The ninth inning by Craig Kimbrel against the Reds on Monday was as follows: walk, wild pitch, ground out, walk, walk, hit batter, walk.
Kimbrel closed with the bases loaded and one out, the Cubs clung to an 8-7 lead. While right-handed Jeremy Jeffress saved him by taking out the next two batters to end the game, much of the postgame focus focused on his inability to locate throws.
Kimbrel is said to be a reliable ending to Chicago this year, despite his rocky second half in 2019. Now it looks like he’s cooked for good and can’t get close to his past dominance. After seeing the previously excellent relief duo of Carl Edwards Jr. and Pedro Strop imploded last year, the Cubs stare out another potentially cruel year out of their bullpen.
If the club can’t solve the problem quickly, it could have serious consequences for Chicago – the NL Central is set up as a four-team race punishing glaring weaknesses. The impact of Kimbrel’s potential low could be magnified by a greater reliance on the entire league of relievers over a 60-game season.
In any case, on paper, the Cubs don’t have many obvious top-end alternatives to Kimbrel. Jeffress has had the worst year of his career in 2019 and it remains unclear what the team will get from him. Rowan Wick is interesting – the fastball / curveball pitcher has a career of 3.19 ERA – and unproven arms like Dillon Maples and Adbert Alzolay may be on the verge of a breakthrough, despite their lack of MLB success with extremely limited chances.
Kimbrel can clearly return to respect, a team leader David Ross continues to insist that he is coming. Ross has said that the reboot during the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted some pitchers’ rhythms.
“I’m not trying to come up with an excuse for anyone,” Ross told reporters on Tuesday. “But we have to give a little leash (to Kimbrel). This is a really unique situation that we are dealing with.”
However, it seems increasingly unlikely that Kimbrel will go all the way back to his former self. After all, that peak shape represented one of the best shutters in MLB history.
So the Cubs will continue to give Kimbrel the ball for the ninth inning despite this shortened season, making every game count way more than in a normal year. At this point, their choices are limited, and Jeffress is now next in line to take over the shutter role should Kimbrel continue to hesitate.
Only a few games in 2020, it’s too early to make a final call about how Chicago will be late in games. But the 2019 trauma certainly casts doubt on what this year will bring.