Craig Kimbrel Rides the Red Line to the South Side

Some moves are made for getting a team to the playoffs or helping them win a fight for the division. But with the largest lead of any first-place team in baseball in a division where all the other teams are either treading water or selling, the White Sox could basically stick their roster on cruise control and maybe casually stop off and grab a sandwich. But even with the advantage that is the AL Central, they did make a trade on Friday, and it’s about one very specific thing: brutally destroying any hopes or dreams of late-inning comebacks for any playoff opponent who is behind in the late innings. By acquiring closer Craig Kimbrel from the Cubs for second baseman Nick Madrigal and pitcher Codi Heuer, they’ve done just that; pairing him with Liam Hendriks and the rest of what’s already a good bullpen is as frightening as any slasher-movie antagonist.

Kimbrel is having his best season in a long time, with a microscopic 0.72 ERA, 1.08 FIP, and 64 strikeouts in 36 2/3 innings to go with his lowest walk rate since 2017. Given his poor first two seasons with the Cubs that were full of both command issues and injury setbacks, some may worry about a possible pumpkinification for the 33-year-old righty. I’m not. ZiPS and the other projection systems all saw quite a bit to like even in Kimbrel’s pedigree, enough to consider him at least an adequate reliever coming into 2021. And there’s little whiff of a fluke in this season’s stats; with a rebounding first-strike rate and batters having their least effective contact year ever, ZiPS thinks that his strikeout and walk rates are right in line with how well he’s actually pitched.

Kimbrel is succeeding the way he did in the old days: a blazing fastball and a knuckle-curve located where batters both have trouble keeping the bat on their shoulders and actually hitting it. Unlike a nasty slider where the goal is to make the batter look foolish on a pitch that is a zip code away, Kimbrel’s knuckle-curve needs to be a borderline pitch. When he can’t spot it, it’s ineffective, as it was in 2019 and ’20. This year, he’s got the heat map of olden days.

Does adding Kimbrel give the White Sox the best bullpen in baseball? ZiPS thinks so, and when our depth charts are fully updated, I suspect they’ll show up at the top there as well. That could be the case next season, too, as Kimbrel is not a pure rental for the White Sox unless they want it to be. With a $16 million option and a $1 million buyout for 2022, it’s basically a one-year, $15 million decision. The White Sox certainly have the ability to pay that should they end up happy with this signing.

Losing Madrigal, who was hitting .305/.349/.425 with 1.4 WAR in 54 games before a torn hamstring ended his season early, is difficult but understandable. There’s not really a lot of projection needed to like him; he’s a good player right now, not one we speculate could become a good player in the future. I just don’t see his ceiling as incredibly high simply because I don’t think he’s a good bet to develop much in the way of power. Some might invoke Jose Altuve, but he always swung with more loft than Madrigal does. But I think Madrigal will be a really good second baseman for a long time, and the White Sox can still be unhappy about not having him even if dealing him was necessary to roll the dice in 2021.

ZiPS Projection – Nick Madrigal
Year BA OBP SLG AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SB OPS+ DR WAR
2022 .302 .346 .401 506 60 153 25 5 5 41 26 14 96 7 2.7
2023 .303 .350 .409 491 59 149 27 5 5 41 27 13 99 7 2.9
2024 .303 .351 .408 488 59 148 26 5 5 42 28 13 99 7 2.9
2025 .300 .347 .407 477 58 143 26 5 5 41 28 12 98 6 2.7
2026 .297 .345 .404 465 56 138 25 5 5 39 27 11 96 5 2.5

Based only on players currently in baseball — for obvious reasons — ZiPS has Madrigal averaging 1.1 batting titles over the next two years. Looking at the projection percentiles, he’s also one of the safest players from an ability standpoint. With solid defense and the very high-quality nature of his contact, ZiPS sees a shockingly tight projection range for him.

ZiPS Projection Percentiles – Nick Madrigal
Percentile BA OBP SLG AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SB OPS+ WAR
90% .312 .359 .447 503 63 157 29 6 9 47 29 23 111 3.7
80% .310 .355 .435 504 61 156 27 6 8 44 28 17 107 3.3
70% .305 .350 .412 505 60 154 26 5 6 42 27 16 100 3.0
60% .305 .350 .404 505 60 154 25 5 5 41 27 15 98 2.8
50% .302 .346 .401 506 60 153 25 5 5 41 26 14 97 2.7
40% .298 .342 .391 506 59 151 24 4 5 40 26 14 93 2.5
30% .298 .341 .389 507 59 151 23 4 5 40 25 13 92 2.4
20% .293 .335 .376 508 58 149 22 4 4 39 24 13 88 2.2
10% .291 .332 .365 509 58 148 20 3 4 37 23 11 84 1.9

There’s something that’s fun and old-school about Madrigal, like someone with a time machine kidnapped Joe Sewell and put him into today’s baseball world.

Similarly, ZiPS sees Heuer, who has a 5.12 ERA in his second season with the Pale Hose but a 3.67 FIP and a fastball that can hit the upper 90s, as an above-average reliever for the Cubs in 2022, though below the elites of the league.

ZiPS Projection – Codi Heuer
Year W L S ERA G GS IP H ER HR BB SO ERA+ WAR
2022 6 4 0 3.76 60 0 69.3 68 29 7 19 61 116 0.7
2023 6 4 0 3.63 62 0 72.0 69 29 7 19 65 121 0.9
2024 6 4 0 3.60 60 0 70.0 66 28 7 19 65 122 0.9
2025 6 4 0 3.66 55 0 64.0 60 26 6 17 59 120 0.8
2026 5 4 0 3.65 53 0 61.7 57 25 6 16 58 120 0.7
2027 5 3 0 3.53 50 0 58.7 54 23 6 16 56 124 0.8
2028 5 3 0 3.58 47 0 55.3 50 22 6 15 53 122 0.7

Despite the Cubs dumping every member of their Big Three (plus several others), the hints from the front office that they’re looking more at a retool than a rebuild might actually not be happy spin. You don’t target Madrigal and Heuer, who are 24 and 25, respectively, if you don’t intend to be in contention in the not-too-distant future unless the overall value of the trade is so much better than the other offers were for Kimbrel. Given the current state of the NL Central, slapping together a quick 85–88-win team might be enough to take the division the next couple of years.

The White Sox paid a high price to bring Kimbrel to their part of town, but in the end, you get what you pay for. If the Sox don’t win the World Series this year, it won’t be for lack of trying.





Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for ESPN.com from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.

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davem1987
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davem1987

good stuff as always dan