Craig Kimbrel couldn’t nail down the save Monday night against the Reds as his struggles dating back to 2019 continued. With the Cubs leading 8-5 in the bottom of the ninth in Cincinnati, Kimbrel issued a leadoff walk to Nick Castellanos. He uncorked a wild pitch before getting Jesse Winker to ground out, pushing Castellanos to third base. Kimbrel walked Josh VanMeter and Shogo Akimyama to load the bases. Matters got worse when Kimbrel hit Freddy Galvis with a pitch to force in a run, then he walked Tyler Stephenson to push in another run, closing the Cubs’ lead to one run. Jeremy Jeffress relieved Kimbrel, getting Phillip Ervin to strike out and Joey Votto to line out to end the game.
Kimbrel’s fastball sat in the 94-96 range, maxing out at 97. It’s a tick off from where he used to be from 2011-17, when he was arguably MLB’s most dominant closer. Last year, after signing in June with the Cubs on a three-year, $43 million contract, Kimbrel posted a 6.53 ERA, going 13-for-16 in save chances with 30 strikeouts and 12 walks over 20 2/3 innings. He missed some time in August and September in separate injured list stints due to elbow issues.
It was that late start to the 2019 season to which Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein attributed Kimbrel’s struggles. Epstein said, “We knew that given that he wouldn’t have a normal spring training, given that he was trying to do something that very few had ever done before, which was join the team midstream in a closer’s role, that there would be some risk. We felt it was certainly a risk worth taking. I think it’s impossible to pinpoint how much of his struggles have been because of that, but from my perspective it’s the single biggest factor. He’s never struggled like this before. He’s never even been close to having this type of performance before.”
Kimbrel took until June to sign because MLB’s free agency had stagnated. Many teams were tanking or otherwise slashing payroll. Others simply viewed 30-year-old free agents as unwise investments. For similar reasons, Dallas Keuchel didn’t sign a contract until June 7, 2019 with the Braves on a one-year, $21.21 million deal.
Kimbrel is again having an atypical preparation period, as the sport was suspended in mid-March due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Players returned to training camp on July 1 with around three weeks to ramp up again before the start of the regular season. Players are normally afforded around six weeks in spring training under normal circumstances. It comes as no surprise then that more than a handful of elite pitchers have suffered injuries in the early going: Justin Verlander, Clayton Kershaw, Stephen Strasburg, Corey Kluber, Ken Giles. Pitchers are generally expected to struggle in the early part of the 2020 season due to the reduced time to get back into playing shape after the long layoff.
While a lack of ideal circumstances is certainly a large part of the equation, it is worth noting that Kimbrel is 32 years old. Pitchers, especially relievers, don’t have long shelf lives. But one has to wonder how things might have been different if the Cubs had signed Kimbrel in January as opposed to June last year.
Now the Cubs must decide how much leash they can afford Kimbrel in a 60-game season. Or do they rely on the likes of Jeremy Jeffress and Rowan Wick to close out games and push Kimbrel to the seventh and eighth innings?