Craig Kimbrel has already impacted the Cubs and he hasn’t even suited up yet. Well, not without his dress clothes on underneath his new No. 24 jersey. But the closer’s mere presence has generated palpable excitement among the players and staff as they await his return to Chicago as part of the active roster.
Kyle Schwarber fired up the left field bleachers by imitating Kimbrel’s distinct arm-dangle stance after hearing the news that the Cubs had signed him. David Bote hit a three-run homer on the strength of the adrenaline boost he got when he learned about the deal. It’s a clear sign that ownership and the front office is willing to do what it takes to win, so everyone but the reliever he’ll displace should be jazzed.
But as much as Joe Maddon and his staff were similarly stoked to see what Kimbrel had to offer, there was probably a little anxiety mixed in. After all, the Cubs haven’t had the best luck when it comes to onboarding relievers and this is a guy who hasn’t faced live batters in a competitive situation in over seven months.
While one bullpen session might not be enough to alleviate those concerns completely, it certainly went a lot way toward lessening them.
“Obviously, elite stuff,” pitching coach Tommy Hottovy said of his first impression. “This is a guy who’s kept himself in shape. He feels good. He feels strong. He was throwing strikes, moving his fastball around. And the spin was good.
“So for the first one for us to see, I think he was what we’d consider probably being ahead of the game and ready for the next step.”
That next step will be another bullpen in Arizona at some point over the next few days. The Cubs aren’t saying exactly what benchmarks they’ve set, but they’re hoping Kimbrel can face live batters by the end of his first week in Arizona, after which they’ll “read and react.” It’s really just a matter of pitching in a competitive atmosphere and really cutting it loose, something the righty hasn’t had to do yet.
“Because he’s had a lot of time off and has been throwing, he’s strong,” Hottovy said. “The velo and stuff is there. It’s more about a consistent arm stroke, consistent release points, consistent mechanics, because that all comes with that repetition.”
It’s not inconceivable that Kimbrel could be ready to go within two weeks of his arrival at the Cubs’ Mesa facility, which would put him in line to face one of his old teams. The Braves come to Chicago for the final four games of a 10-game homestand that also features the White Sox and Mets, so having Kimbrel debut at Wrigley makes a lot of sense.
Speaking during the broadcast of the Cubs’ 9-4 win over St. Louis Saturday evening, former Braves closer — he obviously started as well, but his closing experience provided the context here — John Smoltz believed Kimbrel would be ready quickly. Smoltz said he’d personally know he was ready to go when he felt good throwing three straight games. It’s unlikely the Cubs will push their new closer like that as he ramps up, though the concept is easy to grasp.
Since he’s still in shape and has worked on his craft for well over a decade in professional baseball, Kimbrel really just needs to display the consistency Hottovy spoke of. In reviewing things like arm slot and release point, the Cubs might also be looking to avoid some of the control issues Kimbrel encountered throughout the second half last season.
Some of that may have been due to a shifting release point which, while accompanied by higher velocity, also saw him tally an unacceptable 6.23 BB/9. Even though his sky-high strikeout numbers balanced a lot of that out, the Cubs and Kimbrel himself know that he’s got to be better moving forward.
They also want to make sure they’re putting him in a position to get the best out of himself. A true closer in every sense, Kimbrel wanted to pitch for a team that would guarantee him the 9th inning. He also wanted to pitch in front of sellout crowds. Having that adrenaline for ready fuel is key for a closer, and it’s hard to imagine a more amped-up situation than facing the Braves at Wrigley.
Missing his old team in late June means making his Cubs debut on the road or maybe not until the second half, so you have to think at least Kimbrel is looking forward to that particular set of games. Discretion is the better part of valor, though, and this is no time for the organization to open up its new toy before the appropriate time for such things. Still, I’m putting my bets on that Braves series.
In the meantime, any of you in the Des Moines area might want to be making plans to see the Iowa Cubs in the near future.