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Cubs add closer Craig Kimbrel and Dodgers get company in N.L. pennant race

Craig Kimbrel
Boston Red Sox relief pitcher Craig Kimbrel works against the Atlanta Braves in the ninth inning on Sept. 3, 2018, in Atlanta. The Chicago Cubs has added the closer to their bullpen on Wednesday.
(John Bazemore / Associated Press)

On Wednesday morning, the Chicago Cubs loomed as one of the few teams capable of challenging the Dodgers for supremacy in the National League. Only three years removed from their curse-breaking World Series triumph, the team possesses a championship pedigree. The lineup is laden with stars such as Javier Baez, Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo. The group weathered a scandal-marred winter and sluggish spring to reach the top of the NL Central.

And Wednesday evening, the Cubs added one of the best closers in baseball history.

Craig Kimbrel, a seven-time All-Star, agreed to a three-year, $43 million contract. The signing will not cost the Cubs a draft pick, because it occurred after Monday’s draft. The yoke of draft-pick compensation was one of several factors that slowed Kimbrel’s market over the winter. The deal leaves accomplished starting pitcher Dallas Keuchel alone on the free-agent block.

Kimbrel arrives with a sterling resume but questionable dependability. He leads all active pitchers with 333 saves (47 more than Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen, who is second on the list). Only Milwaukee Brewers reliever Josh Hader and New York Yankees closer Aroldis Chapman can boast better strikeout proclivity than Kimbrel’s rate of 14.7 per nine innings. Kimbrel will join the Cubs with a 1.91 earned-run average for his career.

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Yet the reputation of Kimbrel, 31, took a hit as he sagged late in 2018 while closing for the Boston Red Sox. He posted a 5.91 ERA last October. Chris Sale pitched the final inning of the World Series — because Kimbrel had given up two runs the night before. Scouts noticed a slight dip in his fastball velocity and a decrease in the effectiveness of his curveball.

The October audition hurt Kimbrel’s case in free agency. So did his preference for pitching solely the ninth inning. The Dodgers had interest in signing Kimbrel, but expressed concern about how he might coexist at the back end of the bullpen with Jansen, who also prefers to work the ninth.

Kimbrel entered the winter seeking a six-year, $120 million deal, according to people familiar with the situation. Both he and Keuchel suffered as teams were reluctant to pay veterans.

No organization personified this freeze more than the Cubs. Chicago did not sign any new player to a multiyear contract before Kimbrel. When asked this spring why the team spent so little money, Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts tried to be flip.

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“That’s a pretty easy question to answer,” Ricketts said. “We don’t have any more.”

The gaffe was a pittance compared to the actual embarrassments that besieged the organization. Ricketts spent February apologizing for emails sent by his father that trafficked in Islamaphobia and conspiracy theories. Both president of baseball operations Theo Epstein and manager Joe Maddon insisted all was well with their relationship — even if Maddon entered the season without a contract for 2020. And the organization continues to be criticized for retaining shortstop Addison Russell, who earlier this year finished serving a 40-game suspension for violating the sport’s domestic violence policy.

The incidents dinged the organization’s veneer of cuddliness. Even the financial flexibility to add Kimbrel emerged from a squeamish place. On May 8, the team placed veteran Ben Zobrist on the restricted list as he entered divorce proceedings. A few weeks later, with Zobrist still not back on the roster, Maddon conceded to the Chicago Sun-Times that the organization had to prepare for Zobrist not to return.

Because Zobrist is on the restricted list, he is not being paid from his $12-million salary. The Cubs were believed to be willing to redirect that money toward Kimbrel, according to a report from The Athletic.

Chicago could use a closer. The team had split save opportunities between Steve Cishek and Pedro Strop; heading into Wednesday, both were tied with only five. The organization had learned it could not rely on former Dodger Brandon Morrow, who has not pitched since July. The relievers had blown 11 of 23 save opportunities, creating an uncertainty in the ninth that weakened an otherwise impressive roster.

Most of the pillars from 2016 are still around: Bryant and Rizzo at the infield corners, Baez and catcher Willson Contreras up the middle. Jon Lester and Kyle Hendricks anchor the rotation, with Cole Hamels and Jose Quintana compensating for Yu Darvish’s struggles.

With Kimbrel in the fold, the Cubs will hope to outlast the Milwaukee Brewers in the division chase. The Brewers captured the Central in Game 163 last season. Their tussle may require overtime again in 2019.

The Cubs visit Dodger Stadium on June 13. It is unlikely Kimbrel will appear in games. He has not faced a big league hitter since October, and will require a program that can simulate spring training. But if the Cubs and Dodgers face each other in October for the third time in four seasons, Kimbrel could be in a significant role.

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andy.mccullough@latimes.com

Twitter: @McCulloughTimes


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