Acquiring Craig Kimbrel provides a much-needed shakeup to a bullpen that drastically needs to improve as the NL Central race starts to heat up. Although one could argue that the bullpen has not been as bad as advertised, as it has the tenth-best ERA in the MLB at 4.17, it has been wildly inconsistent. Plus, there are other more telling statistics that indicate the Cubs bullpen needed an upgrade:
These stats prove that the Cubs’ bullpen has control issues, along with not having anyone with putaway stuff. On top of that, the closer role has been a revolving door the entire season with no one to consistently give the ball to in high leverage situations, which is indicative of the high number of blown saves. Acquiring Kimbrel will substantially alleviate these issues. He has a career 14.7 strikeout per nine innings and 4.23 strikeout to walk ratio, not to mention a career 1.91 ERA. Most importantly, he has 333 total saves with a 91% save percentage (baseball-reference.com). These numbers are a monumental upgrade to a bullpen that has struggled in almost all of those key areas.
Although it will take some time for Kimbrel to get into playing shape, as he has not faced MLB hitters since last October, he will presumably slide right into the closing role when he is ready. Unbeknownst to general consensus, he may be ready a lot sooner than expected, according to Jeff Passan:
Below is a look at what the remainder of the bullpen will look like once Kimbrel joins the Cubs:
Pedro Strop: Although he has been a good closer for the Cubs, Strop is at his best when he is taking on a set-up man role. He’s had some injury trouble the past couple of months, which is a main reason why signing Kimbrel was needed, but he proved to be a workhorse last season by accumulating 13 saves with a 2.26 ERA. As his health improves, his numbers will start to look more like last year, and he will be a valuable second high-leverage arm in the bullpen.
Steve Cishek: Some would argue that Cishek has been more valuable than Strop this year, with a 3.12 ERA and six saves. This argument does have merit. However, it’s hard to envision Cishek pitching in clutch situations with as much success as Strop would, considering how valuable Strop was down the stretch of last season. Cishek can be most effective as a sixth or seventh inning guy.
Brandon Morrow: It seems that the front office has operated under the assumption that Morrow will never pitch as a Cub again, but there is still hope, as he was quoted a couple weeks ago saying that he is confident he will pitch again this season. However, it would take some time for him to get back into shape after all this time off. People forget how dominant he was the first half of the season last year before he got hurt. He accumulated a 1.47 ERA, 22 saves and a 92% save percentage (Source: baseball-reference.com). If Morrow comes back and is fully healthy by the postseason, the Cubs will have two legit closers and one of the best bullpens in baseball.
In addition, Kimbrel’s signing allows the Cubs to keep Chatwood in a long-relief role, which is more suitable with his past experience as a starter. Carl Edwards Jr. has been a lot better since being called back up to the Cubs in early May, as he has not given up a single earned run in his last seven appearances. However, he still has to prove that he can pump strikes consistently, and Kimbrel’s signing allows him to appear in low-leverage situations so he can figure himself out.
After stacking up all the chips in the wake of Craig Kimbrel's signing, this has the potential to be a very good bullpen even if Morrow does not return. Having said this, trading for a lefty would be a move worth considering. Montgomery is currently the only reliable lefty in the bullpen, and he’s been shaky this year, to say the least. Barring injuries, that is the one true hole of the bullpen moving forward and should be addressed at the trade deadline.
Although some fans may think Kimbrel is an aging reliever and the Cubs overpaid for him, the bottom line is that the Cubs gave up nothing and acquired one of the best relievers of all time. Even though he may only be worth around $10 million per year instead of the 14-15 million offered, signing him to a deal that did not extend beyond three years was crucial. Rizzo, Bryant, and Baez all become free agents after the 2021 season, and overpaying annually to not exceed a three-year deal was the correct decision. Also, Kimbrel pitched deep into last year’s postseason, so having the first two and a half months off from pitching will make him fresh for the divisional race down the stretch. The Cubs had some money to spend due to the absence of Ben Zobrist, and the bullpen was really the only part of the roster that needed to be enhanced. The time is now to spend money and go for another World Series in the next three years. Instead of sitting on their hands and waiting, the front office prioritized winning and has done their absolute best to put the team in the best position possible to make that happen. Not all fanbases can say that.
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