Regardless of what happened in his first year-and-a-half in a Chicago Cubs uniform, Craig Kimbrel is poised to enter the 2021 season as the team’s closer. We knew this heading into spring training – but second-year manager David Ross has insisted the right-hander will be his ninth-inning guy even as he’s struggled for much of the spring.
In a half-dozen Cactus League appearances, Kimbrel has been torched to the tune of a team-worst 14.29 ERA – although he has strung together a trio of scoreless outings of late. For his part, at least, that indicates he’s figuring some things out and putting it all together ahead of Opening Day next Thursday.
"“I didn’t want to get upset about my first couple [outings] and then go out there and try and throw as hard as I can,” Kimbrel told Marquee Network. “That wouldn’t have been productive, so I was able take it for what it was and learn from the first couple outings. It seems like things have been moving along pretty well.”"
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The seven-time All-Star has definitely enjoyed an uptick with his velocity this spring, something he really struggled with. But, at the end of the day, it’ll come down to how effective his curveball is. Without that pitch at its best, hitters will hit off the fastball. And, well, we’ve seen what happens when that’s the plan of attack.
In 2019, opponents hit .326 against Kimbrel’s fastball – slugging a ridiculous .776 against that pitch. Last year, those numbers were much improved – but hitters were clearly still sitting on the hard stuff and trying to drive it.
Cubs: Craig Kimbrel is more comfortable
This spring, Kimbrel feels much more at ease, a common theme if you talk to just about any player who took the field last season in empty stadiums in the midst of a pandemic that’s killed nearly 550,000 Americans to this point.
"“I feel very comfortable where I am right now less than two weeks away from the season starting,” Kimbrel said. “Last year with the way things were — going home and then coming back for the summer camp, I think a lot of us felt rushed to get back and ready to go in the short period of time that we had before games started.”"
There are a lot of ways this season could go for the Cubs. If they struggle or even tread water, expect a trade deadline fire sale. Kimbrel could prove to be a hot commodity if he gets back to being his old self in the first half. And, honestly, that’s the best case scenario for Chicago: hope he pitches well early and then flip him to a team with its eyes on a World Series run.
For now, though, fans will settle for not getting a pit in their stomachs in the ninth inning and Kimbrel jogs in from the left field bullpen. Is that really so much to ask?