Cubs

Barney, Castro could be anchors for Cubs

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Barney, Castro could be anchors for Cubs

MESA, Ariz. Darwin Barney was talking about The Cubs Way long before Theo Epstein left Fenway Park.

Barney saw the big picture and listened to the plan outlined by the new Ricketts ownership group. He loved playing for Ryne Sandberg in the minors and thought a homegrown core could win big in Chicago.

They would bond by riding buses, playing cards and growing up together. Thats what Barney talked about with good friend Tyler Colvin, whos since been traded to the Colorado Rockies.

One part of this rebuilding phase will be seeing if Barney and Starlin Castro can anchor the middle infield for years to come. Ex-manager Mike Quade thought they could, which is why he seemed much harder on them and singled them out in the media, while usually giving a free pass to the veterans.

I dont look back on it that way, Barney said Thursday. You look back and you remember we had to get better. Someone telling you that is not a bad thing. So I dont look at it negatively at all.

On a July afternoon where the temperature hovered near 100 degrees, Quade sounded out of touch when he blasted Castro and Barney (play with some freaking intensity) for letting a pop-up drop between themin the first inningof a 9-1 loss to the Philadelphia Phillies.

I look back at this whole game and look at that play, Quade said that day in the interview room. The suns been in the same damn spot for however long Wrigley Fields been here.

Its no surprise that Barney whos polished and self-aware and speaks in full paragraphs would take the high road. He has won titles everywhere hes been Little League, high school and Oregon State University, where future Boston Red Sox star Jacoby Ellsbury noticed his freshman teammate immediately emerge as a leader.

Barney is 26 years old and bulked up to around 190 pounds this winter, regaining the weight he lost during spring training and across a long, draining season in which he hit .306 before the All-Star break, and .238 after.

You got one shot, he said. You got one window in this game and my thought was: Why not now?

The extra 20 pounds or so made an impression on new manager Dale Sveum, who said Barneys a lot stronger and a lot quicker than I thought.

Hes one of those ultimate professionals thats going to try to make himself a better player every day, and thats what you want on a team, Sveum said.

Can Barney be an everyday second baseman for an entire season?

Hes put himself in (position), Sveum said. (With) the weight and muscle hes put on, I think he realized the grind of it last year, how to handle it a bit differently, especially (mentally) when everythings sped up because its the big leagues. It takes a lot more out of your body than a minor-league game (where) there are 5,000 people in the stands instead of 35,000.

Barney had played shortstop almost his entire life, but was blocked by Castro, so he essentially learned how to play second base at the major-league level. An All-Star shortstop and a steady second baseman both under club control and in their pre-prime years could be building blocks for Epsteins front office.

Starlin and I have good communication, Barney said. Were good buddies and we enjoy playing together. Hes one of the most talented guys Ive ever been around. (We) know how last year shaped up and it was a tough year all around. Were excited to have a clean slate.

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.