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Thoughts on the signing of Craig Kimbrel by the Cubs

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The Cubs made a definitive statement with the signing of Kimbrel this week.

New Cubs closer Craig Kimbrel, his wife Ashley and their daughter Lydia Joy at Friday’s Wrigley Field news conference
Photo by Nuccio DiNuzzo/Getty Images

There’s a reason I used the photo of Craig Kimbrel with his family at the top of this post rather than one of him in his unusual pitching stance.

According to this article by Sahadev Sharma in The Athletic, family is one of the most important reasons Kimbrel chose the Cubs, citing team special assistant David Ross, who caught Kimbrel for three years in Atlanta:

“(Ross) did fill me in on the culture of this ballclub,” Kimbrel said. “(It’s the) Chicago Cubs. He didn’t have to tell me all that much of the culture of this place and what’s expected here. He filled me in on the clubhouse. If anything, it’s how family-oriented this place is. How much they care about the families and how much they’ll do anything for the families. That really resonated with me. That’s the most important thing to me. I’m a husband and a father, and then I’m a baseball player. To understand that this place is going to make that as easy a transition as possible was a big part.”

Sharma’s article notes that Kimbrel’s daughter Lydia Joy had “multiple heart surgeries,” and I think sometimes we all forget that players have lives outside of baseball and they’re not always easy, even with all the money they make. The situation with Ben Zobrist has made us think a bit more about this, I believe, and if the fact that the Cubs might have gotten a bit of financial flexibility with Zobrist on the restricted list helped them sign Kimbrel — well, that’s a bit of serendipity that’s helped the team.

Many are eager to see Kimbrel on the mound, but Sharma’s article also notes the cautionary tale of Greg Holland in 2018 (which I’ve also mentioned here). Holland was on a big-league mound for the Cardinals 10 days after he signed last March, and the results in St. Louis were disastrous, so much so that they outright-released him. Only after he signed with the Nationals did he pitch well last year, and he is having a good year in Arizona after signing this past winter with the Diamondbacks.

So the Cubs will tread cautiously with Kimbrel:

He will throw a side session Saturday at Wrigley and then will be optioned to Triple-A Iowa. But before heading to Des Moines, Kimbrel will go to Arizona for at least a week, where they’ll do their best to give him a condensed spring training. Kimbrel will throw bullpens and move up to some live batting practice before heading to Iowa.

The Cubs’ two short-season teams, the Eugene Emeralds and the Arizona Rookie League Cubs, don’t begin their seasons for a few days (June 14 for the Ems and June 17 for the rookie league), so there’s still extended spring training happening at the Sloan Park complex in Mesa. The I-Cubs return from a road trip June 20 to begin a nine-game homestand, and that’s when I would expect Kimbrel to join them for a few appearances against Triple-A hitters.

Thus I wouldn’t necessarily expect Kimbrel in a big-league Cubs uniform until perhaps the series at Wrigley Field against his old team, the Braves, which begins Monday, June 24, or possibly the following road trip, which begins in Cincinnati Friday, June 28. He, and the team, certainly want him to be 100 percent ready when he faces major-league hitters for the first time this year.

As you know, I had been somewhat skeptical about a Kimbrel signing due to his not-so-great performance in the second half of 2018 and in the 2018 postseason. Here’s a potential reason for that:

Red Sox manager Alex Cora said Kimbrel was tipping his pitches during the playoffs, and to close out the last inning of the World Series-clinching game, Cora went with Chris Sale instead.

If that’s the only issue, you’d think that’s something that could be fixed relatively easily.

Beyond all this, the signing of Kimbrel to a contract that could go for three more seasons after 2019 indicates to me that the Cubs do not consider their contending window closing, instead, they are moving along on the assumption that this year’s team will be a World Series contender with his addition, and that they will likely try to keep the ballclub’s core together for at least that long. It likely also indicates that, assuming the Cubs’ bullpen is solidified the way they think it will be with Kimbrel and they assert dominance in the N.L. Central, that Joe Maddon will probably wind up being given a contract extension. I certainly hope that’s the case, anyway. My position has always been that Joe should be the Cubs manager as long as he wants the job. Remember that Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer were in the last year of their first contracts with the team in 2016, and they eventually wound up being extended just a few days before that season ended. Jon Greenberg, in The Athletic, wrote much the same thing:

Maddon’s not getting an extension before this season ends — unless the Cubs do it in September like they did with Epstein, Hoyer and Jason McLeod in 2016 — but I’ve done a 180 on his future with the Cubs. Before the season I thought he was a lame duck. Now, after much rumination and a very tasty mushroom pizza and a Try Not To Suck lager at Maddon’s Post, I think the only reasonable solution is to sign him to a three-year extension that takes him into 2022. (Maybe two years and his option?)

The signing of Kimbrel is a statement by Cubs management that they intend to be serious about winning the World Series this year — and beyond. Even if they don’t make any other trades, this lengthens the bullpen, putting Pedro Strop and Steve Cishek into the setup roles they’ve been more accustomed to in their careers. Carl Edwards Jr., who’s been very, very good since being recalled May 6 (2.13 ERA, 0.474 WHIP, .098 opponents BA in 14⅔ innings), could be a devastating seventh-inning reliever. All of this takes pressure off the starting rotation — and they have been very good recently:

You might wonder who will go off the 25-man roster when Kimbrel is activated in two or three weeks. Right now I’d have to think Brad Brach is the odd man out. Brach has been awful lately. He’s allowed runs in five of his last six appearances and over that span has a 13.50 ERA and 2.833 WHIP. Given this information on Brach’s contract for this year and next, it wouldn’t be too much of a payroll and tax cap hit for the Cubs to just eat the money and release him.

In any case, welcome to the Cubs, Craig Kimbrel. Looking forward to seeing what you’ve got.