The Chicago Cubs may be in first place in the National League Central Division but they are not without their flaws. A major one this season has been their bullpen. Chicago relievers have combined for a 4.17 ERA, which is tied for fourth in the NL, but they also are tied for second in blown saves (12), and rank second to last (14th) in save percentage (13 out of 25, 52 percent).
One big issue for the bullpen has been walks. The Cubs' relief corps has yielded the fourth-most free passes (105) among their peers despite ranking near the bottom in terms of usage (200.2 IP, 12th). The combination of ineffectiveness and injuries (particularly to closer Brandon Morrow) have made the bullpen a clear weak spot for a team looking to make the playoffs for the fifth straight season.
Rather than standing pat, Chicago decided to address their relief pitching issues by agreeing to terms with free-agent closer Craig Kimbrel. Considered one of the top options in this year's free agent class, Kimbrel declined Boston's qualifying offer and for whatever reason wasn't able to find a suitor during the winter, during spring training, or once the season started. That may be hard to understand why given Kimbrel's numbers. In nine seasons, Kimbrel has racked up 333 saves, placing him 14th on the all-time list. He's also 31-19 with a tidy 1.91 career ERA and 0.92 WHIP with 868 career strikeouts in 532.2 innings. Kimbrel helped the Red Sox win the World Series last season, although he wasn't close to his seven-time All-Star form during the postseason.
That performance combined with his contract terms (reportedly five years starting at $50 million) could have contributed to the lack of serious interest from teams during the offseason, with the draft-pick compensation that came with the qualifying offer complicating things, but the latter became null and void on Monday when the 2019 MLB Draft commenced. The expectation is that Kimbrel wouldn't remain unsigned longer with numerous contending teams believed to be in the running, but in the end, it was the Cubs who were able to secure the closer's services.
Kimbrel and the Cubs reportedly agreed to a three-year deal worth $43 million with a fourth-year option on Wednesday night. When Kimbrel will join the team is to be determined, but once he does he will shore up the back end of a bullpen that has struggled to close out games. Cubs fans are hoping Kimbrel will have the same type of impact that Aroldis Chapman did when he was acquired in mid-July 2016 and went on to help the team win the World Series.
Here are just three reasons how Kimbrel improves the Cubs' chances of making another World Series run.
The Cubs now have a true closer
After saving 32 games and making the All-Star team in 2017, Wade Davis signed with the Colorado Rockies and the Cubs inked Brandon Morrow to a two-year, $21 million deal to serve as their new closer. Unfortunately, injuries have dogged Morrow since coming to Chicago, as he hasn't pitched since last July 15. He's had surgery and other treatments on his ailing elbow, and he's currently rehabbing in extended spring training in Arizona with no timetable for his return. While Morrow was effective in his new role for the Cubs (22 saves, 1.47 ERA in 35 games in 2018), his experience as a closer pales in comparison to Kimbrel.
In Kimbrel, the Cubs not only get a guy who seems to be on the path to eventual Hall of Fame induction, but they also get a closer who has been relatively healthy throughout his career. He made at least 57 appearances in the regular season in each of the last eight seasons. More importantly, once Kimbrel arrives everyone know who is getting the ball in the ninth inning or when it's time to close things out. Plus, Kimbrel's three-year deal means the Cubs have their closer through 2021 and don't have to worry about rushing Morrow back.
Lengthens the pen
Kimbrel's arrival allows manager Joe Maddon to reshuffle his bullpen, which suddenly looks much more imposing. Now guys like Pedro Strop, Steve Cishek, Brandon Kintzler, Carl Edwards Jr., and Brad Brach can be used as the bridge of Kimbrel. Strop (who just came off of the injured list with a hamstring injury) will likely serve as the primary setup man with Cishek slotting in behind him. How the rest of the pecking order shakes out remains to be seen, but the addition of Kimbrel gives Maddon much more flexibility in the middle and later innings.
Kimbrel's postseason pedigree
This is what Cubs fans are most excited about. In his nine seasons, Kimbrel has been a part of four division championship teams — three with Atlanta (2013, 1'6, '17) and last year with Boston. In 19 playoff games, Kimbrel is 0-1 with seven saves and one hold to go along with a 3.92 ERA and 1.26 WHIP. Kimbrel struggled last postseason (5.91 ERA in 10.2 IP) but he still helped the Red Sox when the World Series. Should the Cubs make the playoffs for the fifth consecutive season this October, Kimbrel's experience on the game's biggest stage will come in handy.
— Gabe Salgado is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. He's also written for NBC, Fox, The Sporting News, The Sports Journal, The Undefeated and Complex. He's a co-host of The Rewind Sports: 60. Follow him on Twitter @GabeSalgado82.