Chicago Cubs have a prime opportunity to trade Craig Kimbrel

The Chicago Cubs want to offload salary, and a recent deal elsewhere gives them a clear opportunity to trade Craig Kimbrel.

The Chicago Cubs are intent on offloading salary this offseason. Trading Yu Darvish was a big step, with Kris Bryant and Willson Contreras seeming to be next up. But there may be increased interest in reliever Craig Kimbrel now, and the Cubs need to take advantage of the opportunity.

On Monday night, the Chicago White Sox and Liam Hendriks agreed to a three-year, $54 million deal with a $15 option (and a matching buyout) for a fourth year. Hendriks has been one of baseball’s best relievers over the last two seasons, with a 1.79 ERA, a 0.897 WHIP, a 13.1 K/9, a 2.0 BB/9 and 39 saves over 99 total appearances.

The Cubs need to capitalize on a revived market

One of baseball’s best relievers is no longer a label that fits Kimbrel. The Cubs signed him in June of 2019, and he struggled over a short season that landed him on the IL for a time (6.53 ERA in 23 appearances). Then he proceeded to allowed seven runs in his first four outings (2.2 innings) last season.

After a rough outing on Aug. 6 last year, Kimbrel did not pitch again for over a week after he professed he had figured out the cause of his struggles. From Aug. 14 on (14 appearances), he posted a 1.42 ERA with 26 strikeouts (18.6 K/9) over 12.2 innings. Seven walks over that span is a bit alarming, but six of them came over three consecutive outings and over the remaining 10.1 innings he issued just one free pass.

Kimbrel is due to make $16 million in the final fully guaranteed year of his three year, $43 million deal. He’s also got a $16 million club option for 2022 ($1 million buyout). The buyout vests and becomes guaranteed if Kimbrel finishes 55 games in 2021, and if he passes a physical. The buyout increases by $1 million if he finishes 53 games.

Still, the high-end of taking on Kimbrel is two years at $32 million. And that leaves out the idea the Cubs might eat some money simply to unload him, or any (bad faith or otherwise) manipulation of his usage that would prevent him reaching the games finished thresholds for the 2022 option or even the increase in the buyout. For some reference, he finished the game in 11 of his 18 outings last season (nine out of 14 over that strong finishing stretch).

In any case, the deal Hendriks got did two things. It took arguably the top free agent reliever off the board, and bolstered the value of any other late-inning reliever who is or might be available. The Cubs now have an opportunity to trade Kimbrel for solid value and offload his salary, before the bottom possibly falls out on him out again. If Jed Hoyer does it right, Kimbrel may be on a new team before the week is out.