Cubs ready to welcome Kimbrel to mix

Addition of 7-time All-Star helps to define bullpen roles

June 7th, 2019

CHICAGO -- Kyle Schwarber learned that the Cubs had reached a deal with closer Craig Kimbrel early on during Wednesday's game against the Rockies. When Schwarber jogged out to left field to warm up before an inning, he heard fans screaming about the news from the bleacher seats.

That gave Schwarber an idea. While playing catch with bullpen catcher Chad Noble, the left fielder hunched over and stuck his right arm out, dangling it to mimic Kimbrel's signature setup. The crowd cheered and that was when the relievers out in the bullpen caught wind that the deal was happening.

"I was like, 'That's it. We got him,'" Cubs sidearmer Steve Cishek said.

Kimbrel's contract -- worth $43 million guaranteed through the 2021 season with a vesting or club option for '22 -- was not official until Friday morning, ahead of the Cubs' afternoon game against the Cardinals at Wrigley Field. None of that stopped Chicago's players from discussing the upcoming addition in the clubhouse on Thursday, or halt manager Joe Maddon from addressing how the move will impact the bullpen.

Adding a sure-fire closer such as Kimbrel pushes Pedro Strop to the eighth inning for the most part, though Maddon is open to using his high-leverage arms in other frames if the situation dictates a switch. Relievers such as Cishek, Brandon Kintzler, Carl Edwards Jr. and Brad Brach can then be bumped back as matchup options for the sixth and seventh innings.

Maddon will also be better able to limit the exposure of certain pitchers against particular batters. As an example, Brach could be better served as an option mostly against right-handed hitters (.268 wOBA in 2019) rather than seeing lefties (.476 wOBA). Maddon also said that the addition of Kimbrel would allow him to avoid giving his relievers multi-inning assignments more than necessary.

"The sixth inning gets thick," Maddon said. "If everybody's rested on a particular night, you're good six, seven, eight and nine, and comfortably."

Cishek echoed that sentiment.

"It's just more depth. Absolutely," he said. "It puts us into roles where we can have a little bit better matchups possibly. You bring a guy like Kimbrel on board, the ninth inning's going to be pretty secure. That guy's had pretty good success right there. It's definitely nice."

Maddon also noted that this is the kind of impact move that does not have a negative ripple in the locker room.

"When you get a guy like Kimbrel," Maddon said, "whoever you were utilizing in that role before easily steps aside. I've always talked about when you make acquisitions and bring a guy into the clubhouse in-season, when the whole group realizes that this makes us better, then everybody falls in line."

Schwarber was asked if he thought he did Kimbrel justice with his imitation of the closer.

"I had a good little arm hang," Schwarber said with a laugh. "I thought it'd be fun."

Kimbrel, Cubs to build schedule

Once the signing is made official, Kimbrel and the Cubs will be able to sit down and map out a return-to-pitch program. Even if Kimbrel has been throwing off a mound and facing hitters the past few months, Maddon speculated that it could be around a three-week process to prepare the closer for joining Chicago's bullpen.

"The three-week window normally sounds about right," Maddon said. "It's almost like when a guy's in Spring Training. Think about relief pitchers in Spring Training. You normally don't start them until the first week of the month of March, and then they're ready by April. So, I think, conventionally, it would be like that kind of a window, but you've got to talk to the guy first and see what he's been doing.

"I would imagine, the position that he's been in, he had some kind of a strategy or program mapped out. With today's agents being on top of things, there's probably conversations they've been having with different groups to this point. I'm curious to find out what their pre-signing strategy was to determine what's going to happen after he actually did sign."

Cubs in holding pattern with Zobrist

One of the reasons that the Cubs were able to pursue Kimbrel now is due to the fact that veteran Ben Zobrist is on MLB's restricted list while tending to a family matter.

Zobrist has been off the roster and ineligible for pay since May 8, and his timeline for a possible return is an unknown. If he missed the rest of the season, that would potentially clear more than $9 million of his $12.5 million salary for 2019. According to reports, Kimbrel will earn a $10 million salary this season with the Cubs.

"I think it's like anybody's guess, really," Maddon said of Zobrist's return. "It's him as a family man, him worrying about his kids, making sure this all comes together properly for them. It's all honorable on his side. So, whatever he decides to do, we're going to definitely be on board with. Of course we'd love to have him back, but I have no idea how that's going to go."