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Craig Kimbrel’s days as Cubs’ closer could be numbered if struggles continue

Manager David Ross was noncommittal on whether he’ll use Kimbrel in upcoming save situations.

“Right now, he’s obviously mechanically out of whack, and the shape of his pitches are not what it normally is,” Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer said of Craig Kimbrel.
“Right now, he’s obviously mechanically out of whack, and the shape of his pitches are not what it normally is,” Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer said of Craig Kimbrel.
Nuccio DiNuzzo/Getty Images

The Cubs’ bullpen has been in the spotlight to begin the season, and closer Craig Kimbrel’s struggles have drawn the most scrutiny.

Kimbrel has been working through some issues since the beginning of summer camp, including command, velocity and feel for his signature knuckle-curve. Those problems have popped up in both of his appearances.

On Friday, the long ball bit Kimbrel as he allowed two solo home runs in the ninth inning against the Pirates. That came on the heels of Monday’s four-walk, two-run outing against the Reds in Cincinnati.

“Right now, he’s obviously mechanically out of whack, and the shape of his pitches are not what they normally are,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “Part of what has made him elite are the distinct qualities of his fastball and his breaking ball, and those aren’t there right now because he’s mechanically out of whack.

“I think that’s the job we have ahead of us, and, luckily, we have a very willing, open and honest Craig Kimbrel. He’s willing; he knows that he’s not right. I mean, this is a guy that’s done nothing but dominate his whole career, and he knows that he shouldn’t be walking guys like this. He knows that. His fastball shouldn’t be getting barreled up like this, and we need to get as many mechanics back in the right place.”

The shortened 2020 season has required manager David Ross to act swiftly when things aren’t going well and make quick and difficult decisions. One of those decisions might include removing Kimbrel as his closer.

When asked if Kimbrel would remain the team’s closer should the Cubs find themselves in another save situation while he works to find his footing, Ross was noncommittal.

“I’m in the middle of conversations with Craig,” Ross said. “We’ll have those first before I talk to you guys. We’ll see where he’s at. We’ll see how his arm feels, and we’ll go from there.’’

Right-hander Rowan Wick got the first opportunity Saturday, earning the save in the Cubs’ 4-3 win over the Pirates. Jeremy Jeffress and left-hander Kyle Ryan, who have become early anchors in high-leverage situations, also might be in the mix.

Kimbrel’s velocity has ticked up since the start of the season, hitting 98 mph in the Cubs’ 6-3 victory Friday, but Pirates hitters appeared to be locked in against his fastball. The five balls put in play against him had exit velocities of 101 mph or more. Which begs the question, could Kimbrel be tipping his pitches?

“I don’t think we’re looking at the tipping scenario quite yet,’’ Ross said. ‘‘I think we feel like there’s some things where they can get him back to where he feels a little more comfortable. I also talk to him a lot about the mental capacity. Just a little bit of confidence, a little bit of success can make a lot of the problems go away.

“We’re just trying to find him the right kind of work — whether it’s watching video or having conversations. You just try to continue to work through it. He’s frustrated. He wants to work through it, and he wants to be better. And so we’re here to help him continue to move forward.

‘‘We need him to be good if we’re going to have a lot of success.”