Craig Kimbrel finally has a new home.
The All-Star closer and the Chicago Cubs have agreed to a three-year deal, ESPN has confirmed, ending a seven-month-long free agency for one of baseball’s best bullpen arms. The Athletic was first to report the agreement.
The deal is worth $43 million and includes a fourth-year option, sources told ESPN’s Jeff Passan. Kimbrel will get $10 million this season and $16 million in 2020 and 2021. There is a $1 million buyout on a club/vesting option for the fourth year.
Speaking earlier Wednesday, Cubs president Theo Epstein said his team had interest in Kimbrel.
“There’s usually not quality free agents rolling around at this time of year. Any guy that’s out there, we’ll certainly do our due diligence and see if that makes sense,” Epstein said.
It’s a position of need for Chicago. Cubs relievers have been spotty this season, blowing 11 saves, the third-most in the majors.
Ever since Brandon Morrow went down with an elbow injury at last year’s All-Star break, the team has mixed and match to close out games. Kimbrel slides into the ninth inning, once he’s ready, as Pedro Strop has been the de facto closer — though he’s also missed time with injuries.
The financial wherewithal to sign Kimbrel may have come from an unlikely place as veteran Ben Zobrist left the team for personal reasons in May as he was placed on the restricted list. Zobrist was slated to make $12.5 million in the final year of his four-year deal.
“There are always unknowns that come up during the season that can impact your financial picture,” Epstein said. “This year, in particular, there have been some unexpected variables that could possibly give us a little more flexibility than we would have imagined.”
Kimbrel, a seven-time All-Star, struggled at times for the Boston Red Sox in 2018 but finished the regular season with 42 saves, a 2.74 ERA and 96 strikeouts in 62 1/3 innings pitched.
The 31-year-old has a career ERA of 1.91 — the lowest among all relievers in MLB history with 300 career innings pitched. He has 333 saves — the youngest pitcher in MLB history to reach 300 saves — and has 868 strikeouts in 532 2/3 innings pitched. In addition, his ratio of 14.7 strikeouts per nine innings is the best among all pitchers in major league history with at least 500 career innings.
The hard-throwing right-hander went through a rough spell for the Red Sox in the American League Division Series and AL Championship Series. In 6⅓ innings, Kimbrel surrendered six hits and five runs, hit two batters, walked six and struck out eight. He had an ERA of 7.11, and his strike rate dropped from 62 percent to 48 percent. He loaded the bases twice in the ninth inning.
Kimbrel seemed to turn it around in the ninth inning of Game 5 of the ALCS against the Houston Astros, giving up no hits and striking out two for a series-clinching save. After the game, Red Sox manager Alex Cora said Kimbrel had been tipping his pitches and the issue had been fixed. Still, rather than use Kimbrel to lock down the final inning of the World Series-clinching game, Cora went to ace Chris Sale.
Kimbrel, the National League Rookie of the Year in 2011, led the NL in saves during his first four seasons with Atlanta Braves and signed a four-year, $42 million contract prior to the 2014 season. He was traded on the eve of the 2015 season to the Padres, who then traded Kimbel to the Red Sox in 2016, where he experienced his career-best season in 2017 before experiencing a slight dip in fastball velocity in 2018.
ESPN’s Jeff Passan contributed to this report.