6 Ways Craig Kimbrel Improves Cubs Immediately
Cubs Craig Kimbrel Insider, we seek to bring you coverage of the Chicago Cubs Craig Kimbrel from all angles, even those with absolutely zero functional value to your fandom. So when one of the top relievers in the history of the game signs in Chicago, you can bet your sweet bippy we’re going to cover the H-E-double-hockey-sticks out of it.
That said, the saturation of the news cycle with Kimbrel info took place at approximately 10:30pm CT Wednesday night. So why are we continuing to chum the waters when all the sharks are full? Good question. I think the best/only answer is that there are still so many aspects to discuss given the magnitude of the signing and what it means for the Cubs across many levels.
With that in mind, I wanted to take a look at five separate ways — both intrinsic and extrinsic — in which Kimbrel boosts the Cubs immediately.
This could stretch the definition of “immediate,” but all accounts are that Kimbrel will be ready to join the active roster well before the end of June. If he can indeed take the bump within two weeks, a timeframe multiple outlets are reporting is realistic, the Cubs would receive a huge shot in the arm.
Consider that the bullpen has compiled a mere 199 strikeouts over 200.2 innings this season, both of which rank 24th in baseball. While their 8.93 K/9 ranks 20th, it’s offset by a 4.71 BB/9 that drags them down to a 28th-ranked 1.90 K/BB.
Over his last 200.1 innings, dating back to August 10, 2015, Kimbrel sports a 14.92 K/9 that would impress even Christopher Columbus. That’s 332 strikeouts, or 67% more than the Cubs’ total above. His 3.64 BB/9 is far better than what his current teammates are posting, giving him a 4.10 K/BB ratio. Even during the second half of last season when his walks shot up to 6.23 BB/9, his 14.12 K/9 helped erase a lot of mistakes.
Among all relievers in baseball history with at least 100 innings pitched, only two have compiled a K/9 mark higher than Kimbrel’s 14.67 (Josh Hader – 15.23, Aroldis Chapman – 14.91). The Cubs desperately needed a pitcher who can miss bats in high-leverage situations and now they have one.
Kimbrel has averaged at least 96 mph on his fastball throughout his career and he’s been over 97 from 2012 on. Last year’s 97.1 mph was the lowest he’s averaged in seven years, but his velo increased steadily over the course of the season and he was at 98.3 for the month of September. By comparison, Pedro Strop is around 94-95 with his hard stuff and Dillon Maples is at about 97.
Simply put, the Cubs don’t have anyone who throws as hard as Kimbrel on a consistent basis. Some of that increased velo last year may have come from mechanical changes that subsequently hurt his control (more in link above), so that’s something to watch for. There’s also reason to be concerned that his long layoff will mean taking more time to ramp up, but it’s also possible the additional rest will have done him good.
Bullpen chain reaction
Our Ryan Thomure covered this already, so I’ll keep it brief. By once again having the 9th inning covered consistently, Joe Maddon can more appropriately deploy his other relievers in situations that best suit their skills.
Because he was signed so late in the season, Kimbrel is almost like a trade acquisition for the Cubs. But because he will join them well ahead of the July 31 deadline, the Cubs can better assess the market and their potential needs. They’ve also got hella leverage because a potential partner can’t hold their bullpen issues over them.
Because they got him on a multi-year deal — $43 million through 2021 guaranteed, with a vesting/club option for 2022 — the Cubs have already addressed a need for this coming winter. Brandon Morrow will be bought out of his final year and several other relievers are coming off the books as well, so the certainty of having Kimbrel back there makes Theo Epstein’s job that much easier.
The best part is that Kimbrel’s salary is essentially a wash. He’ll earn $10 million this season, a non-prorated amount roughly equivalent to the total Ben Zobrist may be forfeiting by stepping away from the team. Nothing formal has been announced at this point, but both past expectation and more recent rhetoric heavily favor the 38-year-old opting to retire.
With the new Marquee Network coming online next February and providing the Cubs with significantly more revenue than they’ve been getting from their current patchwork of broadcast deals, there was already going to be more to spend. At $14.33 million AAV, Kimbrel isn’t earning much more than Morrow ($10.5M AAV guaranteed) and he should actually be able to pitch.
There’s no way to quantify this in any meaningful way, but signing Kimbrel has an impact beyond just what he does on the field. Heck, he will influence his new team even before putting on a uniform or throwing a pitch. This is a sign that the Cubs are going for a title in a meaningful way, not just hoping their current roster has enough to compete.
Largely avoiding free agency, while viewed by many as prudent, wasn’t necessarily a ringing endorsement of what the Cubs already had. In fact, some might view it as the organization choosing to live to fight another day. This move, however, is an aggressive attempt to shore up a glaring weakness and establish themselves as the clear favorite in baseball’s most competitive division.
The players certainly love that, as do the fans. Kimbrel is a competitor of the highest order and he’ll lend to the bullpen a swagger that’s been absent these past two seasons or so. That in turn helps the position players, who may not feel as though they’ve got to build a six-run cushion just to keep a lead safe.
It’s possible to forget the mental side of the game in the flood of metrics available to us, but you can’t deny there’s a different feeling in the ballpark when the closer’s entry music starts blaring and he comes out to take the ball in the 9th. The opposing team has a little less confidence, the defense is a little more amped up, and the crowd — especially at home — is buzzing with emotional electricity.
You don’t get that with Tyler Chatwood or Steve Cishek, and even Strop doesn’t generate the kind of raw adrenaline you see from elite closers. Kimbrel is coming in with a syringe and just mainlining that excitement right into the game’s collective bloodstream.
Oh yeah, this is gonna be fun.