Cubs

All-in at trade deadline? Cubs looking to strengthen bullpen for October

All-in at trade deadline? Cubs looking to strengthen bullpen for October

The Cubs built double-digit leads on the St. Louis Cardinals and Pittsburgh Pirates, two division rivals that won 198 games combined last season, but are now treading water in a National League filled with have-nots playing for the future.

The Cubs have a plus-171 run differential at a time when the Boston Red Sox are listed second in that category at plus-83. The Cubs have a 2.31 rotation ERA that is almost a full run lower than the second-ranked New York Mets and their vaunted starters.

The Cubs have nine players on their active roster who are 26 years old or younger - meaning all those hitting prospects can't make it to Wrigley Field — and the bullpen is an obvious area to upgrade. 

Plus — you know — the century-and-counting World Series title drought. Why not go for it at the trade deadline, acquire a game-changing reliever (or two) and leave as little as possible to chance in the playoffs? 

"I wouldn't state anything quite that aggressively," general manager Jed Hoyer said Monday before the Cubs renewed their rivalry with the Cardinals. "But there's no doubt we're going to spend the next 40 days before the deadline trying to evaluate where we are. 

"We want to address the weaknesses that we have. That's something that we talk about all the time — not only addressing the weaknesses you have — but also thinking about where those things can come up. We always talk about trying to be ahead of the next thing that can go wrong."

The New York Yankees went into spring training planning to keep Dellin Betances, Andrew Miller and Aroldis Chapman together — and then see where the team is at in July and if it would force the franchise's first sell-off in a generation. 

Adam Warren — the swingman acquired from New York in the Starlin Castro trade — has allowed eight of 20 inherited runners to score and seen his ERA rise to 4.56 (after giving up zero earned runs in his first eight appearances with the Cubs). 

Left-handed hitters are putting up a .924 OPS against lefty Clayton Richard (7.50 ERA). Justin Grimm (4.81 ERA) hasn't taken that step forward into being a trusted late-inning reliever yet.

Setup guy Pedro Strop has made 200-plus appearances in a Cubs uniform since coming over from the Baltimore Orioles in the Jake Arrieta trade in the middle of the 2013 season. Closer Hector Rondon is a Tommy John survivor who missed almost three seasons in the Cleveland Indians system before the Cubs grabbed him in the Rule 5 draft at the 2012 winter meetings. 

"It's something you constantly address," Hoyer said. "There are probably 30 teams in baseball right now that at some level are talking about one or two members of their bullpen. That's just kind of the nature of the way pitching is today with 12 and 13-man staffs. 

"But there's no doubt we have some guys that pitched great baseball for us last year at the end of the season that are scuffling a little bit. It's just our job to get those guys back on track. I don't think you lose faith in them, especially when you see them go out and dominate in the postseason."

Maybe Joe Nathan makes a comeback after his second Tommy John procedure and becomes a great story in October. The Cubs did catch lightning in a bottle last year with Richard (acquired midseason from Pittsburgh's Triple-A affiliate for a dollar) and Trevor Cahill (who signed a minor-league contract last August).

Maybe the Cubs don't feel like they have to pay top dollar and buy a brand-name reliever. But if you're already looking for where things could go wrong during this magical season, the bullpen would be a good place to start. 

"You have faith in those guys," Hoyer said. "It's the nature of bullpens in general — just like a lineup — (where) you rarely have everyone clicking on all cylinders. You have some guys that are usually pitching better than others. The difference in bullpens is it's a lot of high-leverage situations. (But) if one guy's struggling at the plate, it might go unnoticed.

"We'll get those guys back on track. Obviously, we're aware of it. Hopefully, we'll get those guys going sooner rather than later."

Remember that guy? Former Cubs shortstop Ricky Gutiérrez

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AP

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.