The biggest question about Craig Kimbrel heading into the 2021 season wasn’t “Where might the Cubs trade him?” but “Is he done as an effective reliever?”
Chicago signed him to a three-year deal with a club option for 2022 in June 2019 — remember that long delay, as clubs waited until June to avoid the draft-pick compensation attached to Kimbrel? — and he was pretty much a disaster from the get-go. Kimbrel, who had a career 1.91 ERA before he signed with Chicago, posted a 6.53 ERA in 2019 and a 5.28 ERA in the shortened 2020 season.
He still struck out a ton of batters, but his walks spiraled out of control — 24 in 36 innings over the two seasons, a hefty 6.0 BB/9 ratio.
But in 2021, his Age 33 season, he’s been vintage Kimbrel. His walk rate is back down to 2.8 per nine innings (his pre-Cubs career number was 3.5), and he’s still striking out a ton of batters — 54 in 31 2/3 innings. The ERA is a sparkling 0.57, the FIP is a brilliant 1.12 and the WHIP is a stingy 0.663, and he has 20 saves in 22 opportunities.
But the Cubs aren’t going anywhere in 2021, and lots of contending teams could use a closer. Kimbrel has a club option for $16 million that isn’t cheap, but it’s worth it if he pitches like he has so far in 2021.
Here are six teams that should be interested.
Why he fits: Yeah, probably unlikely that the Cubs will deal to the Reds. But the Reds have a great offense and massive issues in the bullpen, so maybe they’re motivated to make it worth the Cubs’ while? Even that’s doubtful. Still, though, this specific need is great, so it’s worth mentioning. Amir Garrett, the closer heading into the season, has struggled massively (6.92 ERA). Lucas Sims has seven saves, but he also has a 5.02 ERA and is on the IL. Tejay Antone has been very good when healthy (1.87 ERA, 11.2 K/9) but he’s on the IL, too.
As a group, Cincy relievers have a 5.22 ERA and 4.81 FIP. Kimbrel, as we mentioned, has a 0.57 ERA and a 1.12 FIP. Yep, he’d be perfect.
5. Red Sox
Why he fits: Kimbrel had one great year in Boston (2017) and two years that were good, not great (2016 and 2018), but ended his time there with a World Series title in 2018. Kimbrel was OK in the 2018 postseason, making four scoreless appearances and allowing runs in five of his outings. Though his was a tightrope act that October, he was 6-for-6 in save opportunities.
And, yes, Boston has a closer right now who is headed to Denver for the All-Star Game in Matt Barnes. But, again, if the goal is to win everything, it’s not possible to have too many lock-down arms at the back of the bullpen.
4. Blue Jays
Why he fits: The problem with Toronto’s — er, Buffalo’s — bullpen is that most of the relievers have either struggled or landed on the IL. That’s a rough one-two punch to overcome. Jordan Romano has been good at the back end (1.76 ERA, six saves in seven chances), but he’s one of only two relievers on the roster with more than six innings pitched for the club and an ERA south of 4.44. Yikes. This is a massively talented team, though, the kind capable of making a run into the postseason and through October. That’s not going to happen without more stability in the bullpen, though.
Why he fits: Remember the last time the Phillies were contenders — or contender pretenders — who had a rock-solid bullpen? Neither do I. The Phillies have been hovering around .500 most of the season, but that leaves them within shouting distance of the NL East title — they’re four games back of the Mets, but 7 1/2 out of the second wild-card spot — and they’d really like to make the postseason for the first time in the Bryce Harper era. Their relievers haven’t been as bad as in 2020, but that’s not saying much. Having Kimbrel own the ninth inning could help the entire unit find a long-missing rhythm.
Why he fits: We’re not the only ones who see this fit.
Mentioned to a high-ranking MLB exec that the Red Sox might be a natural landing spot for Craig Kimbrel. He pushed back, and speculated that Kimbrel’s destination will come down to either the Astros or the Athletics. Kimbrel will be the most coveted player in the trade market.
— Buster Olney (@Buster_ESPN) July 6, 2021
The A’s knew they had a need at the back of the bullpen, which is why they signed closer Trevor Rosenthal this offseason. But Rosenthal won’t throw a pitch for the A’s in 2021; he had thoracic outlet surgery in April, then this week it was announced that he’ll have hip surgery, ending his season. Lou Trevino and Jake Diekman have combined for 20 saves this year, but they’ve also combined for six blown saves. The Oakland bullpen hasn’t been as much of a disaster as some of the teams on this list, but it’s probably not good enough, as-is, to advance in October, which is the goal for this club.
Why he fits: Ryan Pressly has been very good as the club’s closer — 1.50 ERA, 9.2 K/BB, 15 saves in 16 opportunities — but the rest of the bullpen has been … well, let’s say it’s not been a strength. Even if the Astros added Kimbrel, they could look to add other arms, too. This is a club that is motivated to win it all in 2021, in an effort to show that their previous success — including the 2017 World Series title — wasn’t just about the cheating. Even though, y’know, they definitely cheated.