Inbox: Is there reason for Kimbrel concern?

Beat reporter Jordan Bastian answers questions from fans

July 29th, 2019

Will Theo Epstein go out and get anyone at the Trade Deadline to help this team push to get to the playoffs and a World Series again?

Famous last words here, but I get the feeling that any moves the Cubs make ahead of Wednesday's 3 p.m. CT Trade Deadline will be more to help around the margins. Epstein, the team's president of baseball operations, held court with reporters this past weekend in Milwaukee and had this to say about how much activity should be expected:

"From our standpoint, I don't know if we're going to have a flurry or if we're going to be relatively quiet. And I'm not trying to lower expectations, but as we look at in-season moves and changes, we did make a really significant addition with . And we had to dig really deep and get really creative financially to make that happen. So, as we look at the totality of what we've done, we are factoring that in, too."

Kimbrel filled the most glaring need that was known over the winter and exposed early in the season. Chicago lacked a lock-down closer and it took a three-year, $43 million contract to land him in June. Now, the Cubs are being patient with Kimbrel as he builds up and rounds into form, given the lengthy offseason he experienced as a free agent.

Kimbrel alone has not solved the Cubs' bullpen issues, though. Chicago is still running the risk of leaning too much on Steve Cishek and Pedro Strop has not been himself -- velocity, movement or numbers wise -- for the bulk of this season. Brandon Kintzler's strong campaign has helped a lot, but the Cubs could still benefit from trying to add another setup-type option.

Like Kintzler from the right side, Kyle Ryan's emergence as a versatile and reliable reliever this year for the Cubs has helped tighten things up from the left side. And, while it wasn't a headline-stealing move, adding Derek Holland (.460 opponents' OPS vs. left-handed batters) on Friday should continue to improve Chicago's production against lefties. I don't think that will stop Epstein and Co. from still searching for other options, though.

So, what else is left?

Strengthening the bench should be atop the Cubs' list leading up to the Deadline. Specifically, Chicago could use help against left-handed pitching (92 team wRC+). Chicago has promoted players from Triple-A (Robel Garcia and Ian Happ) to help, but expect the team to keep looking at possible external upgrades. The leadoff spot (78 wRC+) and pinch-hitting production (47 wRC+) are also areas in need of improvement.

How concerned should fans be about Kimbrel's fastball velocity?
-- Greg B., Naperville, Ill.

This is a tough one to answer given Kimbrel's unusual situation. The right-hander didn't go through a normal Spring Training and was limited to long-toss and bullpen sessions before really ramping up after signing in June. In his introductory press conference, Kimbrel admitted that he even had to back off some of his workouts because he was "becoming a football player."

Before we get into Kimbrel's average fastball velocity, let's look at his max pitch speed over the past three years, via Statcast:

2017: 101.2 mph
2018: 100.1 mph
2019: 98.0 mph

So, Kimbrel has topped out just under what his average fastball velo was back in 2017 (98.3 mph). His average dropped to 97.1 mph in '18 and sits at a career-low 95.9 mph so far this year. It's hard to say with certainty how much of this year's decline is related to the long layoff to start the season, but that is what manager Joe Maddon is leaning on for now.

"Yeah, I'm still of the ilk that he needs just more time," Maddon said Sunday. "He's still working through some mechanical things with himself and just purely arm strength."

Maddon also opined that this recent stretch of outings -- Kimbrel's average fastball readings on Tuesday (94.7 mph) and Saturday (94.8 mph) were his lowest single-game rates over the past five seasons -- could be similar to a "dead arm" phase experienced by some pitchers in Spring Training.

The Cubs can at least be optimistic if they look to last season as a blueprint. Kimbrel averaged 96.8 mph in June, but then saw his average velocity continue to rise to 98.3 mph by September. So, it's not out of the realm of possibilities that -- as Maddon is hoping -- Kimbrel will look more like his usual self by the stretch run.

"He's shown flashes of that real heavy fastball so far," Maddon said. "There's other times it hasn't been as eye-popping over here. I just think it's a patient process with him. He's fine. He's healthy. He's well. So, for me, it's just we'll continue to listen to him, build it up, be patient. I believe in that."

What can we expect from Ben Zobrist down the stretch?

I wouldn't expect Zobrist to dramatically change the Cubs' lineup. But, if Zobrist is able to return for the final month, his biggest impact will likely be as an example for situational hitting and two-strike approach. Chicago has definitely missed the veteran's knack for consistent contact while he's been away tending to a family situation.

Per Fangraphs, the Cubs currently rank 14th in the National League in contact rate on pitches in the strike zone (83 percent), and 15th in overall contact rate (73.3 percent) and swinging-strike rate (12.5 percent). Before going on the restricted list in May, Zobrist had an 87.4 percent contact rate in the zone, an 82.3 percent contact rate overall and a 5.5 swinging-strike rate.

What's the latest on Brandon Morrow?

The last update from the Cubs was that Morrow had reached the live batting practice stage of his throwing program and was going to take a break around the All-Star break before ramping up again. It's been quiet on the Morrow front since then. It sounds like the recovery days have been an issue. At this point, I think the expectation should be set to near zero that Morrow pitches this season. That way, if he does return -- in September when rosters expand -- it will be a bonus.

With a year's salary on the line, would you rather have to hit a home run off @sahadevsharma or strike him out?
--Tony L., Chicago

Oh, this is a good question. I did hit some dingers in my youth, but it's been almost two decades since I stepped into a batter's box. And I have no idea if Sahadev could find the strike zone. So, hitting a home run seems very unlikely. Can I use a metal bat and have him lob a golf ball? I'll go with striking him out. I could throw some junk back in the day. I'd brush him back and then try to rediscover that curveball that the late Scott Sanderson taught me once upon a time.