GLENDALE, AZ – While writing this sentence, Craig Kimbrel is still a member of the Chicago White Sox. How long he remains property of the team is a giant question mark that comes with a complicated answer, something manager Tony La Russa tried to provide on Saturday when asked about Kimbrel’s current and future status with the club.
“Do you expect Craig Kimbrel to be on Opening Day roster?” La Russa was asked by a reporter.
“Yes,” he replied.
Considering Kimbrel is still a member of the White Sox organization, what was La Russa supposed to say? No??
But in a multi-layered response that followed, La Russa explained what has evolved into a complicated situation, not just for Kimbrel, but also the White Sox. The team might have found a new destination for the elite reliever this offseason, but due to the 99-day lockout, trades were prohibited. And as 30 GMs are now frantically trying to shoehorn three months of deals into about a week, Kimbrel (at least for now), appears to be in no-man’s land. He’s half in the door, potentially half out the door if the White Sox can find a match for Kimbrel and the $16 million he’s owed in 2022.
“I was really encouraged that when Kenny [Williams] and Rick [Hahn] first talked to Craig and his agent. He really likes it here. He really likes closing,” La Russa said. “I like the first part a lot because I had him in Boston. He’s a first class person. A real family guy. He fit in very well with our team.”
And the second part?
“He has a chance to be a Hall of Fame closer, right? A rock and a hard place. I know him though. Whatever role he has. He’s too competitive to not give it his best. If he’s here, he has a dynamite arm. So, we’ll see.”
When Rick Hahn and the front office acquired Kimbrel from the Cubs for second baseman Nick Madrigal and reliever Codi Heuer before the trade deadline last summer, it seemed like a slam dunk move for 2021 and 2022. The White Sox were strengthening their bullpen with a dynamic 1-2 punch of Kimbrel and closer Liam Hendriks in the 8th and 9th innings.
However, Kimbrel struggled to adjust to his new role as a set-up man. After giving up only two earned runs in 36.2 innings as the Cubs closer, Kimbrel allowed 13 earned runs in 23 innings with the White Sox.
What led to his issues on the South Side? La Russa pointed to the transition. Going from pitching in the 8th vs. the 9th. On the surface, it might seem easier. Less pressure, right?
He says it can be more complicated than that.
“I just think when you’re wired like [Kimbrel] is for so long, my three outs are at the end of the game, these are men, not machines. That’s a very difficult adjustment,” La Russa explained.
What if the White Sox are unable to find a new home for Kimbrel before the regular season? What happens then?
“He’s going to pitch like we got him last year. Pitch late. And if we’re in a bunch of (close) games, he can close to protect Liam,” La Russa said.
Hendriks knows a thing or two about making adjustments. He used to be a starter. That didn’t work. His career took off after he became a closer with the A’s when he turned 30 in 2019.
Getting traded in the middle season is an adjustment as well. These might sound like excuses, and yes, to a degree, they are. But like La Russa said, a huge part of baseball is the human element.
When you struggle to acclimate like Kimbrel did, and in the middle of a pennant race, things can go downhill pretty quickly.
“You always feel more comfortable with everything once you start getting into the weeds of things. A new team, a new personality. You’re not sure how it’s going to go,” Hendriks said about Kimbrel. “But now he knows us all out here. Him coming out here will hopefully solidify things moving forward and we can make this a pretty decent bullpen.”
And if Kimbrel happens to return to his role in the 8th inning, it’s a good problem to have.
“He’s as good as any closer in baseball. Having him in our bullpen, if we’re stuck with him,” La Russa said with a grin. “I’m happy as can be.”