Why Cubs, Craig Kimbrel Should Embrace Closer Controversy in '21

Why Cubs, Kimbrel should embrace closer controversy in '21 originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago

How long before the Cubs have another closer controversy?

May? June? July?

They can only hope.

Because good things must happen for seven-time All-Star Craig Kimbrel to even have a chance to find himself at the center of another debate involving the ninth inning — not the least of which is that the team performs well enough out of the chute that the ninth inning is relevant.

In fact, a best-case scenario for Kimbrel in the Cubs’ closer role might even create a different kind of “controversy” altogether in July — albeit, one in the realm of first-world baseball problems.

Kimbrel is one of at least eight key Cubs in their final guaranteed contract years or club-control seasons. And if he’s pitching as well as he has through most of his career, including the final month of last season, the demand for his services at the trade deadline could be as high as any of the eight.

But what if the Cubs are in first place? Or close? Or just close enough to dream of a chance at October?

Team president Jed Hoyer said this week he hopes to be in a position to buy at the deadline after having added the likes of Joc Pederson and Jake Arrieta to a roster without Kyle Schwarber and most of its starting pitching from a year ago. And he may even have the resources, depending on what COVID-19 vaccine distribution and permitted attendance levels look like by then.

But don’t count on the Cubs holding on to short-term “assets” at the deadline if the chances to win in October aren’t much better than tepid. Even in 2017, coming off the championship, then-president Theo Epstein admittedly came within a week or two of selling at the deadline because of the iffy look of the team performance into July. That team wound up in the National League Championship Series.

The nature of this Cubs roster in a soft National League Central Division could create a loudly debated list of decisions to make at the trade deadline — with Kimbrel potentially right in the middle of it.

“There are times where I think anyone is going to think about things like that,” said Kimbrel, who has been traded twice in his career and understands the gamut of possibilities he faces in a walk year.

“Most of the time it’s in the offseason when you’re preparing or talking about contracts with the ballclub or your agent. But when it comes to showing up to the field and getting ready to play, this game is hard enough as it is.”

For now, the seven-time All-Star they signed to that $43 million deal in the middle of the 2019 season is firmly installed as the team’s closer as spring training opens, manager David Ross said.

That didn’t keep him from losing the job within little more than week after last year’s pandemic-delayed and shortened season began — or from bringing on the wrath of critics the year before when he struggled down the stretch after a free agency saga that lingered into June.

“One of my main focuses this winter was just to stay mechanically where I was toward the end of last year in my last handful last appearances,” said Kimbrel, who didn’t allow a run or walk a batter in September after his rough first half in the short season. “I know if I can physically get to where I need to be, everything else will come together.

“I feel like I’m ready to go. I feel like it was a good offseason. I threw a good bullpen [Friday] and heading in the right direction.”

Ross said just from watching videos from Kimbrel’s offseason throwing program, “He looks real polished already.”

Kimbrel looked pretty polished in September, too, when he struck out 13 of the 24 batters he faced in those eight dominant outings — and still did not get Ross’ nod to return, officially, to the closer role, no matter how many times the manager was asked about it down the stretch.

“Last year I pitched myself into the situation that I was in, and did my best to pitch my way back. But we had a guy doing the job,” Kimbrel said of the bullpen’s clutch pitcher of 2020, Jeremy Jeffress. “In taking him out of that role and putting him somewhere else, would that have been the best thing for our team? We don’t know. I doubt it.

“The situation that I rolled into as I started to figure it out last year was, ‘How can I help the team in any way.’ And if that was throw the seventh inning that day or the eighth inning or the ninth inning, that’s what I was doing.”

That’s how he intends to approach this year, too, he said, regardless of Ross’ first-day declaration of Kimbrel as his closer.

That call is obviously a no-brainer, considering this guy has made every All-Star game but two in his 10 full seasons in the majors (there was no All-Star game in 2020).

But he also has provided nothing but closer controversies for the Cubs since he got to Chicago.

And the very nature of the ninth-inning job is built for controversies like few other jobs in baseball, with every blown save and two-walk tightrope providing fodder for barstool debate, especially for a team in contention.

So if people are talking about Kimbrel and the Cubs’ closer role at midseason?

As far as this closer and this team are concerned in a season like this one, there might not be a better time to embrace a closer controversy.

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