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How the Cubs plan to get Craig Kimbrel back on track

2 years agoTony Andracki

The 2020 season is just over a week old and David Ross is already receiving questions about who his closer is.

The first-year skipper didn’t have an answer to that question Saturday evening, only saying that he wanted to have conversations with Craig Kimbrel first.

With a 4-0 lead entering the 9th inning Saturday night, Ross went with Kyle Ryan to start the frame and when he got into trouble, called on Rowan Wick to finish things off.

Ross said Kimbrel threw a “pretty intense” bullpen Saturday trying to work on some things and was trying to stay away from the 32-year-old reliever.

Kimbrel has struggled in his first 2 outings of the season — first with his control (4 walks and hit a batter) in Cincinnati and then by serving up 2 homers in the 9th inning of Friday’s win over the Pirates.

This continued a worrisome trend of Kimbrel’s performance in a Cubs uniform, as he posted a 6.53 ERA and gave up 9 homers in 20.2 innings last year after signing with the team halfway through the season.

Prior to 2019, Kimbrel had a career 1.91 ERA, 0.92 WHIP and 333 saves as he looked to be on a Hall of Fame trajectory.

The Cubs don’t believe Kimbrel is tipping his pitches, but they are working to adjust his mechanics.

“Yeah, obviously both outings have been a struggle,” Jed Hoyer said. “On the positive side, he’s healthy, throwing 97 mph. I think that’s not the concern. The concern is on his mechanics. Right now, he’s obviously mechanically out of whack. The shape of his pitches is not where it normally is.

“I think part of what has made him elite is distinct qualities of his fastball and breaking ball — those aren’t there right now because he is mechanically out of whack. Luckily we have a very willing and open and honest Craig Kimbrel — he knows that he’s not right.

“This is a guy that’s just done nothing but dominate his whole career. He knows that he shouldn’t be walking guys like this. He knows that his fastball shouldn’t be barreled up like this. We just need to get his mechanics back in the right place.

“We’ve had a lot of conversations with him already. That’s all we’re thinking about. We know he can get right, but he’s not right right now. I think everyone is well aware of that and that’s gonna be our focus going forward.”

When Kimbrel struggled with his command Monday in Cincinnati, Ross chalked some of it up to rust.

Friday night, Kimbrel gave up 2 homers to the Pirates in the 9th inning.

Both times, Ross had veteran Jeremy Jeffress waiting in the wings. Jeffress came in to get the stressful save Monday night and was warming in the Cubs bullpen Friday.

“There’s some mechanical things that we can shore up to where he’s back to hiding the ball a little bit more — a little more deception in his delivery when he’s right,” Ross said. “Some of the conversations we’ve had, he’s not quite where he wants to be in that. He’s kind of in between.

“I like the fact the velocity’s there, but there’s a couple other things we could lock in, we’ll see a much better Craig.”

Ross didn’t want to give away too much about Kimbrel’s mechanics or how the Cubs plan to fix the issue, but the manager also acknowledged a little bit of confidence and comfort on the mound could go a long way with Kimbrel.

A main benefit working in the Cubs’ favor here is that there may be no other manager in baseball better equipped to try to help navigate Kimbrel back to his previous form. Ross was actually catching the day Kimbrel made his MLB debut (May 7, 2010) and the two were teammates together for 3 years in Atlanta.

Ross was also an influential force in recruiting Kimbrel to sign with the Cubs last summer, flying down to watch the veteran right-hander throw a bullpen while working as a special assistant in Theo Epstein’s front office.

Ross can lean on that longstanding rapport to help generate the right situation for his team that got out to a hot start in the shortened season and has eyes on another deep playoff run.

“I think the relationship we’ve had helps with the conversations we’ve had lately,” Ross said. “I think he has a lot of trust in me; I have a lot of trust in him. We communicate well and we continue to do that as we move through these things. He’s working hard. He wants to be better — I can promise you that. He knows he needs to be better.

“He’s frustrated; he wants to work through it. 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 gonna have a lot of success.”

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