Deal completed, Kimbrel introduced by Cubs

Newson June 7th, 2019No Comments

CHICAGO — Jon Lester likened the addition of elite closer Craig Kimbrel to getting a Christmas present, but then being told it has to stay in its wrapping for at least another week. When the gift is opened, though, it will still be exactly what the Cubs wanted.

On Friday morning, Chicago made it official: Kimbrel is a Cub. The team announced the news that spread like wildfire throughout Wednesday, when an agreement was in place with the seven-time All-Star on a three-year contract worth a reported $43 million. Kimbrel will be with the Cubs through 2021, and his deal includes a vesting-or-club option for the ’22 campaign.

The timing was critical, in the view of Anthony Rizzo.

“It’s early, too. We need to win every single game,” Rizzo said on Wednesday night. “Every game is important. It’s going to come down to the wire. The National League is too good this year. We can’t take any win for granted.”

The Cubs and Kimbrel held an introductory news conference at Wrigley Field prior to Friday’s game against the Cardinals.

“We could see the prolonged time that this might take, and I worked out accordingly,” Kimbrel said. “At this point I’ve probably long tossed and thrown as many bullpens as I ever have. But I definitely feel good and ready to go.

“This isn’t about getting back on the field as fast as I can; this is about being the best I can be in October and down the stretch and doing what I came to do for this team.”

According to reports, Kimbrel will earn $10 million this year, followed by $16 million in both 2020 and ’21. If his option for ’22 does not vest, the Cubs will have a $16 million club option, or a $1 million buyout, for a fourth year. There will be salary coming off the books in the upcoming seasons, but the Cubs made it known since early in the offseason that there was little financial wiggle room for this year.

“As soon as [Cubs president] Theo [Epstein] and David [Meter, Kimbrel’s agent] got on the phone, we knew this was moving in the right direction,” Kimbrel said. “Just by the conversation, the back and forth and the willingness to negotiate and get to this point. We both wanted this to happen, and that’s why I’m here.”

Epstein said he received positive reports from one of Kimbrel’s recent bullpen sessions.

“We sent one of our scouts Joe Nelson and our super-scout, David Ross, to go see the workout. Rossy actually caught Craig’s first pitch he ever threw in the big leagues, and he was there watching Craig throw a bullpen getting ready to sign as a free agent. That bullpen went extremely well; both guys reported that he was in midseason form. Everything was working great, the ball was coming out really well.

“We continued to talk and it just became clear that Craig was serious about his interest in the Cubs. If there was any chance to get this done, we wanted to make it happen. We saw it as a unique opportunity — I mean how often can you add an elite closer like Craig, someone who’s arguably on a Hall of Fame trajectory, with the need that we have midseason without giving up any prospects? It’s such a great opportunity for the Cubs, and so we all sat down and said, ‘If there’s a way to make this happen, we want Craig to be wearing a Cubs uniform.”

Part of the payroll equation was altered when 38-year-old veteran Ben Zobrist was placed on the restricted list on May 8 to tend to a family matter. Zobrist’s return this season is uncertain, meaning Chicago would have north of $9 million of his $12.5 million ’19 salary to reallocate if he is not activated for the remainder of the season. Epstein said Wednesday that he has kept in contact with Zobrist, but there is still no timetable.

Even with the unexpected budget room, the Cubs had to play well enough to convince the front office to go all in on this type of transaction this early. While there have been inconsistencies on the roster, the group once again looks like a legitimate World Series contender. The one area clearly in need of an upgrade was the back of the bullpen.

“It’s a long way to the Trade Deadline,” Epstein said. “But, I think we’ve shown we have a lot of talent, and I think the way we bounced back from that early-season adversity, we’ve shown some character. … I think there have been some really nice performances out of the ‘pen, but it’s certainly an area that, as I’ve said earlier, we plan to be aggressive, if an addition can help guys slot into the right spots.”

From Day 1 of the offseason, Kimbrel looked like the most logical solution. Kimbrel, 31, has a career 1.91 ERA to go along with 333 saves and 14.7 strikeouts per nine innings over nine seasons in the Majors. Last season, the right-hander had a 2.74 ERA with 96 strikeouts against 31 walks in 62 1/3 innings for the Red Sox.

With the MLB Draft now in the rear-view mirror, his signing no longer comes with draft-pick compensation attached. That, combined with the financial component, made this the time for Epstein to strike with another in a long list of blockbuster moves to bolster his ballclub.

Even so, Lester felt the move would not have been possible without the team’s play on the field.

“If we’re not playing that well and our record is a little bit different,” Lester said, “I think that probably changes their outlook on things. … [The front office] stepped up big for us. That’s a huge thing for us.”

Now, Lester will just have to wait for the present to arrive.

“I just hope he can get here soon and get in uniform,” Lester said.

Manager Joe Maddon echoed that sentiment.

“The support you get coming from up above really indicates what everybody feels about your group, the expectations and also the possibilities,” Maddon said. “When you’re able to add a piece like this now, ahead of the normal Deadline, that’s even more impressive I think.

“I can see the guys smiling easily. It gives you that playoff vibe a little bit earlier I think. But more than anything, I do believe I’ve learned about players in the clubhouse is that when they feel the support from upstairs, it really matters a lot to them.”

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