Cubs

Cubs breathe a sigh of relief with Jason Heyward news

Cubs breathe a sigh of relief with Jason Heyward news

SAN FRANCISCO – Jason Heyward watched the replay of his dazzling catch and understood what had been at stake, appreciating that he somehow avoided the worst-case scenarios after crashing headfirst into AT&T Park’s right-center field wall on Friday night.  

The Cubs described Heyward’s injury as only a contusion on his right side in the rib area after Saturday’s MRI didn’t reveal any major structural damage. The Cubs are on a three-to-five-days timeline of rest for Heyward and believe this won’t force him onto the disabled list.  

“I’m lucky,” Heyward said. “Very, very lucky. Like I said, God looked out for me on that one. Just really fortunate that I was able to get up and walk off the field.” 

With Heyward sidelined, the Cubs activated outfielder Matt Szczur from the disabled list, designated reliever Neil Ramirez for assignment and started Ben Zobrist in right field against the San Francisco Giants. 

The Cubs breathed a sigh of relief, thinking they will only have to rotate players for a few days in right field and not find a long-term replacement for a three-time Gold Glove winner in the first season of an eight-year, $184 million contract.

“Very encouraging,” manager Joe Maddon said. “When something like that happens, you just got to wait to hear the word. All I know is it’s a great play. 

“It was an extreme angle that he had to run off. From the distance he covered, the angle that he created, extending his body, everything, it’s just an incredible play.”

How many defenders would have the instincts, athleticism, presence of mind and desire to make that play? 

Heyward tracked down Jake Arrieta’s third pitch in the right-center field gap, his momentum driving his left shoulder into the wall and taking away what might have been an inside-the-park home run for San Francisco leadoff guy Denard Span. It helped set the tone for an 8-1 victory over the first-place Giants.

“That’s up there,” Heyward said, in terms of ranking catches in a career defined by defensive excellence. “That’s one of my favorites in my life, for sure.

“I know that was the first play of the bottom of the first, but we’re playing here in San Francisco with these fans, this crowd, two good teams going at it. That can be a big momentum swing if that ball gets down.”

The Cubs can afford to be patient with Heyward’s offensive game (one homer, .611 OPS) because he helps the team win in so many different ways. Losing Heyward for an extended period of time would have left a huge hole in the roster after Kyle Schwarber wrecked his left knee during an outfield collision in early April. 

“I listen to my body, always, regardless of what the doctor’s telling me,” Heyward said. “I got to be smart, because it is May. We’re not in September right now. We’re working towards that, but this is not the time to push anything like that, especially when you got obliques and stuff like that involved.”

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.