The Cubs are 1-4, but they could be 4-1.
In three of their four losses, they’ve held a lead in the seventh inning or later, only for the bullpen to blow each game in dramatic fashion. Chicago relievers are giving up almost a run per inning – a collective 8.83 ERA.
That number would be the worst in the MLB if not for the Nationals. Washington relievers hold an 11.02 ERA through five games, and opposing hitters are batting an absurd .377 against them. Trevor Rosenthal has failed to retire all seven batters he’s faced this year, and has given up seven earned runs to zero innings pitched. That’s an ERA of infinity.
Meanwhile, Craig Kimbrel – he of 333 career saves and a 1.91 career ERA – is still sitting at home, watching playoff contenders melt down at the hands of their bullpen.
A victim of the frigid offseason, Kimbrel made it to Opening Day without a contract despite finishing in the top 15 in saves every year since 2011. Whether teams were scared away by his age (30) or simply the idea of paying top dollar to a relief pitcher, one of the most dominant closers in baseball remains a free agent.
Meanwhile, a week into a six-month season, Chicago and Washington fans are already in full-on panic mode. Both teams were expected to contend for a playoff spot, if not a championship. And the (very) early returns are not good – almost entirely due to relief pitching.
The Cubs and Nationals are not alone. The Phillies’ only loss came after closer David Robertson walked in the winning run against the Nationals on Wednesday. The Dodgers have scored 55 runs, but have a bullpen ERA of 6.18. The Braves, Kimbrel’s old team, have a relief ERA of 7.08.
And yet, there hasn’t even been the faintest smell of smoke around a Kimbrel signing. The Brewers, Mets and Rays have reportedly been “interested,” according to the Athletic, but there has been no report of significant talks. The Braves also were linked to him, but there was “no evidence anything was currently being discussed,” according to MLB Network.
Why is one of the most elite relief pitchers of the last decade unemployed while several teams’ bullpens are dumpster fires? Kimbrel carries no baggage or significant injury history. What will be the tipping point that forces a team to move past their money hesitations?
Kimbrel won’t be a magic fix for one of these teams. He’s not going to pitch three innings every night. For the Cubs, he won’t solve Mike Montgomery’s 40.50 ERA or the fact that Tyler Chatwood is on the roster. For the Nationals, he won’t jedi mind trick Rosenthal into making an out. It’s also important to remember that it is just April and the law of averages should even things out once the sample size grows.
But at the very least, Kimbrel’s value is only getting higher with each late-inning implosion. As this past week has shown, relief pitching is often the difference between a win and a loss. There’s no one out there that can help nearly as much as Kimbrel. At one point, someone’s going to have to pay up.