After recording just 15 saves over 41 appearances in the last two seasons, Craig Kimbrel should have the chance to more than double his Cubs totals in 2021. That’s almost a given since he’ll be suiting up for a full season after two abbreviated campaigns, one from the pandemic and another spent waiting out the expiration of the draft pick penalty tied to his qualifying offer.
The lack of consistency contributed to nagging injuries that in turn contributed to poor performance. Kimbrel may have been tipping his pitches based on the way he set up prior to his delivery, though he was also piping his fastball down the middle while failing to get any swings and misses on the curve for much of 2020.
His walk rate was also through the roof as he followed a then-career-worst 5.23 BB/9 in 2019 with an astronomically bad 7.04 last year. But much of that came from a 2020 debut in which he walked four Reds batters against just one out. Kimbrel’s control returned late as he finished the season with eight-walk free appearances during which he struck out 15 batters. His velocity increased as well and he was routinely hitting 98 mph and even higher in September.
Between that improved performance and the lack of alternatives, Kimbrel should be holding down the 9th inning for the Cubs in 2021. That’s the plan anyway, as David Ross told reporters Tuesday during his first press conference in what feels like forever.
“As long as Craig is who we know he can be, he’s going to be our closer,” Ross explained. “But I do think there’s so many guys in that bullpen that are going to help our success.
“Craig’s a big part of that on the back end, but there’s a lot to deal with as far as how long a season goes. In my mind’s eye, Craig’s our closer and things will fall in after that.”
That idea probably won’t be greeted warmly by everyone in Cubs fandom, not after how many Tums and fingernails have been gnawed anxiously when Kimbrel’s been on the mound. Again, though, his performance down the stretch was more than worthy of a return to the closer’s spot. Then there’s the idea that Ross wants, maybe needs, to have a touchstone around which to set up the rest of his ‘pen.
The sophomore skipper also said he was going with a five-man rotation that would be supplemented by swing-starters, so the front end of the bullpen is already in flux. Rowan Wick is still battling the intercostal issue that cost him the end of last season and several other relievers remain question marks after missing most or all of the campaign. Given all the uncertainty, this proclamation makes Ross’s job that much easier.
It also allows Kimbrel a little more peace of mind, though nothing is likely to help him more than simply having the chance to follow a normal spring training routine for the first time in three years.