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Cubs can’t hold onto prospects forever but could cash in at trade deadline

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Cubs can’t hold onto prospects forever but could cash in at trade deadline

Mortgaging the farm system doesn’t make sense when the Cubs are a third-place team on a five-game losing streak that just got swept in St. Louis to fall 11.5 games behind the Cardinals.

But there’s also risk in holding onto too many unproven minor-leaguers, because prospects get overhyped, prospects get injured and prospects get exposed at higher levels of competition. 

Buyers and sellers is the easiest way to break it down in 140 characters or less. But it’s more complicated than that, because the Cubs are fun to watch again after five straight fifth-place finishes, don’t appear to have that much financial flexibility right now and want to stay relevant in 2015 while still building for the future. 

In Year 4 of the Theo Epstein administration, the July 31 trade deadline could be a huge opportunity to cash in some of the chips they have accumulated through the draft, win-later trades and international free agency.

[SHOP: Buy a Cubs 4th of July hat]

“No doubt, there is a timing element to it,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “We haven’t been in the position to move a lot of prospects. We’ve been in a position to go out and get them. But as we move forward, you can wait too long and a guy loses his value.”

Cubs hitting and Mets pitching will be a dominant storyline when these two big-market teams on parallel rebuilding plans meet on Tuesday night in New York. Mets left-hander Jon Niese – one of many pitching ideas the Cubs have reportedly kicked around – will start this three-game series that should have wild-card implications. But the shortstop angle played up by the New York and Chicago media is probably played out by now.

When the Cubs promoted Addison Russell in late April after only 11 games at Triple-A Iowa, it sent the message to any team that didn’t get the hint last winter: This kid is an untouchable piece of the big-league team. 

Starlin Castro’s up-and-down play on both sides of the ball (.630 OPS, 14 errors) would mean selling low on a three-time All-Star who doesn’t fit the profile of the type of hitter the Mets would want to build around anyway.

[MORE: Cubs waiting for trade market to accelerate after getting swept by Cardinals]

Javier Baez is now sidelined with a non-displaced fracture of his left ring finger, but an aggressive swinger with world-class bat speed had started to make some adjustments at Iowa (.922 OPS) before that injury in early June.

The Cubs also might have missed a window to move Arismendy Alcantara during the offseason. Alcantara struggled to adjust to a super-utility role, went 2-for-26 with zero extra-base hits in April and got sent back to Des Moines.    

This is the next phase of The Plan, something the president of baseball operations acknowledged during the welcome-to-camp news conference in spring training.

“The Braves almost created a dynasty out of evaluating their own players the right way,” Epstein said. “Everyone they traded didn’t pan out. Everyone they kept won a lot of pennants.”

The Cubs say they’re getting close, but they haven’t measured up to the Cardinals this season, going 2-7 against the best team in baseball. St. Louis already has 51 wins, even with so many key pieces on the disabled list: Opening Day starter Adam Wainwright; All-Star outfielder Matt Holliday; first baseman Matt Adams; and setup guy Jordan Walden.

“When you look at the Cardinals,” Hoyer said, “you see the value of depth. They have guys that get hurt and they call up good players from Triple-A that can step in and contribute. They’ve done that, in part, because they haven’t made a lot of big prospect deals.

“They’ve been steady and they’ve let those guys come up through their system. When they’re in Triple-A, they don’t rush them up to the big leagues. They let them play. And then when they have an injury, they come up and perform.

[ALSO: Ramirez's return providing a boost for Cubs bullpen]

“Certainly, trading all your prospects can help in the near-term, but there’s a price to be paid for that, and that price is not having that depth.

“It’s something you have to really consider when you make those kind of moves. You can always say: ‘Oh, we don’t think any of these guys is an impact player.’ Or: ‘We don’t think any of these guys is going to start for us.’

“But get a couple injuries, and you’re wishing you had those guys, and I think that’s something the Cardinals have done really well.”

In the middle of January, a fan stepped to the microphone inside a downtown Chicago hotel ballroom and told the Cubs prospects on stage: “We love you like we love our wives and our children.”

If that sounds a little creepy, well, that’s how prospects are treated in the age of social media. They got the boy-band treatment at Cubs Convention, fans rushing forward for autographs as soon as the Q&A session ended.

From that group, Russell is now your starting second baseman and potential franchise shortstop. Kyle Schwarber made his big-league debut in June and could be back this summer as a big left-handed bat for the pennant race.

Carl Edwards Jr. doesn’t seem to project as a starter anymore, though he’s adjusting well as a reliever at Iowa. Pierce Johnson has made three starts at Double-A Tennessee after dealing with a strained lat muscle in spring training.

The Cubs can’t fall in love with their prospects because – as the Baseball Prospectus rankings like to say – they will break your heart.

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.