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Are the Cubs really interested in Craig Kimbrel...

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... or is there nothing to see in a new report out Saturday morning?

This really is one weird pitching style
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

I haven’t written much this year about Craig Kimbrel, who remains a free agent.

This is for a couple of reasons. First, and I’ll circle back to this, I am concerned about his late 2018 performance and whether he is still the dominant reliever he was previously. Second, the Cubs have, for right or wrong, basically stated “we’re out of money” and thus it didn’t appear they could meet his salary demands.

I’m posting this because of an article by Ken Rosenthal in The Athletic Saturday morning, in which Rosenthal posits the Cubs could now be interested in him... because of Ben Zobrist’s situation:

For now, the Cubs are doing background work on Kimbrel and trying to figure out whether such a move would be financially viable, sources say. The team explored trading Zobrist last offseason as a way to create payroll flexibility, but after keeping him the Cubs joined the Red Sox and Yankees as one of three clubs with an Opening Day payroll above $200 million, according to USA Today.

Kimbrel, who according to sources wants a multi-year contract, turned down the Red Sox’s qualifying offer of $17.9 million last November. As recently as mid-April, according to sources, he was seeking a three-year deal in the $39 million to $52 million range. It is unclear whether he would command that price as an unrestricted free agent. But the Cubs might be in position to afford him and possibly others if they know they are saving $9 million-plus on Zobrist, with up to $10 million in reserve.

Rosenthal’s article points out that players on the restricted list generally aren’t paid. While that is true, players usually wind up on that list due to suspension, and that’s obviously not the case with Zobrist, who is on a personal leave of absence while dealing with family matters. The Cubs could pay him — nothing’s stopping them — but Rosenthal hints that they’re not, and I suspect he’s probably right.

If Zobrist did announce his retirement — something that is certainly possible — the Cubs could indeed save around $9 million in both salary and money counting toward the luxury tax. But would they want to spend that on Kimbrel?

First, even with extra money, I don’t think they’d want to give Kimbrel the three-year deal he’s supposedly looking for. Kimbrel was bad after the All-Star break in 2018, mediocre in the postseason, and now he hasn’t pitched in a game in seven months. Sure, he’s stayed in shape and likely pitched in simulated games, but none of that is anything like facing real big-league competition. For an example of how rushing a player from signing to big-league mound without any real spring training or ramping up in actual game action, just look at what happened to Greg Holland after the Cardinals signed him March 31, 2018. Nine days later he was on a major-league mound, and he got pounded, over and over, so much so that the Cardinals outright released him at the end of July and ate his contract.

If the Cubs are going to spend big money — or any money — on Kimbrel, I would want to see him have a brief “spring training,” then appear in at least a few minor-league games before he came to the big leagues. If he were to sign Monday, the first day free agents can sign without draft-pick compensation, I don’t think I’d want to see him playing for the big-league Cubs until at least the end of June. Contractually (since Kimbrel is long past the time when he’s out of options), you’d sign him to a minor-league deal (so he can pitch in the minor leagues), then his big-league money would kick in as soon as he’s added to the major-league roster. At that point we’re nearly halfway through the season and any money Kimbrel would be paid this year would likely be pro-rated for the time he’s missed in 2019.

There’s no doubt that the Cubs are going to look to add bullpen help, or perhaps even hitting help, to the major-league roster before the single trade deadline of July 31 hits just two months from now. But I’m leery of spending big money on Kimbrel based on his performance of last year, and I don’t necessarily think Ben Zobrist’s situation has much (or any) bearing on whether the Cubs can afford him.

Lastly, Kimbrel’s walk rate was up last season (4.5 per nine innings — don’t the Cubs already have enough guys like that?) and he walked eight in 10⅔ innings in the postseason, where he also served up two home runs. He allowed seven home runs in the 2018 regular season, a career high. As Rosenthal wrote:

For now, the Cubs are doing background work on Kimbrel and trying to figure out whether such a move would be financially viable, sources say.

Sure, the Cubs should do this due diligence. But in the end I think they should say “pass” on Craig Kimbrel.

Poll

Regarding Craig Kimbrel, the Cubs should...

This poll is closed

  • 11%
    ... sign him to a multi-year deal
    (79 votes)
  • 52%
    ... sign him to a pro-rated deal for this year only
    (360 votes)
  • 29%
    ... not sign him at all
    (199 votes)
  • 6%
    ... do something else not listed above (leave in comments)
    (47 votes)
685 votes total Vote Now