CHICAGO — After months of waiting to join a team — he says it was harder on his friends and family — elite closer Craig Kimbrel arrived at Wrigley Field on Friday declaring himself ready for action.
Kimbrel, 31, signed a three-year deal with the Chicago Cubs after becoming a free agent way back in October.
“Am I surprised?” Kimbrel asked rhetorically about the process taking so long. “No. Am I disappointed where I am right now? No, not at all. I’m glad I’ve made it through this process which was tough, and hopefully we can get this worked out between players and owners moving forward. That’s a different conversation.”
Kimbrel didn’t dig deep into what kept him out of uniform but it doesn’t take a CBA expert to figure it out. Per league rules, the team that signed him on or after June 3 didn’t have to give up a draft pick to do so. The Cubs pounced.
“We think this team has a chance to accomplish our goals, which is to win the World Series and we were going to be in an aggressive mindset when it came to the bullpen,” Cubs president Theo Epstein said. “We were able to go out and get the individual I think can help us more than anyone else in baseball, given the make-up of this team and the aspirations that we have.”
Kimbrel says he stayed in shape throwing at a local high school outside of Orlando, and though the team has an internal timeline for his debut in a Cubs uniform, they’ll take things slow with him. After throwing a bullpen session at Wrigley Field on Saturday, Kimbrel will head to the Cubs spring facility in Arizona for about a week and then to a minor league rehab stint.
“It’s based off how I recover, how I get ready,” Kimbrel said. “This isn’t about getting back on the field as fast as I can. This is about being the best that I can in October.”
Epstein echoed those sentiments.
“We’re not going to rush it,” he said. “It’s going to be tempting to get him here as soon as possible. We’re trying to play this thing the right way so he can be a in a position to succeed, not just immediately, but all the way through October. That’s going to be our guiding principle as we go.”
The Cubs sent one of their scouts as well as special assistant David Ross, who is also an ESPN analyst, to watch Kimbrel throw last week. Both gave positive reviews and the deal was quickly reached.
“At this point I’ve probably long tossed and thrown as many bullpen as I ever have,” Kimbrel said with a smile.
The seven-time all-star admitted he wasn’t as sharp in the postseason for the Red Sox last year, when he had a 5.91 ERA, but he didn’t offer any reasons for his ineffectiveness.
“At times I struggled in the playoffs,” Kimbrel said. “I struggled with location. I didn’t hurt my team. I may have made things interesting out there but I didn’t lose a single game.”
Kimbrel and the Cubs prefer to look forward as their connection turned into a no-brainer for the Cubs.
“If there was any chance to get this done we wanted to get it done,” Epstein said. “We saw it as a unique opportunity. How often can you add a closer like Craig, someone who’s on a hall of fame trajectory, with the need that we have midseason, without giving up any prospects? It’s 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 wear a Cubs uniform.'”
One final touch came from a former teammate as Cubs outfielder Jason Heyward sent Kimbrel a long text. The two played together in Atlanta and Heyward wanted to let Kimbrel know he would be welcome in Chicago.
“All I needed to know is where should I live and what number am I going to wear?” Kimbrel responded.