On Tuesday, the Cubs announced some relatively chilling news just two weeks short of Opening Day: Pedro Strop is dealing with a mild right hamstring strain and had an MRI on Monday to confirm as much.
With questions already swirling around closer Brandon Morrow (elbow, out for the start of the season), lefty Xavier Cedeño (wrist, out for the start of the season), and righty Brad Brach (depressed velocity, restructured deal for less guaranteed money thanks to a bout of mono) you can understand our concern. Indeed, the Cubs themselves admitted that, in light of the recent news, they were considering adding to the bullpen one way or another, so our concerns are obviously well-founded.
But what I want to discuss more today, specifically, is yes-still-a-free-agent closer Craig Kimbrel. His name came up during a discussion with reporters yesterday, but Joe Maddon said Kimbrel’s name didn’t come up in talks with the front office, he also said he wasn’t ruling anything out. A small window, yeah, but it’s open.
Now, to be sure, everything we know about the Cubs’ budgetary limitations and Kimbrel’s reported contract demands remain true, but this still feels worth a closer look. At a minimum, I want to determine for myself/in isolation, whether Kimbrel makes sense for this club right now. After all, things can change – for both sides – and we’ve never really fully considered what Kimbrel is going to be next year.
Let’s start simple: For the last – oh, say, nine years – Kimbrel has been the best closer in baseball. He’s got a 1.91 ERA, a 1.96 FIP and 19.0 WAR over 532.2 innings pitched, including a career 41.6% strikeout rate (lol) and just a 9.8% walk rate. Maybe there were years along that path where one or two guys were having better seasons, but on the whole, Kimbrel is basically the elite reliever in an era of elite relievers.
Based on his track record and the duo of five-year, $80M+ deals secured by Aroldis Chapman and Kenley Jansen just a couple years ago, you can understand why Kimbrel was reportedly asking for 6 years and $100M+ at the outset of this offseason. It was a crazy ask, no doubt – especially in this market – but you can understand why that’s where he was starting. He will no longer get anything CLOSE to that amount. Not this offseason, at least.
But you can’t blame that entirely on the market. For one, Kimbrel was never going to get $100M. Even without this free-agent ice out, I just never saw that happening. For another, he’s already pitched his age 30 season, so he’s not exactly super young, either. But perhaps more important than anything else, his 2018 season was just not as elite as usual.
Relative to the league, Kimbrel was still very good last season: He made his seventh all-star team and finished with the third most saves in MLB, and his 38.9% strikeout rate was among the top-6 in all of baseball. But relative to his own standards, Kimbrel’s 2.74 ERA, 3.13 FIP, and 12.6 BB% were all clearly worse than his career averages (1.91 ERA, 1.96 FIP, 9.8 BB%).
He did manage to post his highest soft hit-rate (and a very good hard-hit rate) last season, but that’s fortunate, because he finished with an insanely low 28.2% ground ball rate. If he hadn’t had elite contact management skills last year, his ERA likely would’ve exploded with extra base hits and homers. And while we’re at it, I suppose I should point out that while his fastball was sitting at a perky 97.5 MPH, that’s more than a full MPH slower than it was in 2017.
So what’s the point of all of this? Basically: Kimbrel was good last season, but no one signing him for 2019 and beyond should expect him to be the player he has been for the last decade or so. Those days are probably behind him.
HOWEVA – and this is the fun part – just because Kimbrel isn’t likely to be the guy he was, doesn’t mean he isn’t still likely to be really darn good, especially this season. Check out his projections and tell me he couldn’t improve every single team in MLB rather significantly, even relatively to a reliever’s role:
Kimbrel’s 2019 Projections:
ZiPS: 57.0 IP, 2.78 ERA, 2.73 FIP
Steamer: 65.0 IP, 2.81 ERA, 2.74 FIP
Those are the numbers of an All-Star reliever. And although they’re not exactly a guarantee, I’d say you can probably count on production close to that level for at least 1-2 more seasons. So where is he going to end up?
Well, every team in baseball can use Kimbrel and so far … none of them appear to be lining up for the honor. At MLB Trade Rumors, Steve Adams took a detailed look into teams who might be interested with a special focus on the luxury tax threshold, and the Cubs did not come up … on pretty big list of teams: Braves, Brewers, Cardinals, Reds, Rockies, Twins, Angels, Astros, Mets, Dodgers, Nationals, Phillies, Yankees.
Note: Adams, himself, suggests that of those 13 teams, the Braves, Twins, Dodgers, Phillies, Brewers, and Mets make the most sense.
Surely, some of those teams don’t make much sense anymore and this article did come out before the Cubs bullpen concerns got worse, but you can hardly blame MLBTR for leaving out the north siders.
Should the Cubs be more interested now that Strop could miss the start of the season? Yes, 100%. Absolutely. Honestly, it’s a no-brainer.Will they be? Probably not. Certainly not if Kimbrel’s demands are still in the 4-6 year range. And even if he has to settle for a one-year deal, he’ll cost his club a draft pick in 2019, which is not likely something the Cubs are itching to give up, either.
But just yesterday – after the Cubs bullpen issues we’re more apparent – MLB Trade Rumors held a poll, asking which team should splurge on Kimbrel, and the Cubs came up third in the voting:
- Braves: 15.0%
- Red Sox: 12.3%
- Cubs: 10.4%
- Phillies: 8.8%
- Cardinals: 6.2%
- Dodgers: 5.2%
- Twins: 4.97%
- Nationals: 4.2%
- Yankees: 3.4%
- Rays: 3.4%
Surely some of the voting is wishful thinking from fans who want to see a good closer on a good team, but it’s also a little telling and justified. So where does this leave us?
I think there is zero chance the Cubs give Kimbrel the sort of contract he’s likely hoping to secure. So if that’s going to be necessary, you can count them out. End of story.
HOWEVER, I also don’t think that’s going to be necessary. In fact, it’s becoming increasingly likely that Kimbrel will have to settle for a short-term, possibly even a one-year, deal if he wants to play in 2019. If that happens, I don’t think there is a singular better fit out there than the Chicago Cubs … from Kimbrel’s perspective.
Think about it: The Cubs have an immediate and clear opening at the top of their bullpen, they’re a competitive team that should contend for the playoffs, and they play in a big market, keeping Kimbrel’s name in the lights when he would try his hand at free agency again next winter.
And on paper, the Cubs should feel similar: they’ve had a rough offseason of relief signings, and their best in-house options for closer (Morrow, Strop) are both injured. Meanwhile, the division is closing in on them – they didn’t even win it last year … – and their bullpen was a question mark before the latest injury news. They do still have budget concerns, but going after Bryce Harper for 13 years and going after Kimbrel for one are not the same thing. The former was always going to be a huge, multi-year commitment and represented more of a strategic luxury than a desperate need. The latter is a desperate need. Now more than ever.
The Cubs might be fine without signing Craig Kimbrel this spring – and who knows, maybe he doesn’t want to be in Chicago or sign a short-term deal – but if they *can* get him on a one-year contract and *decide* not to because of their budget, that will be an enormous mistake. If now is not the time to stretch the budget a bit, when is?