Craig Kimbrel, for nearly a decade among baseball’s elite closers, reportedly agreed to terms with the Chicago Cubs on a three-year, $43 million deal, concluding his seven-month free agency.
The deal was first reported by The Athletic.
A year removed from having the lowest bullpen ERA in the NL, Chicago’s bullpen has faced a combination of injuries (Brandon Morrow, Pedro Strop) and ineffectiveness (Carl Edwards Jr.) this season. With Ben Zobrist and his $12 million contract on the restricted list, the Cubs appear to have the financial flexibility to cement their rocky closer situation.
A victim of the slow market, the chill of a qualifying offer and, perhaps, the more recent sight of him struggling in the postseason, Kimbrel seemed intent on challenging the market to come to him. He made $13 million last season, his third for the Boston Red Sox, then sat on the market into June. The largest free agent contract for a reliever this winter was $39 million over three seasons for Zack Britton, by the New York Yankees. Others free agent relievers — among them Adam Ottavino, Andrew Miller, Jeurys Familia and David Robertson — drew average annual salaries between $9 million-$12.5 million.
With the season a third gone, more than a handful of teams contending or hoping to contend had clear holes at or near the back ends of their bullpens. The Minnesota Twins, Philadelphia Phillies, Atlanta Braves, San Diego Padres, Los Angeles Dodgers and Tampa Bay Rays, among others, had reason to sign Kimbrel, whose preference, according to sources, was to close rather than serve as a setup man.
Kimbrel, 31, saved 42 games last season for the Red Sox, his third in Boston. He blew five opportunities. He wobbled some in the postseason, when in 10 2/3 innings over nine games he allowed nine hits, eight walks and seven runs. He also hit two batters. The resulting 5.91 ERA was three times his career ERA.
The prevailing theory was that Kimbrel was tipping his pitches — he throws two, a 98-mph fastball and a curveball, an observation passed along by former Los Angeles Dodgers closer Eric Gagne just prior to the World Series. Kimbrel made four appearances against the Los Angeles Dodgers in that series and allowed runs in one of them. He saved six games in October.
In eight full seasons, Kimbrel led his league in saves four times and finished in the top four seven times. His 333 saves lead active pitchers. He is 14th all time, eight behind Rollie Fingers for 13th. On the career list, he is alone in the top 32 to have pitched fewer than 10 seasons. He is the fastest ever to 300 saves. Remarkably consistent, Kimbrel made at least 47 appearances in each of those eight seasons and only once had an ERA above 3.00. His career ERA is 1.91.
Kimbrel was not as effective across 2018 as in previous seasons. He missed a portion of spring training to be with his infant daughter, Lydia, who was born with a heart defect and required numerous surgeries. She turned 1 in early November. On the field following the Red Sox’s Game 5 win over the Dodgers, Kimbrel held Lydia in his arms and said, “It’s been a long year, but, wow, it’s definitely made it worth it. She’s made it worth it. So much emotion. So happy right now. Couldn’t get much better than this moment right now.”
He leaned over and kissed the top of Lydia’s head.
Then he added, “This is the best Red Sox team that’s ever been. … I can’t be more proud to say I was a part of it.”
While the game seems to be wavering in its reliance on single closers, the best teams generally have them, and rely on them particularly in October.
The largest contract for a closer belongs to Aroldis Chapman, who after the 2016 season signed with the New York Yankees for $86 million over five years. A month later, Kenley Jansen signed with the Dodgers for $80 million over five.
Drafted by the Braves in 2008, Kimbrel was traded to the San Diego Padres at the start of the 2015 season. When it became clear their rebuild would require more time and a better plan, the Padres traded Kimbrel to Boston seven months later.
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