Craig Kimbrel was credited with a hold for pitching a scoreless inning of work Wednesday evening, his first such outing of the spring. It was an encouraging sign where previously there’d been none as the 32-year-old righty’s fastball velocity has been lower than expected and he’s given up all kinds of loud contact. Even given the nature of spring training ball, things got to the point that David Ross even expressed public concern.
Still, the manager has stuck by his closer with confidence (or hubris) evocative of Lovie Smith reinforcing to the world that “Rex [Grossman] is our quarterback.” And just like the Bears with their signal-callers, the Cubs can’t quite seem to figure out a consistent solution for the 9th inning. Speaking of which, is it weird to anyone else that Andy Dalton is almost a year older than Kimbrel?
The issues with the once-elite stopper have been mitigated by his limited usage over the past two seasons, with his late arrival in 2019 and the shortened 2020 season keeping him to 41 appearances and just 36 total innings. Both of those totals are significantly lower than he’s posted in any single season since 2010, so the silver lining is that he hasn’t worn as much tread off the tires as you might otherwise expect.
The flip side is that those tires already look bald AF and they haven’t been put to the test over a full seasons since he struggled to close out the 2018 campaign with the Red Sox. So even though Ross and pitching coach Tommy Hottovy have remained steadfast in their support of Kimbrel, it would be the height of foolishness to proceed without a backup plan or three.
One of those is former Boston reliever Brandon Workman, who pitched out of the bullpen with Kimbrel in 2017 and ’18 and who also teamed up with Ross there four years earlier. The 32-year-old righty had a rough 2020 campaign following a superb ’19 and very solid performances in the two prior seasons, so the rebound potential is real. He’s saved 25 over the last two years and could be called upon again even if Kimbrel pitches well.
“Like Rossy said, Craig’s our closer,” Workman said recently. “If something does come about, I’ll be prepared to do whatever is asked of me. But Craig Kimbrel’s our closer. He’s one of the best to ever do it.”
Another option is righty Jason Adam, who has struck out five with no walks over four innings so far this spring. Though he has yet to register a save in 67 career appearances, Adam has a mid-90’s fastball with three secondaries — slider, change, and curve — that can keep hitters guessing. His change and slider were particularly effective in limited action last season and could make him a legit option at the back of the bullpen this year.
Rowan Wick was the incumbent heir-apparent, but his nagging intercostal injury shut him down last season and is only now getting back to the point where he can crank up his throwing program. Because he isn’t likely to be ready by Opening Day, after which he may still need a fair bit of fine-tuning, Wick can’t really be counted on out of the gate.
The real question at this point is whether and how much slack Ross will give his closer once the real games begin. It didn’t take long last season for Jeremy Jeffress — who’s currently involved in weird drama playing out across social media — to be handed the reins, but that was in a short season with less margin for error. Will a full schedule see Ross being more lenient or will the need to start hot mean he’s got a quicker hook?
Ideally, Kimbrel will make that a moot point by correcting the flaws in his delivery and returning to his old form. He doesn’t even need to be what we saw in Atlanta or San Diego or Boston, just the version of himself from the end of last season would be fine. If he can’t get back there, though, the Cubs appear to have at least two potential options waiting in the wings.