Cubs

After Schwarber move, Cubs waiting for more impact at trade deadline

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After Schwarber move, Cubs waiting for more impact at trade deadline

The Cubs are responding to Miguel Montero’s injury by promoting elite prospect Kyle Schwarber from Triple-A Iowa.

If that aggressive mindset is going to carryover to the trade deadline, the Cubs have to hope teams start getting more realistic and more decisive once the All-Star break ends.

Not that the Cubs know exactly what they will do by July 31, but there is no impulse to blow this team up again. It’s just a matter of how much Theo Epstein’s front office will add, how hard they want to slam their foot on the accelerator.

Schwarber will be rejoining a third-place team when the Cubs open the second half on Friday against the Atlanta Braves at Turner Field. At 47-40, the Cubs also have the National League’s fifth-best winning percentage, already sweeping the season series (7-0) against the New York Mets, the team trailing them by one game in the race for the second wild card.

[MORE: Cubs promoting Kyle Schwarber in response to Miguel Montero’s injury]

All 15 teams in the American League are within eight games of a playoff spot, creating uncertainty about which direction to go and fueling the belief this could be a sellers’ market.

“It’s not a unilateral thing,” Epstein said. “You can’t make things happen at the deadline. It’s all about understanding what teams are trying to do, being opportunistic when they’re in a certain mindset, trying to match up.

“But I think it’s important when you write about the trade deadline, you look back. Those deals rarely work for buyers.”

The Cubs built this team, in part, through those fire sales, finding 40 percent of their rotation (Jake Arrieta, Kyle Hendricks), rebuilding their bullpen (Pedro Strop, Justin Grimm, Neil Ramirez), getting a starting second baseman (Addison Russell) and deepening their overall pool of prospects.

Within Epstein’s first three years of running baseball operations, the Cubs engineered 10 major trades where they gave up 13 players (average age: 31) and eight seasons of future control for 17 prospects (average age: 22.5) and 95 seasons of future control.

“We’ve made a lot of phone calls,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “But I don’t think things have sort of kicked off yet, as far as the trade market. I still think this will be a tighter market than usual early on, just because the American League is so jumbled up that I don’t think teams have really declared themselves yet.

“The National League’s a little bit different, but I think it will take some time to break through. Maybe after the All-Star break that will happen.”

[MORE CUBS: Can Theo Epstein land a big fish at the trade deadline?]

The Cubs are relevant again with star manager Joe Maddon, All-Stars Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant and the hope another impact player could arrive within the next two weeks beyond Schwarber, a 22-year-old catcher and Baseball America’s No. 6 midseason prospect.

“It’s brought a nice little buzz to the city,” said Jon Lester (4-8, 3.59 ERA), who had an up-and-down first half in the first year of that $155 million megadeal.

“We’ve got a bunch of young guys on this team that haven’t played a full season in the big leagues before, and the adjustment period has (gone) surprisingly well.

“I expect these guys to continue to make adjustments and continue to do well. With that being said, there’s going to be some ups and downs involved. You have to take the good with the bad sometimes.”

With the Cubs already bracing for Bryant, Russell and Jorge Soler to hit the rookie wall – not to mention the unanswered questions about the back of the rotation and what that does to the bullpen – is there a psychological boost to acquiring a new player?

“It depends on how good he is,” said Maddon, who guided the Tampa Bay Rays to five 90-win seasons between 2008 and 2013.

“That could be overstated. I’ve been involved in a lot of playoffs the last several years with minimal acquisition at that point. A lot of time, it comes from within. A lot of time, it comes from guys that may have been injured that get well, too. And then a lot of times, it comes from guys that have been underperforming and start to perform.”

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Maddon pointed to the submarine-style reliever the Rays acquired from the Baltimore Orioles in August 2008 on their way to the World Series.  

“The first year we got good, Chad Bradford was a huge addition,” Maddon said. “That came after the July 31 deadline. We got Chad and he was huge for us down the stretch (1.42 ERA in 21 appearances).

“He doesn’t have to be this huge name. It could just be a nice fit for what you’re trying to get going on here. It also could be somebody that’s really good within the room and really makes a difference in there.

“I evaluate all the importance of a player, beyond just wearing batting average on a sleeve to determine whether or not somebody is beneficial to me. I don’t go there.

“Obviously, acquisitions can be great, but I’ve seen it be detrimental. Honestly, I have. I’ve seen guys come in and absolutely take you the other way, too, because they just don’t fit.”

The Cubs still have 23 games left against the Philadelphia Phillies, Milwaukee Brewers and Colorado Rockies, three last-place teams that should be even weaker by Aug. 1 and playing for the future.

The Cubs also have 15 games remaining against the St. Louis Cardinals and Pittsburgh Pirates, the two teams in front of them in the division. Plus 10 more against the first-place Los Angeles Dodgers and the defending World Series champion San Francisco Giants.

Welcome back to The Show, Kyle Schwarber.

Remember that guy? Former Cubs shortstop Ricky Gutiérrez

Remember that guy? Former Cubs shortstop Ricky Gutiérrez

Ricky Gutiérrez played in the Majors from 1993-2004. He played shortstop for the Cubs from 2000-01 and later signed with them again in June 2004. 

However, Gutiérrez never got back to the Majors with the Cubs, who sent him to the Red Sox the following month. His final Major League game was with the Red Sox on Oct. 3, 2004, the final game of the 2004 regular season; he didn’t play in the 2004 postseason. Gutiérrez was subsequently signed and released by a few other teams, including the White Sox in 2005.

Gutiérrez holds the distinction of being the first Cubs player to hit a regular season grand slam against the White Sox (July 12, 2001). In his two seasons with the Cubs, he tied for the Major League lead in sacrifice bunts both years (16 in 2000, 17 in 2001) which was odd since he had a grand total of 18 sacrifice bunts in his 847 career games NOT in a Cubs uniform. He also had uncharacteristic power with the Cubs:  21 home runs for Chicago in 272 games, 17 home runs with everyone else (847 games).

What Cubs fans probably remember most is what Gutiérrez did against them. On May 6, 1998 he had the lone hit (many dispute it should have been ruled an error) for the Astros off Kerry Wood in Wood’s 20-strikeout masterpiece at Wrigley Field (Gutiérrez was responsible for two of the strikeouts). 

Later that season, on June 26, the number 20 and Gutiérrez were again connected when he had a 20-pitch battle against Bartolo Colón, which ended in a strikeout. It remained the last plate appearance in the Majors of at least 20 pitches until Brandon Belt flew out on the 21st pitch of an at-bat against the Angels' Jaime Barria on April 22, 2018.

Gutiérrez’s nephew, James Jones, played 14 seasons in the NBA for the Pacers, Suns, Trail Blazers, Heat and Cavaliers.

2019 encore for Jesse Chavez?

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USA TODAY

2019 encore for Jesse Chavez?

On July 15, Brandon Morrow recorded his 22nd save of the season with a scoreless inning in San Diego. It wound up being the last time he pitched in a game for the Cubs in 2018. 

Four days later, during the All-Star break, the Cubs made a move to bolster their bullpen, acquiring Jesse Chavez from the Rangers in exchange for minor league hurler Tyler Thomas. It wasn’t even the biggest trade they’d make with the Rangers that month – a little over a week later they dealt for Cole Hamels. 

Despite pitching nearly half the innings, Chavez was almost as valuable as Hamels.

2018 with Cubs IP fWAR
Jesse Chavez 39.0 1.1
Cole Hamels 76.1 1.5

Chavez made his Cubs debut on July 21; from July 21 through the end of the season, 187 pitchers tossed at least 30 innings. 185 of them had a higher ERA than Chavez, while 184 of them allowed more baserunners per 9 innings.

Best ERA, July 21-end of season

(minimum 30 innings) IP ERA
Blake Treinen 32.1 0.56
Jesse Chavez 39.0 1.15
Blake Snell 61.2 1.17
Trevor Bauer 35.0 1.29
Trevor Williams 71.2 1.38
Robert Stock 36.0 1.50

Fewest baserunners per 9 innings, July 32-end of season

(minimum 30 innings) IP BR/9 IP
Blake Treinen 32.1 5.85
Blake Snell 61.2 7.15
Jesse Chavez 39.0 7.15
Jacob deGrom 93.2 7.49
Scott Oberg 30.2 7.63
Josh Hader 33.1 7.83

But how did Chavez transform into one of Joe Maddon’s best bullpen arms down the stretch?  According to Chavez, his own transformation started on Mother’s Day.

Chavez entered a game in Houston with a 5.48 ERA in a dozen appearances, but pitched three innings with no hits, no walks and four strikeouts. From that point through the end of the season, he posted a 1.70 ERA and 0.892 WHIP. 

Chavez points to a change in arm slot which resulted in better consistency and a slight jump in velocity. A glance at his release point charts show that consistency, and he added roughly one mile an hour to his fastball.

"It's kept me more consistent in the zone," Chavez said. "Things have been sharper, velocity has been a lot sharper. I was huffing and puffing trying to get a 92 (mph fastball) out there and it wasn't coming.

"Next thing you know, I dropped it and it's right there, and I'm like, 'something's wrong here.' But I just took it and ran with it."

Jesse Chavez 2018 four-seam fastball velocity

  Average Max
Prior to May 13 92.6 mph 94.6 mph
May 13 on 93.6 mph 95.7 mph

Can Chavez be valuable in 2019?  The 35-year old reliever posted the best ERA (2.55), WHIP (1.059) and walk rate (4.5% - nearly two percent better than his previous best) in 2018, and he continued to get better as the season went on. 

He’s a former starter who can pitch multiple innings if needed, and that’s a valuable thing - especially for a manager like Joe Maddon, who uses his pitchers in a variety of ways. It’s unlikely he’ll have a second consecutive career year.

But he’ll likely be well worth the price tag; he only made $1 million in 2018, and even with a slight raise he should be very affordable. There’s definitely room in Maddon’s bullpen for a pitcher like Chavez.