Craig Kimbrel Stabilizes More than Just 9th Inning for Cubs

After months of hopeful speculation and a season full of unsteady bullpen performances, the Cubs got their man. Terms of the deal had not yet been disclosed as of post time, but Ken Rosenthal tweeted Wednesday night that the Cubs had reached an agreement with future Hall of Fame closer Craig Kimbrel.

Kimbrel was reportedly only going to consider teams that would guarantee him the closer’s spot, so it’s a safe bet that the Cubs did just that. While there are reasons to be at least a little wary of his return to dominance, this will give the Cubs the kind of 9th inning credibility they haven’t had since the departure of Wade Davis after the 2017 season.

But the addition of Kimbrel doesn’t just lock down one inning, it shores up all the innings before. A healthy Pedro Strop was a perfectly fine option as a traditional closer, but now he can return to his more familiar role as the team’s primary setup man. Steve Cishek will likewise be able to settle into a setup role where he can either help bridge the gap from the starter to the Strop/Kimbrel combo or fill in for either man when they need a day off.

Just a couple weeks ago, Cishek was about the only reliable option out of the bullpen. If a Cubs starter departed after six innings with the lead, some combination of Carl Edwards Jr., Brandon Kintzler, Kyle Ryan, and Brad Brach had daisy-chain the gap to the 9th. Each of those guys has a role in a major league bullpen, not all of them are best suited for consistent high-leverage outings.

In the Cubs’ new bullpen configuration, a six-inning performance from the starter feels just fine. Cishek and Strop can handle the 7th and 8th in whichever order seems most appropriate and Kimbrel can close out the game. And if you need more than a couple innings before the 9th? That’s where the other relievers come in. The meaningful impact of this one addition totally revamps the entire bullpen.

Granted, Kimbrel won’t be ready right away and, as already mentioned, we don’t know for sure what to expect from him given the kinds of struggles we’ve seen from late signings in the past. When he’s on, though, Kimbrel has been one of the game’s all-time elite relievers. If he can come anywhere close to those heights, the Cubs’ bullpen situation is suddenly a heck of a lot more stable than it has been at any point this season.

And if you want to dream really big, you can even pencil Brandon Morrow into that group at some point. But he’s still just throwing from flat ground, so let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves just yet.

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