All winter long and into the season, through the unavailability (for one reason or another) of backend bullpen notables Brandon Morrow, Pedro Strop and Carl Edwards Jr., messaging out of Chicago’s front office has been as consistent as the bullpen has been fickle: the Cubs have no money to spend. Yet, the Northsiders are suddenly showing interest in Craig Kimbrel, per The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal.
The Cubs financial story remains the same with one new wrinkle: an unfortunate family situation has left utility maven Ben Zobrist on the restricted list since May 8th. If his divorce continues to keep him out of action – which seems likelier than not at this point – the Cubs could recoup a good portion of his salary (in the neighborhood of $9MM), at least as far as the luxury tax is concerned. This new math could give the Cubs just enough room to make a viable run at Kimbrel. Roster resource pegs Chicago’s luxury tax number at around $223MM, whereas Spotrac puts the Cubs at around $200MM. The latter number puts the Cubs a little more than $5MM shy of paying the luxury tax, but Rosenthal suggests the Cubs aren’t as concerned about the tax in general as they are the $246MM line that incurs the harshest penalties. Whether current spending has them just under the first threshold ($206MM) or the second threshold ($226MM), either valuation of their current payroll ought to leave enough room to make a competitive offer to Kimbrel while staying under (at least) the final tax line. There are, of course, other potential suitors courting Kimbrel.
And yet, even if they can make the math work, the months of consistent messaging casts some doubt onto a Cubs’ pursuit of Kimbrel. What we know for certain is that Theo Epstein and company are not shy about doing due diligence, and if history holds, they’ll make at least one notable move before the trade deadline. Epstein has been active on the trade market throughout his Chicago tenure, making at least one deadline acquisition each season dating back to 2015: Dan Haren (2015), Aroldis Chapman & Mike Montgomery (2016), Jose Quintana, Alex Avila & Justin Wilson (2017), Cole Hamels, Brandon Kintzler & Jesse Chavez (2018). There aren’t many misses in this group either, as most of these acquisitions have found ways to contribute (nor are there many position players).
This year, of course, they won’t have the August 31 deadline to take advantage of as they have in every season since emerging as surprise contenders in 2015: Austin Jackson & Fernando Rodney (2015), Joe Smith (2016), Leonys Martin (2017) and Daniel Murphy (2018). In a condensed trading period, the Cubs may prove more aggressive in pursuing a backend talent like Kimbrel.
Still, this could be the year the Cubs don’t make an impact move. They’re not wholly unprepared to go to battle with the arms in-house, per The Atheltic’s Sahadev Sharma, who spotlights Dillon Maples, Rowan Wick, and Adbert Alzolay as three depth arms who could make a difference this summer.
Maples has a ton of swing-and-miss in his arsenal, but he also doesn’t have a clue how to harness it, as evidenced in his small sample with the big league club this year. Through six appearances, he’s amassed 4 2/3 innings with eight walks and ten strikeouts. A less-than-five-inning sample hardly packs enough punch to make a statement, but still, 15.4 BB/9 and 19.3 K/9 are jarring numbers to see, especially once you notice they aren’t that far off the norm for Maples. In parts of three seasons at Triple-A, Maples owns a 2.93 ERA with 8.0 BB/9 and 16.4 K/9.
Alzolay, meanwhile, has long been a promising arm for Chicago, but he has yet to make his major league debut, while Wick came to the Cubs from the Padres for Jason Vosler this past winter. Wick was recently recalled after posting strong numbers in Iowa (4.14 K/BB). The Cubs should have high aspirations come October, and betting on this trio of arms to outlast a deep division and long playoff run would be a gamble. So while they may be inclined to use the month of June to evaluate the arms in-house, a decision on Kimbrel will have to be made much much sooner.