Chicago Cubs: Can Craig Kimbrel keep his closer job?

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

The Chicago Cubs are entering the 2020 season with the notion closer Craig Kimbrel can return to dominant form.

Craig Kimbrel and Kyle Ryan are about the only two relievers with set roles in what should be a makeshift bullpen. Considering how this unit has wavered for the Chicago Cubs in recent years, Kimbrel can inspire confidence with strong performances at the back end.

Of course, fans have every reason to be skeptical of Kimbrel after an abysmal 2019 in which he dealt with numerous injuries and posted a 6.53 ERA in 20 2/3 innings of work.

Moreover, Kimbrel gave up nine homers in all appearances, which equated to nearly four gophers per nine innings. The seven-time All-Star also posted his highest walk rate (5.2 per nine innings) since his rookie year in 2010.

The Cubs got their first look at Kimbrel in simulated action on Monday night (with crowd noise!) and, well, the results were not pretty. He gave up a single to Kris Bryant, then Willson Contreras followed with a homer.

Granted, Bryant and Contreras are two of the better hitters at their respective positions. Additionally, Kimbrel has not had much of an opportunity to face live hitters.

However, there are more reasons for concern. With the season beginning in the middle of the summer, Kimbrel will have no time to “settle in.”

The 32-year-old will take the bump when the weather is warm, and the ball flies in the air. He lost nearly a full tick on his fastball last year, per Baseball Savant, and struggled to throw his breaking ball in the zone to set up the heater.

Even that breaking ball to Javier Baez in the above clip looked like it was hung, and the fastball to Kyle Schwarber was down broadway.

It appears Kimbrel also missed his spot up in the zone both to Bryant and Contreras, who made him pay gravely for such a mistake. What if the lack of velocity and command issues persist early in the 2020 season? Can David Ross and the Cubs really afford to let Kimbrel keep the closer job?

Each save situation will take on exponentially more importance because the season is only 60 games. As such, Kimbrel should be on a short leash.

The question then becomes: who gets the ninth? The most obvious choice would seem to be Rowan Wick.

Yes, Wick has a minimal sample size. He also had a 2.43 ERA, and opponents had a .288 XWOBA against his fastball, per Baseball Savant. Wick possesses a diving, change-of-pace breaking ball he can bury in the dirt to complement the fastball, and he had far more success working up in the zone.

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Dan Winkler could be another option, if healthy. The 30-year-old struggled in Atlanta last season, but he is averaging 10.3 strikeouts per nine innings in his career, and also gave up just 0.4 homers per nine innings in 2018. At the very least, Winkler has closer stuff.

Brandon Morrow might also be in the mix, though health is the glaring issue there, as well.

Kimbrel is still likely to open the year as the closer. But–if ominous trends continue–he will not last long in the role.