Buzz is back for Cubs-Mets as Jake Arrieta upstages Noah Syndergaard


Buzz is back for Cubs-Mets as Jake Arrieta upstages Noah Syndergaard

A buzz is back at Wrigley Field, with MLB Network and ESPN setting up here on back-to-back nights to showcase two of the National League’s X-factor teams.

By now, the Cubs have heard enough about the New York Mets and all their young power arms, but they better get used to the attention if Jake Arrieta keeps pitching like this.

Arrieta upstaged Noah Syndergaard’s big-league debut on Tuesday night, facing the minimum through seven innings and leading the Cubs to a 6-1 victory that underlined all their potential.

After collecting all these young power hitters, importing veterans with World Series rings and hiring a star manager, the Cubs are turning the corner in their multiyear rebuild.

[MORE CUBS: Cubs need Jon Lester, the perfectionist, operating at full strength]

“Once you taste it, once you get that blood in the water, man, you want some more,” manager Joe Maddon said. “Once you get to the playoffs, there’s nothing else that satisfies you going into a season. You got to get there the first time. You got to learn how to do it.

“And once you learn how to do it, nothing — nothing — satisfies you during that baseball season, unless you get back to the dance. It’s pretty simple, man. I use the term: ‘A mind once stretched has a very difficult time going back to its original form.’”

Syndergaard is 6-foot-6 and 240 pounds with a “Thor” nickname and bright blond hair flowing out from his cap. The Mets made Syndergaard the centerpiece in a trade with the Toronto Blue Jays after R.A. Dickey’s 2012 Cy Young Award-winning season.

Almost seven months later, the Cubs flipped one-year rental Scott Feldman in a deal with the Baltimore Orioles that involved Arrieta, who had been stuck in neutral at the Triple-A level.

[MORE CUBS: Why haven’t Cubs made a deal with Mets yet?]

Arrieta never got quite as high as Syndergaard (No. 11 heading into this season) on the Baseball America lists, but he had been a well-regarded prospect who wound up needing a change of scenery.

At the age of 29, Arrieta (4-3, 3.00 ERA) continues to blossom into a frontline starter. He delivered eight strong innings, limiting the Mets to one run on three hits in a dominant 10-strikeout performance.

“We knew it was going to be a tight game,” Arrieta said. “(Syndergaard) was electric. We kind of knew what we were up against. He came out strong.

“That was a great team victory, from start to finish.”

[SHOP CUBS: Get your Cubs gear right here]

The Cubs knocked out Syndergaard in the sixth inning after 103 pitches. Starlin Castro — the All-Star shortstop linked to the Mets in so much trade speculation — hammered a Syndergaard slider into the left-field corner for an RBI double that easily scored Jorge Soler from first base.

The next batter, Chris Coghlan, launched a 96 mph fastball into the under-construction bleachers in right field for a two-run homer as the Cubs (17-15) wore out the first-place Mets (20-13) and continued to imagine the possibilities.

“Once you’ve stretched the mind, man, it’s tough to not be in that playoff situation on an annual basis,” Maddon said. “Our guys got to taste it, feel it, understand it, and then you really crave it. That’s when good things happen.”

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?


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.