Why Cubs, new closer Kimbrel appear to be a perfect fit
Judging by what everybody said Friday, Craig Kimbrel and the Chicago Cubs were the perfect fit all along.
It just took until June 7 to make it work.
The Cubs officially announced the signing of Kimbrel to a three-year contract, plus a vesting/club option for 2022, worth $43 million.
Kimbrel joined team president Theo Epstein and donned a No. 24 jersey (more on that in a bit) for a Friday morning news conference at Wrigley Field.
The 31-year-old right-hander has not pitched since last October, when he helped the Boston Red Sox win the World Series. For that reason, he won't join the Cubs right away. He'll throw a bullpen session Saturday and head to Arizona to begin what Epstein termed a "condensed spring training."
Technically, the Cubs optioned Kimbrel to Class AAA Iowa, and he will report there after his stint in Arizona ends. There is no timetable for his activation by the Cubs.
"I've been doing my best to stay ready," said Kimbrel, who has been working out in Florida after finding the free-agent market dry over the winter. "This isn't about getting back on the field as fast as I can. This is about being the best that I can in October and down the stretch."
The Cubs feel they can take the long view. They have pieced together a bullpen -- with mixed results -- all season long with closer Brandon Morrow on the injured list after having an elbow cleanup last fall. Morrow's replacement, Pedro Strop, recently returned after a stint on the IL.
"I just gathered the team and introduced Craig and told them the job they've done the first two months of the season, playing really good baseball and putting us in a great position, led us to do what contending teams do, which is look outside for help," Epstein said. "We think this team certainly has a chance to accomplish our goal, which is win the World Series. We were going to be in an aggressive mindset when it came to the bullpen."
The Cubs said their budget prevented them from signing a high-profile free agent during the off-season, but Epstein said things changed.
Epstein talked carefully of the ability to sign Kimbrel being tied to the absence of veteran infielder-outfielder Ben Zobrist, who has been on the restricted list since May 8 as he tends to family issues. Zobrist's salary for a full season this year is $12 million. It's not known when or if he will return.
"There are always things that change in season," Epstein said. "There's always a number of factors that sometimes you end up taking on more expenses than you anticipate. Sometimes money frees up and becomes available.
"The fact that Craig is here, his addition, that doesn't in any way impact Ben Zobrist's situation. We're here for Ben. He's part of the Cubs family. He knows that the door is open for him if it's ever an appropriate time for him to return. It would be wonderful to see both those guys wearing Cubs uniforms together at the same time. They're not related at all in that manner."
Interest in Kimbrel heated up recently. The Cubs sent scout Joe Nelson and special assistant David Ross (who caught Kimbrel's first major-league pitch when they were teammates in Atlanta in 2010) to watch Kimbrel throw a bullpen session last Friday.
"That bullpen went extremely well," Epstein said. "Both guys reported that Craig looked like he was just about in midseason form. Everything was working great. Ball was coming out really well. We continued to talk. It just became clear that Craig was serious about his interest in the Cubs. If there was any chance to get this done, we wanted to make it happen. We saw it as a unique opportunity. How often can you add a closer, an elite closer like Craig, somebody who's arguably on a Hall of Fame trajectory with the need that we have midseason without giving up any prospects?"
Kimbrel has 333 career saves with 42 coming last year for the Red Sox. He also has a career WHIP of a tidy 0.92.
He wore uniform No. 46 with the Braves, Padres and Red Sox. Pedro Strop wears that number for the Cubs, so Kimbrel went with 24.
"It kind of came to me," he said. "There was really no reason. I like the number. It looks like an athletic number. I like to think I'm an athlete at times. I think it will look great."
Kimbrel also flashed some humor about his unique setup on the mound. He looks something like a bird, with his elbows extended as he stares in for the sign from his catcher.
"David Ross scared me into doing it," he said. "It's something that actually all started with an injury. I didn't want to put my arm behind my back anymore. So I just left it hanging. I was getting a little biceps tendinitis. Leaning over having it behind my back didn't feel good anymore.
"Over the years it got out of control. It became something that was more of a stamp in my performance, I guess. Now it's just something that I do. I like to think it's a little way that I walk in, a way that I separate from where I am usually as a happy, fun, love-everybody guy to turning into what I want to on the mound."
A hard thrower, Kimbrel said he'll be pumped pitching in front of big crowds at Wrigley Field.
"One thing that's important to me also is being able to play in front of a fan base that is as passionate about this game as I am," he said. "I did get to experience that in Boston. It would be hard to leave that kind of passion each and every night, especially in that role that I'm in. I'm very adrenaline based. Knowing that each and every night that the seats are going to be full, that definitely played a huge part in the decision."