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Closer Craig Kimbrel has a lot to prove in first full season with Cubs

The seven-time All-Star struggled with command and injuries after signing with the Cubs in June. Now they need him to return to All-Star form more than ever.

Craig Kimbrel throws a bullpen session under the watchful eye of pitching coach Tommy Hottovy the first week of camp.
John Antonoff photo

MESA, Ariz. — Cubs closer Craig Kimbrel said he “feels good” and is on an early pace this spring that suggests an on-time departure with the team when it breaks camp in a month to head to Milwaukee for the season opener.

But the way his half-season with the Cubs went last year — after a rough 2018 postseason and seven-month free agency without a job — he remains one of the most intriguing and important question marks in camp as the Cactus League schedule opens.

If not its most angst-filled question mark.

A seven-time All-Star whose velocity dip and struggles last year were caused by not having a regular spring and start to his season?

Prove it.

How the Cubs start — and maybe even whether they stay together through the trade deadline — might

depend on it.

“I think a lot of people want me to prove something to them,” Kimbrel said, “but as far as going into the season trying to prove anything, I’m not doing that. I don’t have a chip on my shoulder, nothing like that.

“I’m just coming in here and doing what I know I can do. I’m not trying to do anything that I can’t do. So I wouldn’t say there’s any chip or anything like that.”

Maybe he doesn’t carry a chip. But he certainly carries the burden of rediscovering the effectiveness, if not dominance, that until late 2018 gave him the look of a Hall of Fame closer.

A team that hasn’t added a significant contract since the three-year, $43 million deal Kimbrel signed in June needs it — especially after another injury Friday set back former closer Brandon Morrow’s latest comeback bid.

And maybe Kimbrel does, too, after a mixed bag with the Cubs that included two injuries, a deafening, successful debut at Wrigley Field and two losses in three days to the Cardinals during the nine-game losing streak that buried the Cubs in late September.

“Even if things are rolling, you’ve still got things you’ve got to pay attention to and fix,” said Kimbrel, 31. “You never really get comfortable or you’ll get into bad habits. I think as a pitcher you’ve always got to stay on top of yourself. You’re always kind of pushing yourself.”

This spring might be an exception to that, at least physically.

“I’m kind of slowly working to the games and making sure the body feels good,” said Kimbrel, who expected to ramp up to a round of live batting practice by early in the week. “And then push it and push it until I get where I need to be.”

Manager David Ross said Kimbrel is “on his own program” this spring.

“There’s guys I wouldn’t say are behind,” Ross said. “Everybody’s kind of on their unique schedule, so I don’t want to comment [on who might be delayed getting in games] and panic everybody.”

But Ross added: “Yeah, it’ll be a little bit before you probably see Craig in a game.”

Kimbrel missed time with a knee injury last year and finished the season dealing with elbow inflammation.

Even as he takes things slowly early in camp, he expects to pitch a typical seven or eight games this spring, he said, including back-to-back days before breaking camp if the schedule falls right.

“He’s more relaxed,” pitching coach Tommy Hottovy said. “Just the fact of him being around [this spring after] what he went through last year — he knows how tough that is.

“I think he has a really good plan of what he wants to accomplish this spring, and now we’re able to map out six weeks of activity and not just three [that he took in June] to try to get ready for games.”

That means building arm strength at this stage of the spring, Kimbrel said.

And his program involves an otherwise typical structure, he said.

“Spring training is to get the body ready and get used to what I’m going to be doing for six months,” he said.

The only thing left to do is prove it.