Theo Epstein Coy on Craig Kimbrel, Says ‘Unexpected Variables’ Have Created More Financial Flexibility

Though Theo Epstein remained coy Wednesday when asked about reports that the Cubs were “pushing hard” for Craig Kimbrel, he did admit that their situation had changed since the beginning of the season. Specifically, he noted “unexpected variables” that have added to the flexibility the team has traditionally maintained for mid-season acquisitions.

One of those variables is the simple fact that Kimbrel is available at all, let alone past the expiration of draft-pick penalties. Because he’d been given a qualifying offer by the Red Sox at the conclusion of last season, signing Kimbrel would have meant forfeiting a selection in the 2019 draft. Once the clock struck 12:01 on June 3, however, that all changed.

Epstein indicated that they were indeed doing background work on available players, even if he didn’t specifically name the subject of that work.

“There’s usually not quality free agents rolling around at this time of year,” Epstein told the media prior to the game against the Rockies. “Any guy that’s out there, we’ll certainly do our due diligence and see if that makes sense.”

The other potential factor in this whole thing is additional flexibility gained by the possible retirement of Ben Zobrist, which Epstein also addressed carefully. The 38-year-old utilityman has been away from the team since early May to deal with his divorce and the Cubs are proceeding as though he will not return.

Epstein said Zobrist has been in touch, but that any additional updates on his status and future with the team would have to come from the player himself. Players on the restricted list are not guaranteed salary, though teams can pay at their discretion. Zobrist forfeiting a pro-rated portion of his 2019 salary could mean up to nearly $10 million in additional room for the Cubs.

Finally, there’s the health of Brandon Morrow, who was initially expected to miss just a month or so at the start of the season. A setback in his recovery led to an injection of synthetic lubricant and a cessation of his throwing program while irritation at the site of Morrow’s offseason elbow surgery calmed down.

Epstein shared that Morrow is still only playing catch from flat ground, but that he’s pushing the distance out to 75-90 feet and is flipping some breaking balls in the process. The Cubs are taking things very slowly with Morrow, whose future is at least as questionable as Zobrist’s moving forward.

So let’s run back those unexpected variables: elite closer still unsigned almost a week into June; the possible retirement and subsequent salary savings of a key player; and the absence of the would-be closer. Yeah, I’d say that’s enough to spur a team to spend a little bigger than initially planned.

For what it’s worth, Peter Gammons told 670 The Score’s Matt Spiegel that he felt the Cubs were a “more realistic” option than the Twins or another team for Kimbrel. Beyond just their own needs, which would allow Kimbrel to be the 9th-inning-only guy like he prefers, Gammons cited the competition in the NL Central as a factor.

The Athletic’s Patrick Mooney is also reporting that the Cubs are “pushing to close the deal,” so get ready for some breaking news here soon.

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