CHICAGO — Free-agent closer Craig Kimbrel has agreed to a contract with the Cubs in a big move to strengthen Chicago’s bullpen.
The team said Friday he passed his physical. Contract terms were not disclosed.
Former Cubs catcher David Ross played a big role in signing Kimbrel, making a strong pitch to his former battery mate.
“Last Friday, Craig threw a bullpen. We sent one of our scouts, Joe Nelson, and then our super scout, David Ross,” laughed Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein. “It’s a funny story but Rossy actually caught Craig’s first pitch he ever threw in the big leagues. Then, he’s there watching him throw a bullpen, getting ready to sign as a free agent. That bullpen went extremely well. Both guys reported that Craig looked like he was just about in midseason form. Everything was working great. Ball was coming out really well. We continued to talk. It just became clear that Craig was serious about his interest in the Cubs. If there was any chance to get this done, we wanted to make it happen. We saw it as a unique opportunity. How often can you add an elite closer like Craig, someone who is arguably on a Hall of Fame trajectory, with the need that we have midseason without giving up any prospects? Such a great opportunity for the Cubs. We all sat down and said ‘If there is a way to make this happen, we want him to be wearing a Cubs uniform.’ Continued to talk with Dave and it came together really quickly.”
“[David Ross] did fill me in on the culture of this ball club, but it’s the Chicago Cubs. He didn’t have to tell me all that much about the culture of this place and what is expected here,” smiled Kimbrel. “I think if anything, it’s how family-oriented this place is. How much they care for the families and how much they’ll do anything for the families. That really resonated with me because that’s the most important thing to me. I’m a husband, I’m a father, then I’m a baseball player. To understand that this place is going to make this as easy a transition as possible, it definitely played a part.”
Another deciding factor? The Wrigley Field faithful, who are known throughout the league for their diehard, knowledgable nature.
“One thing that’s important to me as well, is being able to play in front of a fan base that is as passionate about this game as I am. I did get to experience that in Boston. It would be hard to leave that kind of passion each and every night. Especially in the role that I am, I’m a very adrenaline-based player. Knowing that each and every night those seats are going to be full, that definitely played a huge part in this decision.”
The addition plugs a major hole for the Cubs, which has been beset by blown saves but is still tied for the NL Central lead. Brandon Morrow is going slowly after he had a setback in his recovery from offseason elbow surgery, and Pedro Strop just returned after being sidelined by another hamstring injury.
Even before the deal was announced Cubs manager Joe Maddon said he thought Kimbrel would be ready to pitch in about three weeks.
“I would imagine in the position that’s he’s been in, he had some kind of a strategy of program mapped out,” Maddon said Thursday. “The first thing you do is find out and then set up program. You think about a three-week window, normally it sounds right.”
Once Kimbrel is ready to go, Strop will likely move back to his usual setup role and Steve Cishek will be freed up for big spots earlier in the game.
The 31-year-old Kimbrel has 333 career saves and a 1.91 ERA over nine seasons with Atlanta, San Diego and Boston. The hard-throwing right-hander also is averaging an exceptional 14.7 strikeouts per nine innings for his career.
Kimbrel helped the Red Sox win the World Series last year, going 5-1 with a 2.74 ERA and 42 saves. But he struggled in the playoffs, compiling a 5.91 ERA in 10 2/3 innings.
Kimbrel turned down a $17.9 million qualifying offer from Boston in November, making him a free agent. But signing Kimbrel before the amateur draft started would have cost his new team at least one draft pick, and the potential loss of that valuable asset combined with Kimbrel’s postseason trouble helped take the air out of his market over the winter.
The focus on Kimbrel and fellow free-agent pitcher Dallas Keuchel returned once the draft started Monday. Keuchel and the Atlanta Braves have agreed to a one-year contract, The Associated Press reported Thursday.
Kimbrel to Chicago made sense all along, but the Cubs were unusually quiet this past offseason because of their high-priced roster. Chicago had an opening-day payroll of $209 million, second only to Boston at $222 million and ahead of the New York Yankees at $207 million.
But the Cubs gained some payroll flexibility when they placed veteran utilityman Ben Zobrist on the restricted list May 8. The 38-year-old Zobrist is going through a divorce, and it’s unclear when he might return.
Chicago entered Friday in a virtual tie with Milwaukee for first in the division. The Cubs won the World Series in 2016, but they were eliminated by the Los Angeles Dodgers in the NLCS in 2017 and had a disappointing finish last year when they lost to Colorado in the wild-card game.