The Chicago Cubs finally have a closer. An All-Star closer who could one day be in the Hall of Fame.
They just may not have that closer to take them where they want to go, at least not this season, when they reached an agreement Wednesday night on a three-year, $43 million contract with Craig Kimbrel.
Kimbrel may be a seven-time All-Star and have 333 career saves, but he’s also a 31-year-old pitcher who hasn’t faced a major-league hitter in 221 days.
And it may not be until July when he’s actually ready to face his next major-league hitter.
No matter what the public-relations spin, no matter how good he may look in his workouts, he simply is not ready.
Not even close.
'Never did feel right'
You can’t miss all of spring training, sit out all of April, May, and at least half of June, and be ready to close out games in the major leagues.
Just ask Greg Holland, closer of the Arizona Diamondbacks, who a year ago sat out all of spring training, not signing until opening day with the St. Louis Cardinals.
“It was a nightmare,’’ he told USA TODAY Sports. “I thought I was ready, but I wasn’t. It doesn’t matter who you’re facing when you’re working out, they’re not major-league hitters.
“I just never did feel right.’’
Holland signed a one-year, $14 million contract with the Cardinals, told them he’d was ready, and was pitching for them a week later.
It turned out to be an utter and complete disaster.
Holland, who led the National League with 41 saves in 2017, didn’t record a single save for the Cardinals. He was 0-2 with a 7.92 ERA, yielding 56 baserunners in 25 innings. He got released three months later.
“Physically, I felt great, I felt healthy,’’ said Holland, “but I wasn’t ready. You can only emulate so much of a big-league game when you’re out as long as that.
“When you miss all of spring, you also don’t get a chance to know your teammates or the organization, and it feels a little strange because you know all eyes are on you.’’
If the Cubs are smart, they’ll learn from the Cardinals’ blunder, and make sure he spends at least several weeks pitching in the minor leagues.
There’ll be enough pressure on him when he arrives, knowing that he’s supposed to be the missing link to another championship run, let alone facing major-league hitters who are in mid-season form.
It’s a gamble, the Cubs privately say, they couldn’t afford to pass up.
They entered Wednesday tied for first place in the NL Central with the Milwaukee Brewers, and just three games ahead of the Cardinals.
Simply, Kimbrel fills a desperate need.
Brandon Morrow, who was supposed to be their closer, hasn’t thrown a pitch all season. Pedro Strop, their interim closer, has a 5.06 ERA and just returned after a month-long absence with a strained hamstring. And seven different pitchers have blown saves.
Now, with Kimbrel as the closer, they can return Strop to the primary setup role with Steve Cishek, Brandon Kintzler, Brad Brach and Carl Edwards filling out the pen.
The Cubs, who never engaged in talks with Kimbrel all winter, were able to use the savings from Ben Zobrist’s leave-of-absence to pay for his $10 million salary this season. Zobrist, who has been on the restricted list for the past month with he and his wife filing for divorce, may not return, freeing up about $9 million.
The Cubs, who kept saying repeatedly they were tapped out financially, saved about $20 million by signing Kimbrel now instead of the winter. They also didn’t have to surrender any draft-pick compensation.
Kimbrel has 333 career saves. (Photo: Ken Blaze, USA TODAY Sports)
Their original intention was to trade for a closer before the July 31 deadline, but the more they discussed trade scenarios, the more they realized they had little to give up in return. Their farm system is considered too thin to trade for a marquee closer, and they likely would have had to trade someone off their major-league roster to fill their vacancy.
Now, all it costs is money, and they’ll have plenty in their budget with $32 million coming off the books after this season alone in the expiring contracts for Cole Hamels and Zobrist.
The biggest concern for the Cubs is not the money, but wondering just exactly what they’re getting in Kimbrel.
This is a pitcher who didn’t get an offer from the Boston Red Sox after he rejected their $17.9 million qualifying offer. After three years together, they know him better than anyone, right? It’s not as if money has ever been a problem in Boston.
He saved 42 games last season for the Red Sox, but the Red Sox also watched him give up 31 hits and 31 walks in 62 innings, often scaring the daylights out of them.
His postseason struggles raised red flags, giving up nine hits and eight walks in 10 ⅔ innings, with a 5.91 ERA. Red Sox manager Alex Cora wound up turning to his starters to help close out games.
Now, he’ll be facing major-league hitters for the first time in more than seven months. Several clubs who originally expressed interest in Kimbrel were concerned how much the layoff will affect him.
“It’s a crapshoot,’’ one executive said. “The history of guys sitting out has not been good from a production standpoint.’’
Time will tell.
All we know for sure is that Kimbrel cost himself a whole lot of money waiting for the mega-contract that never arrived. He originally was seeking a six-year deal that would pay $100 million, believing he deserved more than Aroldis Chapman’s $86 million contract with the Yankees. In the end, he only got half.
Next on the clock is starter Dallas Keuchel, the last free agent standing.
He wanted a five- or-six-year contract, too, paying him more than $100 million, but just like Kimbrel, won’t receive even the $17.9 million annual value of the qualifying offer he rejected from the Houston Astros.
The New York Yankees are the favorites, while the Minnesota Twins, Philadelphia Phillies and St. Louis Cardinals are in the mix.
Keuchel likely will have to settle for a one-year contract, hit the market again next winter and lower his demands.
And for the rest of the summer, 28 teams will be wondering if they made the right choice by not signing Kimbrel or Keuchel, with the Cubs and one another team praying the seven-month layoff didn’t erode their skills.
The baseball world will be watching.
But, if nothing else, at least this long, cold free-agent winter is over.
Follow Nightengale on Twitter: @Bnightengale
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