CHICAGO -- The storyline that followed Craig Kimbrel entering Spring Training was that, finally, things were going to be normal for the Cubs' closer. The issues that rose from his disjointed season last year were going to be helped by a return to routine.
This was before the COVID-19 pandemic put the sports world on hold. Baseball dealt with an extended layoff and will have an abbreviated season, throwing any talk of normalcy out the window. For Kimbrel, specifically, this will now be the second year in a row he has had to navigate through an interruption in search of his prior form.
"He's had a pretty good track record," Cubs manager David Ross said. "I know last year was unique and really an outlier, for me."
A year ago, Kimbrel went unsigned as a free agent until the Cubs came calling on June 7 with a three-year contract that includes a team option for 2022. The longtime closer then went through an abbreviated buildup before making his Chicago debut on June 27. That schedule is not too dissimilar from the current three-week Summer Camp.
Kimbrel joined the Cubs having fashioned a 1.91 ERA over 542 games across nine seasons in the Majors, but then he turned in a 6.53 ERA in an injury-marred, 23-game showing for the North Siders. He set a single-season career high with nine home runs allowed, and he did so in just 20 2/3 innings. The righty also gave up 9.1 hits per nine innings; his previous career high was 6.1 in 2015.
Ross noted that he watched Kimbrel throw off a mound in a bullpen session on Sunday and reported that the closer "looked really good" in that workout. The closer worked the first inning in an intrasquad game Tuesday night at Wrigley Field, logging 19 pitches and finishing with two strikeouts. Kimbrel allowed a leadoff single to Kris Bryant and later a two-out, two-run homer to Willson Contreras before finishing the frame.
"All good with Craig," Ross said. "He was throwing breaking balls for strikes with ease the other day in the bullpen. The ball was jumping out. Good ride on it. All the numbers we're getting back from the analytical group and the data we're receiving from these [bullpen sessions] and these live sessions have been great. The pitching staff looks really, really good."
Cubs push workout back
The Cubs moved their Tuesday workout to the evening due to a delay in receiving the results of the most recent COVID-19 testing from Major League Baseball. Ross said the decision to adjust the schedule was to give players more peace of mind, and that came in the form of no positive tests by the afternoon, according to general manager Jed Hoyer.
"This isn't a huge deal," Ross said. "I think it seems a little bit bigger with what's been going on with some teams the last day or so. I think, again, in everybody's world, we have to have a little bit of patience. We can't just crush MLB, because this is new to them, too."
Ross was asked if there was still a chance that any of his players might elect not to participate this season.
"All our guys are excited to be here. They're putting in great work," Ross said. "Do I have any concerns of them opting out? No. But, that could change within a day, you know? That's where we're at in the world and in the world of baseball. So I just try to take it day to day."
• The Cubs will play 17 consecutive games before their first scheduled off-day to begin the 60-game season. Ross said one key to handling the first part of the season, which will include a 30-man roster for the first two weeks, will be to have a group of relievers stretched out and capable of handling "bridge innings" between the starters and back-end arms.
"The tricky part early on is how stretched out are the [starters] going to be able to get in this short window?" Ross said. "Pushing guys and injury risk and all that, that's all real, so there's a fine line there of balance, and we want to make sure we're protecting our guys as well as getting the most out of them."
• Since Spring Training, Ross has raved about Victor Caratini's ability as a hitter from both sides of the plate. With the designated hitter in play this season, the manager will have another avenue for getting Caratini into the lineup more than as a traditional backup catcher.
"He's always been a very calm, controlled hitter," Ross said. "You can really rely on a quality AB when he gets in the box. So that's great to have as a manager. As far as the DH is concerned, we have a ton of options and we're going to continue to see how that develops and what that looks like. I definitely think you'll see Vic in some capacity."
• Hoyer noted that the group of players headed to the alternate training site in South Bend, Ind., would hold a light workout under the lights on Tuesday night. The second Summer Camp location should be ready to host regular practices, beginning Wednesday. The Cubs were delayed in opening the site due to testing delays.
• Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo did not participate in Tuesday night's intrasquad game due to tightness in his lower back, according to the club.
"I was trying to prepare for him and I was thinking about all the pitches he throws. And I was like, 'Maybe I should look away. Ehh. Maybe I should look in. Ehh. Maybe I should look up. Ehh.' And by the end of thinking about it, I was like, 'Welp, I have no idea.'" -- Ian Happ, on his podcast, "The Compound," discussing facing Yu Darvish at Summer Camp