Chicago Cubs: Craig Kimbrel should not be judged by poor 2019

(Photo by Nuccio DiNuzzo/Getty Images)
(Photo by Nuccio DiNuzzo/Getty Images) /

Chicago Cubs closer Craig Kimbrel would undoubtedly like to forget that the 2019 season ever happened given his rocky performance.

After a free agent period where he held out for a $100 million contract and watched his market value plummet, Craig Kimbrel finally inked a three-year, $43 million deal with the Chicago Cubs after the 2019 MLB Draft took place and he was no longer tied to draft pick compensation.

Just three weeks later, Kimbrel made his Wrigley Field debut, earning the save against the Atlanta Braves on June 27. While his successful outing garnered some optimism that Kimbrel could be the solution to Chicago’s late-game relief woes, Cubs fans were in store for a different journey.

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Since his first appearance, Kimbrel has experienced a litany of injuries, control issues and homer woes. Kimbrel has provided for more uncertainty and anxiety, rather than being a legitimate difference-maker at the back end of the bullpen.

However, Cubs fans should not yet close the book on Kimbrel despite his poor introductory campaign. If anything, there should be more anticipation for what he can do with a full offseason of work.

Rust was evident

Part of Kimbrel’s struggles must be contextualized. Consider that he was already being called up to the big-league roster just three weeks after signing with the Cubs.

Does that seem like enough time to acclimate yourself to facing live hitters and working through the kinks of a long layoff? Probably not, but the Cubs needed Kimbrel to be their impact closer, and they needed him as soon as possible.

As a result, Kimbrel displayed clear signs of rust. The Huntsville, Alabama native posted a 5.2 BB/9 rate in 20 2/3 innings of work. For clarity, that would be Kimbrel’s worst BB/9 rate since his rookie season in 2010.

According to MLB Statcast, Kimbrel’s spin rates and velocity on both his four-seam fastball and curveball were down this year and his whiff percentages were also down as a result.

Opponents clobbered the fastball, which Kimbrel also had a harder time locating early in counts. He often resorted to the curveball as his out pitch, though opposing hitters were more vigilant against him this season when looking at the chase percentages.

Is this the new reality for Kimbrel, or is it possible that he never really had time to hone his craft and make adjustments alongside a team of coaches and analytics personnel?

Give him a full camp

Kimbrel deserves to have a full offseason and Spring Training to regain his strength.

It should come as no surprise that he experienced so many injuries in a season where the Cubs half-assed his rehab process and rushed him to the majors. In turn, those injuries likely hindered Kimbrel’s ability to be effective on the mound.

Remember in the 2018 World Series, when it was alleged that Kimbrel was tipping his pitches? He never had the opportunity to work out those kinks in exhibition play and there is a very real possibility that he was tipping again this season.

There is no reason to write Kimbrel off just yet. He is only two years removed from one of the most dominant seasons in MLB history, and he still has the stuff to be an elite closer, as evidenced by the 13.1 K/9 rate.

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The Cubs bullpen could look a whole lot different next year, but Kimbrel will be firmly entrenched as the closer. Give him a chance for redemption.