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Cubs place Kimbrel (elbow) on injured list

Club prepared to again mix and match in 'pen; Bote recalled
@MLBastian
September 5, 2019

MILWAUKEE -- The Cubs addressed their most pressing bullpen need in June, when they signed closer Craig Kimbrel to a blockbuster contract in order to fortify the ninth inning. Given Kimbrel's lengthy and unorthodox offseason, there was plenty of risk involved in that deal. Kimbrel has encountered a handful of

MILWAUKEE -- The Cubs addressed their most pressing bullpen need in June, when they signed closer Craig Kimbrel to a blockbuster contract in order to fortify the ninth inning. Given Kimbrel's lengthy and unorthodox offseason, there was plenty of risk involved in that deal.

Kimbrel has encountered a handful of setbacks already in his brief time with the Cubs, who will now be without the closer for at least the next week. Prior to Thursday's game against the Brewers, Chicago placed Kimbrel on the 10-day injured list with right elbow inflammation, throwing the bullpen into a state of flux once again.

"I still think the story has yet to be written about his contribution this year," Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein said on Thursday at Miller Park. "If this goes according to plan and he feels good and we get him back, he could save a lot of big games for us the rest of this month and, hopefully, next month."

Epstein indicated that the 31-year-old Kimbrel felt discomfort in his throwing elbow on Sunday, when Christian Yelich launched a three-run homer off the closer in the ninth inning of a 4-0 loss to the Brewers at Wrigley Field. The Cubs had Kimbrel undergo an MRI exam, which came back clean, revealing only inflammation and no structural damage.

Barring any setbacks in the coming week, Kimbrel will take a break from throwing for a few days before going through an expedited build-up program. Given that the IL stint is retroactive to Monday, the right-hander would be eligible for activation by Sept. 12 at the earliest. Esptein said "the end of next week" was indeed the target for Kimbrel's return.

The Cubs placed Kimbrel on the IL in order to recall utility man David Bote from Triple-A Iowa. Bote was optioned on Saturday to clear room on the active roster for Ben Zobrist, but he can rejoin Chicago's bench prior to the 10-day Minor League requirement due the decision on Kimbrel.

This injury comes after Kimbrel missed 13 days in early August due to right knee inflammation, and Epstein noted that lower-body injuries can often lead to compensation issues upon a pitcher's return. Epstein added that it is difficult to assess how much of an impact Kimbrel's offseason had on his performance this year.

Kimbrel signed a three-year, $43 million contract with Chicago in June after Draft pick-compensation was no longer attached to his free agency. That robbed the closer of going through a normal winter and Spring Training routine prior to the regular season.

"We'll never know," Epstein said of the possible toll the late signing took on KImbrel. "That narrative makes some sense, if you want to sit here and say he didn't have a normal Spring Training, a normal ramp-up. He's tried to do something very few guys have done -- come in mid-stream, in-season like that and pitch at the end of games. So, I'm not going to sit here and say it has nothing to do with it. It certainly could. "

Per Statcast, Kimbrel's average fastball velocity has dropped to 96.2 mph this season, compared to 97.1 mph in '18 and 98.3 mph in '17. Through 21 appearances with the Cubs, the closer has turned in a 5.68 ERA with 13 saves, 26 strikeouts and 11 walks in 19 innings. Kimbrel's curveball has come with a 43.8 percent strikeout rate (just under his 48.5 percent showing in '18).

"I think he'll be better next year when he's got the full ramp-up," Epstein said. "But, he's also had really good stuff. There have been days where it's been down a little bit, but a lot of days ... where he was throwing really well."

With Kimbrel, expect the Cubs to continue to mix and match across the last three innings of games, depending on the situation and what segment of the opposing lineup is up. Manager Joe Maddon has leaned on Brandon Kintzler and Steve Cishek as his main right-handed setup men, with rookie Rowan Wick getting more chances of late. Lefty Kyle Ryan has also been featured in the later innings.

"Everybody's ready to rock and roll," Maddon said. "We've got plenty of candidates."

Entering this season, Pedro Strop was the Cubs' primary closer after multiple seasons as a lock-down setup man. This year, though, Strop has dealt with injuries and turned in a 5.73 ERA across 33 innings. The righty is still trying to work his way back into high-leverage moments within Maddon's bullpen.

"Stropy just wants to play. He's so competitive, but he's also very pragmatic," Maddon said. "He knows where it's at right now compared to some of the other guys who have been pitching. But listen, again, if this guy finds it moving down the stretch run, it also could be very valuable."

Jordan Bastian covers the Cubs for MLB.com. He previously covered the Indians from 2011-18 and the Blue Jays from 2006-10. Read his blog, Major League Bastian and follow him on Twitter @MLBastian.