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Cubs closer Craig Kimbrel: ‘No doubt in my mind’ improvement on horizon after ‘terrible’ 2019

One of the biggest subplots for the Cubs this spring is how closer Craig Kimbrel answers questions about his performance that have dogged him since the 2018 postseason.

Cubs pitcher Craig Kimbrel after giving up a homer to the Cardinals’ Paul DeJong in a loss in late September.
Cubs pitcher Craig Kimbrel after giving up a homer to the Cardinals’ Paul DeJong in a loss in late September.
Nuccio DiNuzzo/Getty Images

MESA, Ariz. — Even if the Cubs find enough quality, health and depth this year from Jon Lester and the rest of the rotation, it remains an open question whether they’ll find enough to shut down the end of the game.

Former closer Brandon Morrow is back for another try at staying healthy enough to help the back end of the bullpen for the first time since July 2018. His replacement that year and early last season, Pedro Strop, is gone.

And then there’s closer Craig Kimbrel, the seven-time All-Star and the biggest disappointment from last year’s team this side of Morrow.

“Terrible is kind of an understatement for what I felt like I did last year,” said Kimbrel, whose free agency lingered so long that the Cubs were able to sign him (three years, $43 million) in early June.

“Going into this year, I just need to get back to doing my job, getting on the mound and saving games. Time will tell.”

For now, his short time with the Cubs consists of 23 games, two stretches on the injured list (knee, elbow inflammation), a 6.53 ERA and a career-high nine home runs allowed — even after a rousing debut at Wrigley Field for a save against the Braves, his former team.

“A lot of questions will be answered [this season],” he said, “but I have no doubt in my mind that I’m going to get on the field and I’m going to do my job this year and put last year behind us.”

If Kimbrel, 31, had stayed healthy and performed remotely close to his career track record, the Cubs might have at least had the option of trading him during a winter without a strong free-agent class of relievers.

Instead, he arrives in Arizona with unanswered questions from his 2018 postseason, including a dip in velocity that persisted into last season, and a company line on his struggles that blames them on the absence of a normal spring and start to last season.

Was that actually the major factor some are suggesting it was?

“We’ll see,” he said.

Meanwhile, his new manager — who was his old catcher in Atlanta a decade ago — isn’t offering bold proclamations about how close Kimbrel might be to returning to form or how much finer he might have to be with his command this year to succeed.

But, David Ross said, “I have the utmost confidence in Craig and who he is. And [with] some of the stuff he went through last year, I think that’s a big thing we’ve got to wait and see. See how his bullpen goes, see what his body tells him, the feedback he gives me —constant communication about how he’s feeling. And then using him in the right way, so he builds up and gets ready.”

Kimbrel isn’t offering bold predictions, either, but his offseason work included a “reset” and changes in conditioning that took pressure off his knee and involved strengthening his lower half.

The injury to his back-leg knee, in particular, he reasons, appeared to create a domino effect that had an impact on his mechanics even when he came back.

“I’m feeling good now,” he said. “I’ve kind of switched up a few things to try to keep it that way. It should be a good year.”

Lester said he gives Kimbrel credit for being able to perform as well as he did to earn 13 saves, considering the lack of a normal start to his season and subsequent issues.

“I’m excited for him [this year], and I’m excited for Brandon,” Lester said. “That’s huge for us if we can get Kimbrel back to being Kimbrel, which I think he will be. Hopefully, we can get B-Mo going and get him on the mound throwing because his stuff is there, and it makes our bullpen that much better.”

CUBS’ BULLPEN BY THE NUMBERS

  • 3.98 – ERA in 2019, fourth in National League.
  • 7.92 – ERA in 2019 in high-leverage situations, 12th in NL.
  • 57.6 – Percentage of save opportunities converted in 2019, third-worst in NL.
  • 162 23 – Innings from 2019 bullpen lost to free agency in three pitchers with combined 27.7 career WAR and an All-Star selection: Steve Cishek (White Sox), Pedro Strop (Reds), Brandon Kintzler (Marlins).