CHICAGO — Free-agent closer Craig Kimbrel has agreed to a three-year contract with the Cubs in a big move to strengthen Chicago’s bullpen.
The team said Friday he passed his physical and will be optioned to Triple-A Iowa.
The addition plugs a major hole for Chicago, which has been beset by blown saves but is still tied for the NL Central lead. Brandon Morrow is going slowly after a setback in his recovery from offseason elbow surgery, and Pedro Strop just returned after another hamstring injury.
Even before the deal was announced Cubs manager Joe Maddon said he thought Kimbrel would be ready to pitch in about three weeks.
“I would imagine in the position that’s he’s been in, he had some kind of a strategy of program mapped out,” Maddon said Thursday. “The first thing you do is find out and then set up program. You think about a three-week window, normally it sounds right.”
Once Kimbrel is ready to go, Strop will likely move back to his usual setup role and Steve Cishek will be freed up for big spots earlier in the game.
The 31-year-old Kimbrel has 333 career saves and a 1.91 ERA over nine seasons with Atlanta, San Diego and Boston. The hard-throwing right-hander also is averaging an exceptional 14.7 strikeouts per nine innings for his career.
Kimbrel helped the Red Sox win the World Series last year, going 5-1 with a 2.74 ERA and 42 saves. But he struggled in the playoffs, compiling a 5.91 ERA in 10 2/3 innings.
Kimbrel turned down a $17.9 million qualifying offer from Boston in November, making him a free agent. But signing Kimbrel before the amateur draft started would have cost his new team at least one draft pick, and the potential loss of that valuable asset combined with Kimbrel’s postseason trouble helped take the air out of his market over the winter.
The focus on Kimbrel and fellow free-agent pitcher Dallas Keuchel returned once the draft started Monday. Keuchel and the Atlanta Braves have agreed to a one-year contract, The Associated Press reported Thursday.
Kimbrel to Chicago made sense all along, but the Cubs were unusually quiet this past offseason because of their high-priced roster. Chicago had an opening-day payroll of $209 million, second only to Boston at $222 million and ahead of the New York Yankees at $207 million.
But the Cubs gained some payroll flexibility when they placed veteran utilityman Ben Zobrist on the restricted list May 8. The 38-year-old Zobrist is going through a divorce, and it’s unclear when he might return.
Chicago entered Friday in a virtual tie with Milwaukee for first in the division. The Cubs won the World Series in 2016, but they were eliminated by the Los Angeles Dodgers in the NLCS in 2017 and had a disappointing finish last year when they lost to Colorado in the wild-card game.
AP freelancer Matt Carlson contributed to this report.
Jay Cohen can be reached at https://twitter.com/jcohenap
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