Cubs: Believe it or not, Craig Kimbrel will play a role in this team’s future

(Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
(Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images) /

It was just the second game of the season and the Pittsburgh Pirates aren’t exactly World Series contenders. Still, seeing Craig Kimbrel toss a clean 1-2-3 frame to close out a 5-1 Cubs win on Saturday felt really good.

The veteran right-hander’s tenure in Chicago has been nothing short of a disaster. Brought in to shore up the bullpen halfway through the 2019 season, Kimbrel has been inconsistent and ineffective for much of his time with the team. But that never seemed to stop second-year manager David Ross from planning on giving him the closer role once again in 2021.

"“We’ve seen him build up in spring training, each performance getting better,” Ross said after the game. “He’s in a really good place. The breaking ball was nice and sharp, throwing it for strikes."

When you look at the other arms in the mix, though, only a couple would even warrant serious consideration for the role at this point. Brandon Workman, who was downright filthy with his pitch location Saturday, has experience in the ninth. Rowan Wick could make sense down the road, but he’s still working back from an injury.

None of that matters right now, though. Kimbrel took the ball in a non-save situation and struck out the side, throwing 75 percent of his pitches for strikes. It was a nice moment to cap off Jake Arrieta’s triumphant return to the Wrigley Field mound.

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Like I noted, the seven-time All-Star is in the final year of his three-year, $43 million deal. It contains a $16 million team option for 2022 with a $1 million buyout that Chicago is pretty much guaranteed to utilize come the offseason.

That is, unless they flip him at the trade deadline.

Look, no matter how this season plays out, I think there’s a very good chance we see major movement from the Cubs come July. You’ve got a trio of All-Stars in Javier Baez, Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo – all of whom are in walk years after the team failed to extend even one of them this spring.

Kimbrel is a free agent-to-be, along with Arrieta, Zach Davies, Trevor Williams, Joc Pederson and others. More than half of the team’s roster is in its final year of control. For a team focused on re-tooling, maximizing your return where you can is critical. That will likely mean in-season trades.

Hopefully, Kimbrel’s debut showing was a sign of things to come. Not because I think Chicago will look to him with a postseason series on the line or even in the season’s final weeks with a division title in their reach, but because they need him to prove he can still get the job done in the ninth.

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So they can trade him – and turn what’s been a disastrous contract into long-term assets that could shape the future of the franchise long after he’s gone.