaukee Brewers for first place in the National League’s Central division.
Here is the contract breakdown: Kimbrel will make $10 million this season and $16 million in 2020 and 2021.
“It’s huge for us,” Cubs starter Jon Lester. “For [owner] Tom [Ricketts] and Theo [Epstein, the team’s president] to get this deal done, it’s a huge shot in the arm for us.”
The move was portended by recent comments made by Epstein, who has always been one the game’s most aggressive executives.
“You’re always trying to get better out there, too, and we’ve been open about the fact that at some point we’ll probably get some help from outside the organization,” Epstein said. “ Trades are certainly a possibility and there’s usually not quality free agents rolling around this time of year. But any guy that’s out there, we’ll certainly do our due diligence and see if that makes sense.”
Kimbrel was due to report to the Cubs on Thursday and ESPN reported he should be ready to pitch in about two weeks.
“It’s like getting a gift on Christmas morning and having to wait to open it for a week or so before he’s here,” Lester said.
Getting a reliever of Kimbrel’s status will do nothing but bolster the Cubs chances of making the playoffs for the fifth straight season. Their bullpen has already blown 11 saves (12-of-23) and hasn’t really had a legitimate closer since Brandon Morrow injured his elbow last July.
Even now, Morrow is just playing catch and it’s unclear whether he will be able to help the Cubs this season. What’s more, the team just activated Pedro Strop from the injured list on Tuesday.
Reports indicate the Cubs were able to free up the money for Kimbrel when Ben Zobrist left the team in May for unpaid time to deal with divorce proceedings. That saved the team about $12.5 million which they were able to re-appropriate.
“There are always unknowns that come up during the season that can impact your financial picture,” Epstein said. “This year, in particular, there have been some unexpected variables that could possibly give us a little more flexibility than we would have imagined.”
The problem for Kimbrel was he wasn’t always reliable last season for the world champion Boston Red Sox, even though he compiled 42 saves and had 96 strikeouts in 62 1/3 innings. He often worked himself into trouble and ended up with a 2.74 ERA. He was not the lights-out guy he had been in the past.
That was particularly true during the 2018 postseason. He allowed five runs and six hits, walked six and struck out eight, in just 6 1/2 innings. His ERA was 7.11 and his strike rate dipped below 50 percent.
And yet his career ERA (1.91) is the lowest among relievers with at least 300 inning in MLB history. He is also the youngest (31) pitcher to record at least 300 saves and he already has 868 strikeouts, a ratio of 14.7 per nine innings.
“Finally he can go out there and do what he does,” Red Sox manager Joey Cora said Wednesday from Kansas City. “I just texted him. It’s a great organization. They’re in a good spot. I’m very happy he was able to finish the deal and go play baseball.”
The Cubs have worked hard in previous years to add quality pitching to the bullpen. Remember, they dealt Gleyber Torres to the New York Yankees to rent Aroldis Chapman for the world championship run in 2016. And then they dealt Jorge Soler to the Kansas City Royals for Wade Davis for the 2017 season.
Once Kimbrel is activated, he’ll join Strop, Steve Cishek, Brad Brach and Brandon Kintzler in what will be a vastly improved – and deeper – bullpen.
“Anybody would be excited to get a guy of his ilk in their bullpen,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. “When you’re able to lengthen the bullpen, man, with the really quality guys at the end, you can shorten the game. There’s no question you can shorten the game. (And) that’s the kind of stuff that can get you on a roll, when you don’t give up leads and you can shut things down.”