Craig Kimbrel’s days as Cubs’ closer could be numbered if struggles continue

“Right now, he’s obviously mechanically out of whack, and the shape of his pitches are not what it normally is,” Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer said of Craig Kimbrel. | Nuccio DiNuzzo/Getty Images

Manager Ross was non-committal on whether he’ll use Kimbrel in upcoming save situations.

The Cubs’ bullpen has been in the spotlight to begin the season and a big part of that attention has been the recent struggles of closer Craig Kimbrel.

Kimbrel has been working through some challenges since the beginning of summer camp, including command, velocity and feel for his signature knuckle-curveball. Those issues have popped up in both of his appearances this season.

On Friday, it was the long ball that bit Kimbrel as he allowed a pair of solo home runs in the ninth inning vs. the Pirates. That followed Monday’s four-walk, two-run outing against the Reds in Cincinnati.

“Right now, he’s obviously mechanically out of whack and the shape of his pitches are not what it normally is,” Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer said. “Part of what has made him elite is the kind of distinct qualities of his fastball and his breaking ball, and those aren’t there right now, because he’s mechanically out of whack.

“I think that’s the job we have ahead of us, and luckily, we have a very willing, open and honest Craig Kimbrel. He’s willing, he knows that he’s not right. I mean, this is a guy that’s done nothing but dominate his whole career and he knows that he shouldn’t be walking guys like this. He knows that. His fastball shouldn’t be getting barreled up like this, and we need to get as many mechanic’s back in the right place.”

The shortened 2020 season has required manager David Ross to act quickly when things are not going well and make quick and even difficult decisions. One of those decisions may include removing Kimbrel as his closer.

When asked if Kimbrel would still be the team’s closer should the Cubs find themselves in another save situation amid him working to find his footing, the Cubs’ manager was non-committal on the matter.

“I’m in the middle of conversations with Craig,” Ross said. “We’ll have those first before I talk to you guys. We’ll see where he’s at. We’ll see how his arm feels and then we’ll go from there.

Ross may turn to veteran reliever Jeremy Jeffress, right-hander Rowan Wick and left-hander Kyle Ryan, who have become early anchors in high-leverage situations, to fill the void while Kimbrel works through his issues.

Kimbrel’s velocity has ticked up after the start of the season, hitting 98 MPH in Friday’s 6-3 win, but Pirates hitters looked locked-in against his fastball as the five balls put in play against him had exit velocities of 101 MPH or more. Which begs the question, could Kimbrel be tipping his pitches?

“We’re not looking at the tipping scenario quite yet. I think we feel like there’s some things where they can get him back to where he feels a little more comfortable,” Ross said. I also talk to him a lot about the mental capacity. That just a little bit of confidence, a little bit of success can make a lot of the problems go away.

“We’re just trying to find him the right kind of work – whether it’s watching video or having conversations, you just try to continue to work through it. He’s frustrated. He wants to work through it and he wants to be better. And so we’re here to help him continue to move forward. We need him to be good, if we’re going to have to have a lot of success.”

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