Craig Kimbrel shaved his trademark red beard but it doesn't appear to have helped him. The Chicago Cubs closer had a brutal season in 2019 and, judging by how he started 2020, things have not improved.
Kimbrel hit the mound in a save situation Monday night, with the Cubs leading the Cincinnati Reds 8-5 in the bottom of the ninth inning. Chicago led the game 8-1 at one point, but the team's bullpen had gave Cincinnati life over the course of a few innings. Kimbrel threw gas on that fire.
The 32-year-old Kimbrel walked Nick Castellanos to open the inning, then allowed him to advance to second on a wild pitch. He induced a groundout from Jesse Winker, which advanced Castellanos to third, then walked Josh VanMeter, who promptly stole second base. Then Kimbrel walked Shogo Akiyama to load the bases with only one out. Kimbrel proceeded to hit Freddie Galvis on a 2-1 pitch to force in a run before walking rookie Tyler Stephenson to plate another.
Rookie manager David Ross had seen enough and Kimbrel was replaced by Jeremy Jeffress, who got two outs to end the game and salvage a win for the Cubs, 8-7.
Kimbrel threw 34 pitches and only 13 were strikes. He walked four batters, hit another and gave up two runs while getting just one out. It was truly a horrific showing that does not bode well for the Cubs or their closer.
After not getting a big free-agent contract before the 2019 season, Kimbrel held out, hoping a closer-needy team would give him big bucks at some point during the season. The Cubs obliged, handing the seven-time All-Star a three-year, $43 million deal. Much was expected when he was inked to that deal and he completely failed to deliver.
Kimbrel had the worst season of his career in 2019. He finished 0-4 with a 6.53 ERA, a 1.60 WHIP and 30 strikeouts in 20.2 innings. He secured 13 saves in 16 chances, but allowed more hits than innings pitched, surrendered 15 earned runs across those 20.2 innings and posted a negative fWAR (-1.1). His pitches never looked as sharp as we were used to seeing and his velocity was often down. Meanwhile, his K/9 rate dropped to a career-low 13.06.
Many believed Kimbrel's issues stemmed from not having a full spring training to ramp up and that he would revert to form in 2020. That clearly isn't the case.
On Monday night, all of his issues from 2019 reared their ugly heads again. Instead of hitting the upper 90s, Kimbrel's fastball appeared to be maxing out at 95 and he couldn't locate it. Perhaps even more concerning is how the Reds spit on his breaking ball. Usually his knuckle curve generates a lot of swings and misses, but Cincinnati's hitters just watched it go by. Kimbrel usually spikes the pitch in the dirt or low, so unless he's going to throw it for strikes, opposing hitters can sit on his now completely hittable mid-90s fastball.
Frankly, after his performance last year and his first showing in 2020, I wouldn't let Kimbrel close if I was running the Cubs. Put Jeffress in that spot for now and let Kimbrel figure something out. Whatever he's currently doing isn't working.