The Chicago White Sox should consider keeping Craig Kimbrel

Sep 26, 2021; Cleveland, Ohio, USA; Chicago White Sox relief pitcher Craig Kimbrel (46) looks for a sign in the eigth inning against the Cleveland Indians at Progressive Field. Mandatory Credit: Aaron Josefczyk-USA TODAY Sports
Sep 26, 2021; Cleveland, Ohio, USA; Chicago White Sox relief pitcher Craig Kimbrel (46) looks for a sign in the eigth inning against the Cleveland Indians at Progressive Field. Mandatory Credit: Aaron Josefczyk-USA TODAY Sports /

The Chicago White Sox envisioned a lockdown bullpen when they acquired closer Craig Kimbrel from the crosstown rival Chicago Cubs at the trade deadline. He was to join Michael Kopech and Liam Hendriks to form a game over, seventh-eighth-ninth inning pitching inning trio.

Instead, the White Sox got a 5.09 ERA in the 24 games he pitched. He was not much better in the playoffs as he surrendered three runs with two coming on a game-breaking two-run homer in Game 2 of the ALDS.

Kimbrel was not the dominant force he was before coming to the Southside. With the Cubs, Kimbrel posted a 0.49 ERA, 64 strikeouts, 23 saves, and 1.10 fielding independent pitching (FIP) metric. He gave up just two earned runs. He was also a 2.5 WAR player.

The White Sox got a pitcher who gave up 13 earned runs, struck out just 36 batters, posted a 4.56 FIP, and was a 0 WAR player.

Despite the trade blowing up in general manager Rick Hahn’s face, the White Sox exercised Kimbrel’s $16 million team option in hopes of trading him. That is something Hahn should think twice before doing.

The Chicago White Sox should consider keeping Craig Kimbrel for 2022.

Kimbrel was used incorrectly. White Sox manager Tony La Russa said he would use Kimbrel or Hendriks in the closer role based on availability and keeping both fresh for an October shutdown of the opposition.

Kimbrel only got four save opportunities. Hendriks got the rest and won the America League Reliever of the Year award. Kimbrel was adamant in August that his struggles were not because he was not getting enough ninth-inning chances but bad mechanics.

It is proven that the active career saves leader does better in the ninth. According to Fangraphs, Kimbrel had only pitched in 55 games and threw just 36.1 innings before the ninth inning prior to coming to the Southside.

When he has pitched the ninth, he put up good numbers, outside of his Cubs’ 2019 and 2020 seasons. He was never wired to be a set-up man. La Russa even admitted as much during the ALDS:

"“It’s a heck of a mental adjustment. I know he would never make any excuses. That’s why I’m just giving my explanation of why — how hard it is for him.”"

He is a closer and a future Hall of Fame closer to boot. Yet, La Russa chose to keep the status quo and go with Hendricks for pretty much every ninth-inning situation. Hendriks is versatile and has been asked to pitch multiple innings in his career. Kimbrel is a pure ninth-inning out getter. Why not try reversing roles?

You might say but Hendriks was dominant in the ninth and is also making big money to be the closer. Hendriks, however, is comfortable pitching the eighth and getting more than three outs. Kimbrel showed with the Cubs that when his mechanics are right and he is pitching in the ninth, you might as well start the congratulation line.

Also, the most important outs are not always in the final inning. It could turn out that the highest leverage situation comes in the sixth inning and a team might need its best reliever to get those outs.

Plus, Kopech is moving to the starting rotation. That means the Sox are losing one more bullpen weapon to deploy before the ninth in high leverage situations. Why not ask Hendriks in the name of winning to cede the closer spot to Kimbrel for one season? It does not seem like Hahn is interested in asking that question:

"“The question for us is, with Liam here and we proceed both of them, how do we get the best out of both of them?” Hahn said. “In the second year of that role, would it be more comfortable (for Kimbrel), for example. There are no clear-cut answers on Nov. 9. Those are all parts of the decision, the conversation.”"

It is not like Hendriks has this huge ego that he must pitch the ninth. He is hoping Kimbrel returns:

"“No doubt, the caliber of athlete and person he is, he’ll bounce back and hopefully he’s with us and we can create that dynamic out there that we shorten the game a little bit.”"

The Sox are also set to lose Ryan Tepera in free agency so they are already down two bullpen arms. Unless one of the returns for Kimbrel is bullpen help, why go down another arm? Especially one that has proven that he can bounce back.

The Sox sent their young starting second baseman Nick Madrigal and a potential closer in Codi Heuer to the Cubs just to get Kimbrel. Do you think the Sox will get even close to that kind of return for a closer on a one-year deal making $16 million?

I remember former Texas Rangers and Milwaukee Brewers General Manager Doug Melvin said that when it comes to a bullpen reclamation project, you want to acquire the pitcher who is showing signs of going in a positive trend.

Kimbrel is not trending onwards and upwards.

Would a team be willing to part with prospects or Major League level talent in return to fix Kimbrel and have him possibly for just one season? Hahn is hoping that is true: 

"“Obviously, we viewed him as a potentially impactful reliever as he’s been for the vast majority of his career, and we’re not alone in that opinion. So, what we have to figure out is whether it makes the most sense to have Craig in a White Sox uniform going forward, or is there a better use of that spot and him perhaps via trade."

The Sox should trade him if a team is willing to give some Major League help to get to this mythical floor. Would the Sox get that return from a team just looking to comply with a possible mandate?

At best you might get a couple of hard-throwing prospects that could materialize into something along without having to pay a portion of the $16 million to make Kimbrel go away. It feels like Hahn is just hoping someone gives him a Fernando Tatis Jr. talent in return.

I do not see that type of return. Also, the White Sox are in the win-now mode, so what is the point of trading for prospects? The only way I see Kimbrel getting a good return is if he is sent along with say, Gavin Sheets or Jake Berger to a team trying to make the potential salary floor.

Instead, it might be better to let Kimbrel regain his value as a Hall of Fame closer and then use that to win a World Series. That is way more valuable.

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