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The Cubs’ Craig Kimbrel Problem

Craig Kimbrel is running out of time as the Cubs' closer.

Craig Kimbrel has made two appearances so far in 2020 for the Chicago Cubs. He faced 11 batters. He retired 4 of the 11. He walked 4. He hit one. The other 2 got hits off him. If you know anything about Kimbrel’s Cubs’ tenure, you already know the punch line: both hits were home runs.

And…I hate to be the guy that harps on money, but, you know, the Cubs owe Kimbrel $16MM this season and next (prorated this season, of course). Taken in sum with his 23 appearances and 6.23 ERA/8.00 FIP from 2019, and the Kimbrel/Cubs union paints a pretty grim picture. A little worse than this:

 

The Cubs Bookends Problem

 

Since winning one of the best game sevens of all-time and ending their 108-year World Series drought, the Chicago Cubs have had two persistent issues bookending their ballgames: inconsistency in the leadoff spot and unreliability from their closers. Neither letting Dexter Fowler leave for St. Louis nor Aroldis Chapman returning to the Yankees was the wrong decision at the time – but the Cubs have been unable to replace the two in the four years hence.

Whether this solution is final or not, Chicago has decided on yet another short-term answer for the leadoff spot: former MVP Kris Bryant. Bryant sees a lot of pitches, takes his walks, and brings serious punch to the leadoff role. It’s a worthwhile gamble.

Unfortunately, it’s been a sluggish beginning (.120/.241/.160) – and what’s worse – he continues to be hampered by ticky-tack injuries (he missed today’s game with “gastrointestinal issues”). This early in the season, the Bryant experiment is very much a work-in-progress. Don’t expect Ross to veer from the plan quite yet.

The closer’s role is the more immediate, um, issue. With 346 career saves in a stellar career that spans 11 years, Craig Kimbrel is arguably among the most accomplished closers of all time. But since joining the Cubs in the middle of last season, he’s been an unmitigated disaster. As noted by ESPN’s Jesse Rogers, Kimbrel has now allowed 11 home runs in 22 innings since donning a Cubs’ uniform. That’s beyond horrible. Needless to say, this feels like a lifetime ago:

Kimbrel’s 7.77 ERA since joining the North Side actually paints a better picture of his performance than the unfortunate truth. An unwieldy grasp of his command has led to 6.5 BB/9 and – good god – a 9.57 FIP. 

David Ross won’t commit one way or the other about Kimbrel’s future, but after kicking off 2020 with a pair of disastrous appearances, it’s hard to imagine how Ross could stick with him. But could he?

 

Kimbrel’s Unsustainable Home Run Rate

 

Part of Kimbrel’s demise has to be attributed to bad luck. I mean, right? It’s simply unfathomable to think that someone who throws as hard as Kimbrel (still reaching 96-97 mph), with as much experience as Kimbrel (and while still notching 12.3 K/9), could simply turn into a pumpkin. Ironically, the same numbers that epitomize his god-awful Chicago tenure might also be the numbers that point to a rebound: home run rate.

As a Cub, Kimbrel has surrendered 4.5 home runs per nine innings.  This season’s numbers aren’t robust enough to say anything of substance, but even last year, Kimbrel had a 36% home run to flyball rate. That was the 3rd-worst mark in the majors among pitchers with at least 20 innings. Thinking long-term, however, no “qualified” pitcher had a HR/FB rate higher than 23 percent.

Even in the not-always-so-friendly confines of Wrigley Field, Kimbrel’s home run rate must regress to the mean at some point in the near future. But will it regress enough to turn him into the guy he was in Atlanta, San Diego, and Boston? Especially in a 60-game season, the Cubs don’t have the luxury to wait for Kimbrel’s numbers to normalize. That said, the Cubs aren’t exactly bursting at the seams with potential replacements.

 

Kimbrel’s Understudy

 

If Kimbrel can’t put it together, they may eventually have to reach outside the organization to find a tried-and-true closer. As things stand right now, the Cubs are primed for contention. It takes more than a strong week of play to put the Cubs into the playoffs – but in this wonky season with few games and an expanded playoff field, it doesn’t take much more.

Former Brewers’ closer Jeremy Jeffress is the most decorated alternative already in the dance party known as the Cubs bullpen. He’s taken many of the high leverage opportunities so far, such as this one:

 

Ross might hesitate to remove him from that role. I personally don’t think Ross will shy away from mixing-and-matching for a while, but if he proves a traditionalist, Jeffress would be the most likely replacement for Kimbrel.

Jeffress has been an every-other-year guy for the last couple of seasons, but if the pattern holds, the Cubs have Jeffress for a good year. Just two seasons ago he amazed with a 1.29 ERA/2.78 FIP across 73 appearances for the Brewers. He notched 15 saves that season, as Josh Hader was still emerging as a fireman. They shared the role a la Cody Allen/Andrew Miller in 2016.

The balls bounced his way that year (0.59 HR/9, 92.9 LOB%, .249 BABIP), and there’s no reason to count on that guy returning. Still, he could very well end up somewhere between that guy and the guy he was last year (0.87 HR/9, 63.8 LOB%, .322 BABIP).

 

Creative In-House Solutions

 

If Ross wants to explore outside the box, there are always alternatives. Rowan Wick will be the popular choice among blue-bleeding northsiders. He certainly has done the most with his few opportunities so far.

The 27-year-old made 31 appearances last year after coming to the Cubs via trade from San Diego. He put up impressive numbers: 2.43 ERA/2.82 FIP, 9.45 K/9, 54.1 GB%. But like Jeffress in 2018, he benefited from low BABIP, and he didn’t serve up a single long ball. Unless he somehow brought Petco Park’s dimensions with him from San Diego – that’s not likely to hold.

Kyle Ryan could be utilized as closer, but as the only proven lefty in the pen, Ross will be hard-pressed to avoid using him before the ninth on a consistent basis. The rest of the bullpen is a collection of journeymen relievers (like Dan Winkler, Casey Sadler, Ryan Tepera) and failed (or failing) starters like Duane Underwood Jr., Jharel Cotton, Adbert Alzolay.

Dillon Maples has the stuff to close, but he closes his eyes all too often when he throws (I assume) and has no idea where the ball is going (7.71 BB/9 last year). They just signed Cody Allen, but Allen hasn’t been a reliable back-end arm since 2017.

 

If there’s something working in the Cubs’ favor, it’s that bullpen arms have a habit of popping up basically out of nowhere. It’s not outside the realm of possibility that Brad Wieck, James Norwood, Alzolay, Underwood, or someone of that ilk steps into the void – especially in a short sample of a 60-game season. For all our metrics meant to help us determine true talent, the Cubs don’t need “true” talent this season – they need production.

Maybe some time outside of the closer’s role will even help Kimbrel get himself back on track. Absence makes the heart grow fonder after all – maybe it helps with home run rates too.

TC Zencka

TC Zencka contributes regularly to Pitcher List, and MLB Trade Rumors. Come say hi on Twitter.

  • Michael Hintze says:

    Might give Kimble one more time otherwise say goodbye.

    • TC Zencka says:

      With his contract, there is no “goodbye,” but we might see him start to see some outings outside the 9th inning for sure.

  • Harry Lime says:

    So in this short season is Jeffress a hold in a 12 tm dynasty. Or time is a wasting and move on?

    • TC Zencka says:

      At the rate the cubs are winning, he might have some value. But in a 12 team I think you can probably do better.

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