Cubs need Craig Kimbrel to be good … so they can trade him

Mandatory Credit: Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports
Mandatory Credit: Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports /

For the better part of two years, we’ve been wondering whether or not the Chicago Cubs can actually count on Craig Kimbrel late in ballgames.

How the veteran right-hander closed out the shortened 2020 campaign suggests he’s back on track. The guy was lights-out late last year, giving the organization hope he’d finally turned the corner and was ready to, once again, be a force in the ninth inning.

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"“I definitely had to put in some work physically and mentally,” Kimbrel told, “to get back to where I needed to be, and was able to do that. So, going into this offseason, it wasn’t, ‘Oh, I need to do this better. I need to get stronger. I need to get faster. I need to work on a new pitch.’ It really was, ‘OK, what did I do last year to get back to being successful? And how do I stay there?'”"

On the whole, Kimbrel has been a major disappointment since signing with Chicago halfway through the 2019 campaign. He’s managed a 6.00 ERA in 41 appearances to go along with an equally unsavory 6.0 BB/9, 1.528 WHIP and 2.8 HR/9. That’s not going to get the job done. You know that. I know that. Craig Kimbrel knows that.

But let’s assume, for a moment, the 32-year-old hurler is back to his former dominant self. When David Ross hands him the ball with the game on the line, it’s over. Obviously, that would be huge for Chicago, a team facing its fair share of questions up and down the roster. But I’m here to tell you – if Kimbrel is back to lighting up the radar gun and making hitters look foolish during the first half, there’s just one reason it’ll matter for the Cubs.

Because they’ll trade him.

Cubs: Craig Kimbrel is a trade chip – but only if he starts strong

We’ve spent most of the winter waiting to see if Jed Hoyer would unload one of his free-agents-to-be. He didn’t, instead opting to bring them all back and see if they can put up rebound performances coming off pretty so-so 2020 performances.

"“Obviously, I pitched myself into that situation (losing the closer role),” Kimbrel said. “We had a guy who stepped in and did the job, so I was forced to pitch in different situations and help the team out in a different way.”"

Kimbrel falls in the same bucket. It’s not that the Cubs want to pay him $16 million this season. Because they surely don’t. But there’s no way they’d get anything of actual value if they dealt him this winter. Why? Look at the above numbers.

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But if he can pick up where he left off last summer and show he’s ready to pitch big innings again, he could end up being one of the team’s most valuable chips in building toward the future.