Craig Kimbrel’s ninth inning against the Reds on Monday transpired as follows: Walk, wild pitch, ground out, walk, walk, hit by pitch, walk.
Kimbrel exited with the bases loaded and one out, the Cubs clinging to an 8-7 lead. Even though right-hander Jeremy Jeffress bailed him out by retiring the next two batters to end the contest, much of the postgame focus centered on his inability to locate pitches.
Kimbrel was supposed to be a reliable closer for Chicago this year despite his rocky second half in 2019. Now it seems he might be cooked for good, unable to get anywhere close to his former dominance. After watching the previously excellent relief duo of Carl Edwards Jr. and Pedro Strop implode last season, the Cubs are staring down another potentially brutal year from their bullpen.
There could be serious repercussions for Chicago if the club can’t solve the problem soon — the NL Central is set up to be a four-team race in which glaring weaknesses will be punished. The impact of Kimbrel’s potential bottoming out might be magnified by an increased league-wide reliance on relievers during a 60-game season.
At least on paper, the Cubs don’t have many obvious top-end alternatives to Kimbrel. Jeffress endured the worst year of his career in 2019, and it remains unclear what the team will get from him. Rowan Wick is interesting — the fastball/curveball pitcher has a career 3.19 ERA — and unproven arms such as Dillon Maples and Adbert Alzolay are perhaps on the verge of a breakthrough despite their lack of MLB success with extremely limited opportunities.
Kimbrel could obviously return to respectability, a shift manager David Ross continues to insist is coming. Ross has said the restart amid the COVID-19 pandemic has thrown off the rhythm of some pitchers.
“I’m not trying to make excuses for anybody,” Ross told reporters Tuesday. “But, we’ve got to give a little bit of leash (to Kimbrel). This is a really unique situation that we’re dealing with.”
It seems increasingly unlikely, though, for Kimbrel to circle all the way back to his former self. After all, that peak form represented one of the best closers in MLB history.
So, the Cubs will for the time being continue to hand Kimbrel the ball in the ninth inning despite this shortened season making each game count much more than in a normal year. At this point, their choices are limited, with Jeffress for now being next in line to take over the closer’s role should Kimbrel keep faltering.
Just a few games into 2020, it’s too early to make a definitive call on how Chicago will fare late in games. But the trauma of 2019 certainly casts doubt on what this year will bring.