The White Sox’ deadline acquisition of Craig Kimbrel in exchange for second baseman Nick Madrigal and reliever Codi Heuer was one of the highest-profile deals swung by any team this past July, but the move simply didn’t pan out as hoped for the South Siders. Kimbrel struggled almost immediately following a crosstown move to Guaranteed Rate Field and never really regained his footing with his new club.
It puts the ChiSox in a bit of a bind. GM Rick Hahn and his staff paid a heavy price to acquire Kimbrel but now must determine whether to double down on that investment by picking up a $16MM club option for the 2022 season or cut their losses and decline the option — effectively parting with the well-regarded Madrigal with little to show for it. The current plan, tweets USA Today’s Bob Nightengale, is to exercise the option and explore the trade market for Kimbrel over the winter. That’s an approach that merits a closer look.
First and foremost, the extent of Kimbrel’s rebound with the Cubs early in the season shouldn’t be understated. While his first two seasons as a Cub were largely disastrous, the 2021 Cubs version of Kimbrel looked every bit like the vintage All-Star hitters had come to fear from 2010-18. Kimbrel pitched 36 2/3 innings with the Cubs and worked to a microscopic 0.49 ERA with 23 saves in 25 attempts.
Of course, his dominance went well beyond those oft-misleading baseline numbers. Kimbrel notched an astonishing 46.7 percent strikeout rate against a 9.5 percent walk rate. His average fastball ticked back up from 96.7 mph in 2020 to 97.2 mph with the Cubs this year. His 18.7 percent swinging-strike rate and 34.8 percent opponents’ chase rate with the Cubs both would have been the third-best marks he’d posted in any single season of his career. Kimbrel faced 137 hitters as a Cub this year, and Statcast credited his opponents with just three barreled balls. He allowed just one home run.
Kimbrel was, in virtually every sense, one of the most dominant pitchers in all of Major League Baseball. The cost of acquisition reflected that, too. While Madrigal was already lost for the season due to a full tear of his hamstring that required surgery, he’s a former No. 4 overall pick and consensus Top 100 prospect whom the Cubs will now control for five more years — through the 2026 campaign.
Beyond that remaining club control, Madrigal has batted .317/.358/.406 with a minuscule 7.4 percent strikeout rate in 324 MLB plate appearances thus far. Lack of power notwithstanding, he’s a ready-made everyday player who’ll be expected to hit atop the Cubs’ lineup for a half decade. Heuer, meanwhile, had pitched to a 1.52 ERA in 23 2/3 innings as a rookie in 2020 before scuffling in his sophomore effort with the Sox. The Cubs can control him through at least 2025.
Suffice it to say, there was a bit of surprise with the strength of the Cubs’ return. Had Kimbrel maintained his dominance, however, he’d have given the White Sox the best one-two bullpen punch in all of baseball alongside Liam Hendriks. With the Sox eyeing a deep postseason run and, at the time, enjoying strong results from a deep and talented rotation (headed by a resurgent Carlos Rodon), Kimbrel looked like an addition that could give manager Tony La Russa an almost unfair pitching staff to carry into the playoffs.
Instead, Kimbrel quickly took steps in the wrong direction. He tossed a pair of perfect innings in his first two appearances with the Sox before being tagged for three runs and saddled with a blown save in his third outing. That kicked off a stretch that saw Kimbrel surrender runs in five of ten outings, and by the time the regular season had concluded, he’d been scored upon in nine of 24 appearances with the Sox. After allowing just one homer with the Cubs, he served up five with the Sox. His average fastball dropped from 97.2 mph to 96.0 mph. His strikeout rate fell from 46.7 percent to 36.7 percent. After holding opponents to an 88.7 mph average exit velocity with the Cubs, Kimbrel yielded a 92.8 mph average exit velocity following the trade.
Things didn’t go much better in the postseason. Kimbrel was greeted by a Kyle Tucker home run and charged with two earned runs in two-thirds of an inning in Game 2 of the ALDS. In all, he pitched two innings and allowed three runs (two earned) without punching out any of the 11 Astros hitters he faced.
The stark decline raises the question of whether Kimbrel would have much surplus value to be shopped on the trade market. It’s certainly possible that’s the case, but it’s also no longer looking like a lock. Kimbrel’s end-of-season 2.26 ERA is still excellent, as are his 2.43 FIP and 2.23 SIERA. While his strikeout rate dropped with the Sox, a 36.7 percent mark is still brilliant — and his season-long 42.6 percent clip is legitimately elite. Kimbrel became more homer prone and battled some control issues — his walk rate rose slightly, and all three of his hit batters this season came with the Sox — but he was still a flamethrower who could miss bats at a premium level.
The question in assessing his value is whether he’d top that $16MM mark on the open market. After all, in order for a club to not only acquire Kimbrel but also part with any sort of meaningful young talent, the rival front office would need to believe that Kimbrel is underpriced. If one were to simply look at Kimbrel’s cumulative numbers, a one-year, $16MM deal in free agency is something he could easily be expected to surpass. However, when the bulk of the damage against him came in the final two months and lingered into the postseason, it becomes far less certain. It’s possible Kimbrel could generate some strong two-year offers — probably at an annual value lower than next year’s $16MM mark — but many teams would surely prefer a hearty one-year deal (perhaps in the same range as his current salary).
For teams in the latter bucket, it’s likely they just don’t view Kimbrel as a highly palatable trade chip — at least not to the extent that they’d give up a meaningful prospect. It’s certainly plausible that Kimbrel could be swapped out for another expensive veteran — speculatively speaking, the Rays had interest in Kimbrel at the deadline and figure to again be open to moving Kevin Kiermaier and his comparable salary — but the Sox aren’t likely to find a team willing to part with a top prospect or controllable young big leaguer. Whatever route Hahn and his staff take, it seems there’s a chance Kimbrel’s tenure with the team will be short-lived.