Cubs closer Craig Kimbrel is ready for what might be the inevitableSteve Greenbergon July 20, 2021 at 9:24 pm

Twenty-five major league pitchers were in double digits in saves entering play Tuesday. Twenty-four of them only wish they were having as great a season as Craig Kimbrel.

The Cubs closer ranked first among the 25 in WHIP (0.65), strikeouts per nine innings (15.5) and ERA (0.53; no one else was under 1.38) and was second in WAR (2.1 to 2.3) to the Brewers’ Josh Hader.

Why do we all keep talking about pending free agents Kris Bryant, Javy Baez and Anthony Rizzo again? Kimbrel, an eight-time All-Star who’s only 33 and — the real key here — comes with a team option for 2022, is the Cubs player likely to fetch the biggest return in a pre-deadline trade.

With the Red Sox or the A’s?

With the Phillies or the Giants?

With someone else?

Let’s just go with a blanket “yes.”

“The rumors are there, especially being a reliever,” Kimbrel said at the All-Star gathering in Denver. “I’ve been part of a lot of rumors over the years that I’d be traded and all that kind of stuff. I’ve been traded when there weren’t any rumors. So you never know. Just got to be ready for it, show up every day and pitch for the team you’re pitching for.”

“Pitch for the team you’re pitching for”? That’s about as dispassionate-sounding as it gets. Might as well say, “It’s the name on the back of the jersey, not the front.”

But that’s no knock on Kimbrel, who has played for three teams — the Braves, Padres and Red Sox — that have moved on from him despite his elite ability and credentials. This is the man with the ninth-most saves (369) of all time, and it’s not unreasonable to see the top five within his reach by the end of next season. By all the numbers, he is on a Hall of Fame track.

He might as well already be retired, though, as seldom as the Cubs are using him. Who would’ve imagined as Kimbrel put a bow on a combined no-hitter June 24 against the Dodgers that he’d get into only four games — and only one in a save situation — over the next four weeks?

Clearly, the Cubs can lose without his help.

Kimbrel has to be gone.

“It is what it is,” he said. “My job stays the same. I just show up, get ready to pitch every single day and, hopefully, I get a chance to close it out or keep the game tied.

“It’s not my decision. … If a trade comes, it comes. If it doesn’t, let’s win a lot of ballgames and get to the playoffs.”

Playoffs? Are we talking about the same Cubs?

In Denver, I asked him directly: Would you rather stay with the Cubs or be dealt to a team with which you might win your second World Series ring?

“I don’t think the team that I’m on can’t win,” he said. “I think we can still win. We went on a bad roll, but I don’t think that we don’t have what it takes.”

I don’t think he really meant it.

Houston Astros v Chicago White Sox
It would take a lot of nerve to take the ninth inning away from this guy.
Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images


But, wait, Kimbrel to the White Sox?

The Sox need bullpen help, but this isn’t it. Unless you want to be the one to tell Liam Hendriks he’s got the eighth inning now.

o I can’t be the only one who watched Sox manager Tony La Russa hug Gavin Sheets after the rookie’s walk-off homer Monday and thought: That old sonofagun is going to make a few fans out there like him yet.

o Look, let’s just make an agreement: You don’t wake me to watch Wednesday’s 3:30 a.m. live Olympic telecast of the U.S. women’s soccer team’s match against Sweden, and I won’t wake you.

On tape at 7:30 a.m. or again at 5 p.m. is A-OK.

o With seven-footer Kofi Cockburn finally revealing his intention to return to Illinois, good luck finding an Illini fan who hasn’t moved the team right to top of the Big Ten list for next season.

Purdue, Ohio State and Michigan are going to be every bit as dangerous heading in, though. And the Illini have to prove they can function at a high level without engine Ayo Dosunmu — one of the hardest workers the league has seen in a long time — and with a rebuilt coaching staff. First-world problems, though.

o A college football player I know informed me Tuesday that he is now officially a “Barstool Athlete.” Just another part of the new name-image-and-likeness landscape in college sports. Digital-media company Barstool Sports is taking athletes in revenue and non-revenue sports — at all levels — by the thousands.

Did I mention this particular kid is a Division III freshman?

NIL advances: generally good. Barstool: generally hard to feel good about.

Be wary, kids, is my advice.

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