Craig Kimbrel Can Be Great Again Next Year! ... But the Cubs Can't Plan Their Offseason Around It

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Craig Kimbrel Can Be Great Again Next Year! … But the Cubs Can’t Plan Their Offseason Around It

Chicago Cubs

In 2013, Kevin Gregg saved the most games for the Chicago Cubs (33 saves). In 2014 and 2015 it was Hector Rondon (29, 30). In 2016, mid-season trade acquisition Aroldis Chapman (16) came up just short of the team lead, but was undoubtedly the closer by the end of the year. In 2017, he was followed by Wade Davis (32). In 2018, Brandon Morrow closed down the most games for Chicago (22). And this season, it was Craig Kimbrel (13).

Long-story short: the Cubs have had a TON of turnover at the back end of their bullpen since well-before this competitive window even opened up. And while that may strike some as the right way to build a successful bullpen – relievers are fickle! – there’s a big gap between targeting arms you might expect to pop in any one year and having a consistently good closer to count on over a longer period of time.

In other words, you play that year-to-year game only because sometimes you have to, not necessarily because you don’t *want* to have a great every-year solution.

Of course, there are only so many relievers out there capable of delivering the sort of elite year-in-year-out success every team is craving, and they’re not easy to find.

But, theoretically, the Cubs do have one of them.

Most Saves 2013-2019:

  1. Kenley Jansen: 267 saves
  2. Craig Kimbrel: 257
  3. Aroldis Chapman: 234
  4. Fernando Rodney: 192
  5. Greg Holland: 186

Okay, so there are about a million caveats here and I think you know most of them: (1) saves aren’t a great way to measure potential future success, (2) a lot of this is weighted too far in the past, (3) Rodney and Holland, in particular, haven’t had the pedigree of “one of the game’s best closers,” for a long time, and so on.

My point is not to say Don’t worry! The Cubs are in good hands! We can’t quite guarantee that. But rather, I just want to remind you that Craig Kimbrel hasn’t been just a pretty good closer. If anything, he’s closer to the best closer in baseball since 2011. And remember: he’s only 31-years-old!

I think Kimbrel’s age is lost on most Cubs fans, because of how long he’s been around (he just finished his 10th MLB season), how his 2018 season ended with depressed velocity and results, and (3) the injuries and ineffectiveness he dealt with this year. But at the same time, he’s been around for a while, because he debuted at age 22. His 2018 season might not have been as dominant as his other years, but it was still excellent (2.74 ERA, 3.13 FIP, 42 saves, 1.3 fWAR), and the injuries and ineffectiveness this season can be – at least partly – attributed to the unique circumstances under which his season started (halfway through the season after so much time off).

I guess my point, then, is just this: Narratively and historically speaking, there’s not really any reason to believe that Kimbrel – with a normal offseason and Spring Training – can’t be at least as effective as he was in 2018 (and that’s something you’d take in a heartbeat). But that also doesn’t mean there are no concerns …

History and the eye test can tell us a lot, but so can raw data. Obviously, the results were terrible for Kimbrel this year: 6.53 ERA over 20.2 innings, 31.3% K rate (way down for him), 12.5% BB rate, and 3.92(!!!) HR/9.

Moreover, some data passed along by Jordan Bastian, is concerning:

From 2016-2018, Kimbrel’s fastball was damn-near unhittable (.160 average against with a .263 wOBA), and considering he threw it between 64-68% of the time, that worked for him. But last season, Kimbrel’s average fastball velocity dropped and with it, his results: .326 avg with a .488 wOBA, which … yikes. But that wasn’t the only issue.

As you can see above, Kimbrel’s 2019 fastball velocity was lower and the pitch didn’t reach the top of the zone quite as often – a double-whammy, as Brett has put it. Perhaps the velocity can be explained away by the late start, but the general lack of command makes the problem a little more serious. If a full and regular offseason/Spring Training doesn’t solve Kimbrel’s problems as we all hope, you can kiss goodbye anything resembling his pre-2018 numbers.

(Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

And that brings me to the money quote from Sahadev Sharma’s latest at The Athletic: “… the Cubs can’t go into next season relying on surprises or small-sample-size success stories. [Rowan] Wick, [Brad] Wieck, [Kyle] Ryan, [Alec] Mills, [James] Norwood and others will be given opportunities and they deserve as much. But with [Pedro] Strop, Steve Cishek and Brandon Kintzler headed to free agency, the Cubs will need more experienced arms to carry them — not including an elite reliever coming off career-worsts in numerous categories and a pair of injuries.”

“Spring training or not, nobody should look at Kimbrel as a safe bet entering 2020, just like nobody should assume that he can’t be highly effective with a full offseason and spring to prepare.”

The Cubs may finally head into next season knowing who their closer will be for the first time since Hector Rondon (2013-2014) – and that’s great – but they simply cannot count on Kimbrel being the guy he was in the past. They need to go out and AT LEAST one more consistent, dependable arm (to whatever extent that’s possible with relievers) while also playing the year-to-year game with whatever else is available.

Whether that’s though trade or free agency is up to Epstein and the front office, but the mandate is clear: don’t just hope for the best …. Take the bullpen seriously and plan accordingly.

Because this …

Blown Saves “Leaderboard:”

  1. Athletics: 30
  2. Mariners: 29
  3. Nationals: 29
  4. Dodgers: 29
  5. Chicago Cubs: 28

… is unacceptable.

[Brett: Let me add that, at this time last year, the Cubs seemed to be proceeding as though Brandon Morrow was going to be their closer in 2019, even after he’d missed half the season with various arm issues, including a stress reaction that ultimately required a cleanup procedure in November. They SAID that wasn’t the case, but their actions said something else. To be sure, Kimbrel is not in the same situation as Morrow, and planning to rely on Kimbrel in 2020 is vastly more reasonable than planning to rely on Morrow was last year. But don’t make the same mistake twice: at least attempt to bolster the bullpen with another certain option or two.]

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Author: Michael Cerami

Michael Cerami covers the Chicago Cubs, Bears, and Bulls at Bleacher Nation. You can find him on Twitter @Michael_Cerami