Cubs

Could Cubs and White Sox get together on a Samardzija trade?

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Could Cubs and White Sox get together on a Samardzija trade?

The White Sox have such a complex about the Cubs that it’s almost impossible to see them trading Jeff Samardzija back to the North Side.  

The Cubs already have the iconic ballpark, the star manager and the team living up to the offseason hype. Why would the White Sox want to help the Cubs this summer and guarantee all the baseball buzz stays in Wrigleyville?

Especially when the Cubs believe they are at the beginning of a long run as contenders and the White Sox are so sensitive to the idea of being the city’s other team.

It’s still the perfect topic for a crosstown series that began three weeks out from the July 31 trade deadline. Even if the White Sox brass — chairman Jerry Reinsdorf, executive vice president Kenny Williams and general manager Rick Hahn — hasn’t fully committed to the idea of selling yet.

[MORE: Cubs vs. White Sox: What if Joe Maddon managed on the South Side?]  

The official position statement from Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer:

“I know that we’re in the same city,” Hoyer said before Friday’s 1-0 loss to the White Sox. “I know that might make it difficult. But certainly the last three years we would have been able to have a conversation with them. I don’t think they’re at the point yet where they feel like they’re there. But we would obviously be willing to talk to them.

“Listen, we’ve known Kenny and Rick for a long time. They do a great job over there. And if it came to discussing players, we’d certainly do it.”

In terms of financial flexibility, the Cubs are believed to have no more than a few million dollars stored up for this summer. Samardzija is owed less than half of this year’s $9.8 million salary before he looks to make a splash in free agency.

This is Year 4 for the Theo Epstein administration, which views last year’s Fourth of July blockbuster as a major turning point for the franchise. The Cubs packaged Samardzija and Jason Hammel in a deal with the Oakland A’s that yielded two former first-round picks in Addison Russell and Billy McKinney.

[RELATED: Crosstown Question: Who would you build a franchise around?]

The Cubs still need pitching, even after getting good news on Hammel, who lasted only one inning against the St. Louis Cardinals on Wednesday, leaving with left hamstring tightness.

An MRI revealed no significant damage, leading the Cubs to project Hammel won’t go on the disabled list and will be able to start the fifth game after the All-Star break (against the Cincinnati Reds on July 21).

“‘Scare’ is probably a good word,” Hoyer said. “It makes you realize that every team, every pitcher can go down at any time. You have to have the depth to handle it.

“We know that’s going to be our focus at the deadline — to try to add depth.

“Jason’s injury maybe kind of underscores that a little bit.”

The White Sox traded for Samardzija last December and immediately put him front and center in their marketing campaign, trying to capitalize on his Northwest Indiana roots and Notre Dame name recognition. But Samardzija wants to test the market this winter and won’t be giving any hometown discounts. 

[MORE: Cubs, White Sox enter Crosstown series on different paths]

The White Sox began the day in last place in the American League Central, but still only 5.5 games back in the wild-card race.

“They have a pitcher over there?” Hoyer said, checking his watch. “We have heard of him. We traded him a week ago last year.”

That morning, Baseball Prospectus gave the White Sox a 3.3 percent chance to make the playoffs while projecting the Cubs at 77.5 percent. Samardzija said he still follows his old team “just a little bit.”

“You don’t really hear too much about the Cubs in Chicago,” Samardzija deadpanned. “They don’t get that much coverage so…

“Yeah, it sounds like they’re doing pretty good.”

Samardzija loves the bright lights and the big stage and still has a strong relationship with Cubs pitching coach Chris Bosio, who helped him make the transition from inconsistent reliever to frontline starter. The two talked on the field before Friday’s game.

Hoyer tuned in to see part of Samardzija’s dominant performance against the Toronto Blue Jays on Thursday afternoon. Samardzija took a no-hitter into the sixth inning of a complete-game shutout at U.S. Cellular Field.

[NBC SHOP: Get your Cubs gear right here]

The Blue Jays have been fixated on Samardzija for at least two straight seasons, the Baltimore Orioles are also believed to be interested now and everyone needs pitching. After a rough April, Samardzija (6-4, 4.02 ERA) has thrown at least seven innings in 10 of his last 11 starts.

“I don’t think he cares” about being on the trading block, Hoyer said. “He’s a competitor. He goes out in any game and he’s going to battle.

“The deadline noise or the uncertainty — I just think he’s a guy that’s pretty unaffected by it, which is a pretty big positive.”

So you’ve been scouting Samardzija?

“I watch a lot of games,” Hoyer said with a laugh. “That’s my job. They’re on TV a lot.” 

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.