CHICAGO — After Jed Hoyer delivered his state of the Chicago Cubs address Thursday afternoon, the only question remaining was how long it would take to field a World Series contender.
The team president’s admission that the recent 11-game losing streak pushed the team from buyers to sellers started the countdown on the expected sell-off, which figures to pick up steam next week after the All-Star Game in Denver.
While he took pains to say it was not a “rebuild,” Hoyer has been open about the need to restock the farm system, which only can happen with a slew of multiplayer deals.
The Cubs obviously need young arms after nearly a decade of failure in drafting and developing pitching talent. And by calling White Sox general manager Rick Hahn, Hoyer can let Cubs Chairman Tom Ricketts know he’s saving on long-distance bills.
Remember the Cubs kick-started the swap-o-rama immediately after the 2017 All-Star Game in Miami, acquiring White Sox starter Jose Quintana for four prospects, including outfielder Eloy Jímenez and starter Dylan Cease.
It was a heavy price to pay, but the Cubs desperately needed starting pitching and wanted to strike early to salvage a season that had gone off the rails.
“This deal had zero-percent chance of happening without both Eloy and Cease in it,” then-Cubs President Theo Epstein said afterward.
Quintana helped get the Cubs back to the National League Championship Series, but overall the deal was a bust for the Cubs.
Now that Hoyer is following in Epstein’s footsteps, he needs to make a bold first move in the same vein, perhaps dealing his prime trade chip, closer Craig Kimbrel, for a bevy of pitching prospects.
Several teams, including the Houston Astros and Oakland A’s, figure to be in the mix. Kimbrel could be the final piece to the puzzle for many teams, as Aroldis Chapman was for the 2016 Cubs.
But before Hoyer does anything, he needs to feel out Hahn, who got the better of the Cubs in the Quintana deal four years ago.
The Sox already have one of the best closers in the game in Liam Hendriks, an All-Star and emotional leader in the clubhouse. But their middle relief has been inconsistent, with Codi Heuer, Evan Marshall and Matt Foster all scuffling in the first half.
Adding Kimbrel to the mix would give manager Tony La Russa a dominant trio of Michael Kopech, Kimbrel and Hendriks for the seventh, eighth and ninth innings, perhaps making the Sox the team to beat come October.
Entering Friday, Kimbrel had an 0.57 ERA and averaged 15.3 strikeouts per nine innings. Hendriks posted a 2.43 ERA with 13.9 strikeouts per nine and Kopech, who recently returned from a left hamstring strain, had a 1.62 ERA and averaged 12.2 strikeouts per nine.
Instead of counting on talented but inexperienced rookie Garrett Crochet, the Sox would have two dominant closers and Kopech, a future starter with a closer’s mentality.
The Sox have enough young pitching talent to acquire Kimbrel, and money should be no concern for Chairman Jerry Reinsdorf, not with the best Sox team he has had since 2005. The Sox might have more pressing needs for now, but the offense figures to get a jolt by late July or early August with the return of Jímenez from the injured list and Luis Robert hopefully soon after.
Kimbrel is one of the all-time leaders in saves, ranking ninth with 368. In most cases, asking a veteran closer to come to a new team and become a setup man would be unappealing, especially during a season like the one Kimbrel is having.
Then again, some players want to win, no matter the role.
St. Louis Cardinals reliever Andrew Miller signed a four-year, $36 million deal to close for the New York Yankees in 2015 and saved 35 games. He then moved into a setup role in 2016 when the Yankees acquired Chapman. Miller took a realistic view of his role, saying the Yankees paid him to pitch wherever they needed him.
“I was compensated by the Yankees to pitch out of the bullpen, and I told them that all along,” Miller told me in 2016. “I wanted to go to a place that was going to win over a place to just take a job as a closer. They have held up their end of the bargain. It’s up to me — I’m an employee of theirs — to hold up my end of the bargain.”
The Yankees dealt Chapman and Miller in their famous summer sell-off in 2016, with Miller winding up as setup man for Cleveland. Kimbrel, like Miller, already is getting closer money. His $16 million club option for 2022, if it doesn’t vest, likely will be picked up by whoever acquires him instead of making him a typical two-month rental.
Surely the Sox wouldn’t need two closers in 2022, so they could acquire Kimbrel and trade him this winter to a team that needs one.
Asking Kimbrel to defer to Hendriks, a friend of his, probably wouldn’t be all that difficult. On the flip side, Hendriks also could defer to Kimbrel and serve as a setup man. He also has his guaranteed closer’s money and doesn’t need to collect saves to boost his future earnings.
Like Kimbrel, it’s all about the ring for Hendriks.
The Sox need help. The Cubs have the goods.
What could go wrong?