Chicago Cubs: When Craig Kimbrel is traded, who closes out ballgames?

(Photo by Adam Hunger/Getty Images)
(Photo by Adam Hunger/Getty Images) /

The Chicago Cubs are mired in a long, ugly losing streak that has made the direction at the trade deadline abundantly clear. One of the names on the move could (and should) be Craig Kimbrel, who has regained his Hall of Fame form this season, and looks likely bring back a substantial return, according to Jon Heyman.

We can assume that at some point post-Kimbrel, the Cubs will win some games. The question then becomes: “Who closes out games for Chicago down the stretch?”

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Now, off-hand, you might point to some obvious guys: Andrew Chafin and Ryan Tepera. But if Jed Hoyer tears it all the way down, the front office may very well look to sell high on those guys, as well – leaving David Ross with a lot of inexperienced, albeit promising, options to choose from.

The Cubs’ long-term plan for Justin Steele is likely to be a starter, but through 11 Major League games he has a 2.03 ERA with 21 strikeouts in 13 1/3 innings. Steele has the velocity, clocking anywhere from 94-96 MPH, with a devastating breaking ball that plays up out of the bullpen. He is a left-handed pitcher that has worked his way back from multiple arm injuries, so he may not have the arm strength to hold up as a starter, why not try him as the closer?

Another option can be found in the form of Keegan Thompson. Like Steele, the plan here is likely for Thompson to start, but his numbers out of the bullpen can’t be ignored. A 1.74 ERA in 21 appearances with 32 strikeouts in 31 innings. He has finished four games for the Cubs this year and has experience in high pressure spots.

If Kimbrel is dealt, there is a good chance the Cubs go closer by committee for the future until somebody separates themselves. Thompson surely isn’t going back to the minor leagues, and he has earned a chance to get higher leverage spots in the future.

Chicago Cubs: Looking to the farm system for the closer of the future

We are digging into the minor leagues now, and what a story Ben Leeper has become. He was undrafted, saw minimal collegiate success at Oklahoma State, and has turned into one of the best pitchers in the Cubs’ system all within a year.

Between Double and Triple-A, he has pitched 25 2/3 innings, struck out 40, walked just nine hitters, given up only nine hits and is allowing an opponent average of just .102, all adding up to just a 1.25 ERA. Leeper is on the verge of a call-up, when he’d immediately be inserted into the bullpen mix.

He has touched 99 on the fastball this season and has one save in the minor leagues. Inserting a player straight into the closer role in his first few appearances is rare, and hardly ever happens, so Leeper may be an option in later years, but maybe not 2021.

Another Cubs prospect who could be the ninth-inning guy at some point is Manuel Rodriguez. Rodriguez has closing experience in the minors, with five saves between Double and Triple-A this season.

He’s got above-average strikeout numbers in his career, but has also dealt his fair share of walks, too. The control can get away from him at times, but in terms of stuff he’s got what it takes. Like Leeper, he has touched the upper-90s multiple times this season, and has just a 2.93 ERA through 15 appearances, and might be on his way to Chicago sooner rather than later.

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There are options, and losing Kimbrel wouldn’t necessarily be dire, regardless of where the season sits currently. The pitching in the Cubs’ system has improved and stepped up in recent years, and it’s fun to see some of them break through with more on the way.