Cubs could think big by making Kyle Schwarber their DH


Cubs could think big by making Kyle Schwarber their DH

WASHINGTON – This would be outside-the-box thinking for the Cubs, an aggressive move to get a big left-handed bat in the lineup: Kyle Schwarber, designated hitter.

It could all be lining up for Schwarber, the No. 4 overall pick out of Indiana University at this time last year. The hard-edged catcher is dominating at Double-A Tennessee (1.033 OPS), putting himself on the fast track to at least become a September call-up.

Beginning Tuesday in Detroit, the Cubs will play seven games in 13 days in American League stadiums. Manager Joe Maddon doesn’t know what moves are coming next until he breaks it all down with president of baseball operations Theo Epstein.

But the idea of Schwarber – who’s hitting .326 with 12 homers and 37 RBI through 51 games and getting on base almost 45 percent of the time – has to be tempting.

[MORE: Cubs show win-now urgency in pulling closer Hector Rondon]

Will Schwarber’s name be in the conversation?

“He could be,” Maddon said before Sunday’s 6-3 win at Nationals Park. “I would think (so). Based on what he’s done, it would make sense that he would be. But, again, I don’t know what we’re willing to do.

“I just try to do my job, and if the guys think that’s the right thing to do, then I would be on board with it.”

[MORE: Why the Cubs once passed on Addison Russell in the draft]

The Cubs already strengthened their roster by activating veteran outfielder Chris Denorfia and optioning Matt Szczur to Triple-A Iowa. The numbers also suggest the Cubs may not need three left-handers in the bullpen against a Tigers lineup that can handle lefties (.764 OPS).

The Cubs are preparing for those two interleague games at Comerica Park and will be traveling to Cleveland and Minnesota next week. A player optioned to Iowa would have to spend 10 days in the minors before becoming eligible to be called up again (barring injury).

“I am going to talk to Theo about all of this,” Maddon said. “You got that window of opportunity. If you want to do something, there it is.

“It’s a perfect window of opportunity. If you want to manipulate, there it is.”

[SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

The Cubs are also confident Schwarber will be a long-term answer at catcher, so there could be benefits to giving him more exposure to Miguel Montero, David Ross and the team’s game-planning system.

Sooner or later, Schwarber will join a talented young core that already includes Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant, Starlin Castro and Addison Russell.

“I don’t want to just get a look at him,” Rizzo said. “I want someone – if they’re going to get called up – to stay up. But those at-bats are important in the minor leagues. It’s proven over track records of guys getting a certain amount of at-bats. I know he’s doing well, but he hasn’t hit the dog days of summer yet. Your first full season professionally can get to you a little bit.

“But it’s whoever can help this team, whether it’s someone off the streets or one of our top prospects.” 

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.