CHICAGO -- The biggest need for the Cubs dating back to the first day of this past offseason was an impact arm for the back of the bullpen. Financial restraints kept Chicago out of the Craig Kimbrel free-agent sweepstakes in the winter months, but the need remains and the circumstances have changed.
It makes sense then that the Cubs would be "pushing hard" to sign Kimbrel now, according to a report on Wednesday by MLB Network insider Ken Rosenthal. Kimbrel is still available, he no longer has Draft pick compensation linked to his upcoming contract and Chicago may have some unexpected monetary breathing room for the rest of this season.
Inside the Cubs' clubhouse, the players are in favor of an addition like Kimbrel, too.
"I'm the type of guy that it's all about winning," Cubs reliever Pedro Strop said on Tuesday night. "If they consider that they need to add another arm in the bullpen, a closer or whatever, they're more than welcome. If they're going to bring somebody, you know it's going to be somebody that's going to help. At least, that's what they're looking for, if they do. So, whoever wants to come, whoever they bring, we're just going to welcome them here."
Those words carry weight since they come from Strop, who is the Cubs' de facto closer in manager Joe Maddon's current by-committee approach. The right-hander -- one of the best relievers in franchise history -- came off the 10-day injured list on Tuesday night and notched a save after finishing off the Rockies in a 6-3 victory at Wrigley Field. Strop had missed the previous month due to a left hamstring injury.
The return of Strop gives Maddon an end point, pushing arms like Steve Cishek, Brandon Kintzler, Brad Brach and Carl Edwards Jr. back into matchup-based setup roles. Adding a high-velocity arm and established closer like Kimbrel would lengthen things out even more for Chicago, which is also unsure when closer Brandon Morrow (60-day IL, right elbow) might return. Morrow is currently playing flat-ground catch up to 75-90 feet at the team's facility in Arizona, but the team is still using an "abundance of caution," according to Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein.
Maddon framed his comments about Kimbrel in a general sense when asked Wednesday about the possibility of signing the closer.
"Honestly, anybody would be excited to get a guy of his ilk in their bullpen, there's no question about it," Maddon said. "Quite frankly, pragmatically, I'm just dealing with what we have right now. It was so fun last night to be able to put Cishek in the eighth inning with a free-and-clear conscience, knowing that Stropy was there and so was Kintzler and so was Brach, et cetera, et cetera. And Carl pitching better. The whole group. When you're able to lengthen a bullpen, man, with the really quality guys at the end, you can shorten a game. There's no question. You can shorten a game."
The financial component in all of this is the continued absence of 38-year-old utility man Ben Zobrist, who has remained on MLB's restricted list since May 8 in order to tend to a family situation. The longer Zobrist remains away from the team, the more the uncertainty grows about his return. While a player is on the restricted list, they do not receive pay, either. That means the Cubs might have roughly $9 million of Zobrist's $12.5 million salary to reallocate elsewhere.
"There are always unknowns that come up during the season that can impact your financial picture," said Epstein, who was careful not to mention Zobrist specifically. "This year in particular, there's been some unexpected variables that could possibly give us a little bit more flexibility than we had imagined. But, we don't talk in detail about our financial situation."
Epstein did note that he has maintained contact with Zobrist, but the team is still respecting the veteran's privacy.
"I've been in touch with him, offering support," Epstein said. "But, it would be most appropriate, if we get to a point where there are any updates, for that to come from him."
On the surface, the Cubs' bullpen looks decent enough with a 4.02 ERA that ranked third in the National League, entering Wednesday. The group's 48.3 percent ground-ball rate led the Senior Circuit. According to Statcast, though, the Cubs' average fastball velocity (all types) of 92.1 mph out of the bullpen ranked 28th in MLB. Chicago also had the highest walk rate (12.2 percent), slimmest strikeout-minus-walk percentage (10.7) and lowest swinging-strike rate (10.4 percent) in the NL.
Kimbrel, 31, would be an impact addition to any team, but he could especially upgrade the Cubs' relief cast.
Epstein declined, however, to comment specifically on the team's interest in Kimbrel.
"We never talk about that type of stuff," Epstein said. "I've been open, though, about the fact that we'll be aggressive this year with the 'pen. We've been kind of progressively moving some pieces around internally and have gotten some nice contributions from guys from Triple-A. I think we have a number of relievers throwing well, but we're always trying to get better out there, too. We've been open about the fact that, at some point, we'll probably get some help from outside the organization. Trades are certainly a possibility. There's usually not quality free agents rolling around this time of year, but yeah, that's out there. We'll certainly do our due diligence and see if that makes sense."
Over nine seasons in the Majors, Kimbrel has turned in a 1.91 ERA with 333 saves, which will be most among active players once he joins a big league roster. The seven-time All-Star has also struck out batters at a clip of 14.7 per nine innings over the course of his career. Kimbrel had a 2.74 ERA with 96 strikeouts and 31 walks in 62 1/3 innings for the Red Sox last season.
Kimbrel did see a drop in fastball velocity in 2018, dropping to 97.1 mph on average from 98.3 mph in '17. His walk rate jumped to 12.6 percent (up from 5.5 percent in '17) and his strikeout rate decreased to 38.9 percent (down from 49.6 percent in '17). All of that said, everything but the increase in free passes remains at an elite level.
The biggest question for teams is how Kimbrel might look after an entire offseason off, followed by no Spring Training or competitive games for two-plus months. Maddon noted that, under those circumstances, a pitcher would not be able to join an MLB roster immediately. There would have to be a build-up before adding the arm to the big league pitching staff.
"You'd have to lay out a track there for him to get ready again," Maddon said over the weekend in St. Louis. "Probably a minimum of three weeks, I would say something like that. You'd have to get him in some games. You'd have to get out there and get through the daily process of being sore. ... There's normally going to be a process to get him up to speed."