Letting Craig Kimbrel leave in free agency appears to have been a wise move by the Boston Red Sox considering how poorly he’s pitched for the Chicago Cubs.
Dave Dombrowski took a lot of heat for failing to construct a formidable bullpen, which played a hand in his departure from the Boston Red Sox. Perhaps we’re not giving him enough credit for the move he resisted making – bringing back Craig Kimbrel.
Kimbrel has been arguably the best closer in baseball over the last decade. While his tenure in Boston ended with a shaky postseason, the right-hander was an elite reliever during his three years with the Red Sox. They let him go anyway.
A contract that would have set a record for a relief pitcher was the expectation that Kimbrel carried into free agency. Despite the lack of a clear internal replacement to fill the close role, that’s not a price the Red Sox were willing to pay.
Neither was anyone else. Every team in baseball scoffed at the number of years and average annual value that Kimbrel demanded. It didn’t help that it would have cost any other franchise a draft pick to sign him. Kimbrel had to wait until after the June draft to sign a 3-year, $43 million deal with the Chicago Cubs. A significant salary for a reliever but far from Kimbrel’s original expectations.
The Cubs probably aren’t feeling as if they found a bargain. Kimbrel has been an absolute dumpster fire since relocating to Chicago. While he’s converted 13 of 16 save opportunities, the path to that respectable conversion rate has been messy.
His latest appearance sums up how poorly his stint in Chicago has gone. Kimbrel entered the ninth inning of Saturday’s game against the St. Louis Cardinals protecting a one-run lead. He threw only one pitch to each of the first two batters he faced, both of which were crushed for home runs to cough up the lead.
Two nights earlier, Kimbrel was tagged with the loss for surrendering a solo homer in extra innings. That’s two losses pinned on Kimbrel in a series in which they were swept in four games by the NL Central-leading Cardinals. Chicago has fallen seven games behind St. Louis in the division and four games out of a Wild Card spot.
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Kimbrel has allowed six earned runs on four homers in only three appearances this month. His September collapse has cost the Cubs any reasonable chance at the postseason.
He enters the day with a bloated 6.53 ERA that nearly doubles his previous career-high and more than triples his career rate. Kimbrel has already set a career-high with nine home runs allowed despite tossing only 20 2/3 innings. His previous high of seven came last year when he pitched 62 1/3 innings for the Red Sox. He’s still striking out batters at an elite rate with a 13.1 K/9 but his 5.2 BB/9 is almost as off the charts as his staggering home run rate.
Did the late start to his season throw off Kimbrel’s routine? He got off to a rough start by allowing five earned runs in his first three appearances before settling down with eight consecutive scoreless outings. It appeared the rust had been shaken off until he fell apart again in September.
Maybe it’s a small sample size. Perhaps he’ll be fine next year following a proper offseason routine. It’s also very possible that the 31-year old is nearing the end of the line. His velocity is down about 1 MPH from last year and a full 2 MPH from his peak, per FanGraphs. That’s a problem for a pitcher with control issues who relies heavily on his ability to blow hitters away with an overwhelming fastball.
These concerns are why the Red Sox refused to commit a lucrative multi-year deal to Kimbrel. You can question why they didn’t address their bullpen with an alternative option but Brandon Workman eventually emerged as a viable closer. It took the Red Sox half a season to realize he was the man for the job and by that point, it may have been too late to dig themselves out of an early hole.
We all know that pitching woes are the reason why the Red Sox will be sitting at home in October and early-season uncertainty surrounding their replacement for Kimbrel played a part in that. Entering the year without a “proven closer” may have cost the Red Sox a playoff spot. Giving Kimbrel anywhere near what it would have taken to sign him last winter would have cost them much more.