Cubs

Cubs had to think big to keep up with National League elite

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Cubs had to think big to keep up with National League elite

Could the Cubs win 90 games and still be sitting home in October?

The Cubs understood there would be no sneaking up on anyone or sneaking into the playoffs this year. There are no guarantees in a National League where so many teams are focused on either going all-in to win a World Series in 2016 — or writing off big-league seasons to build for the future, the way the Cubs and Houston Astros reconstructed their franchises.

Super Bowl 50 is over, which means attention will soon shift to pitchers and catchers reporting to Florida and Arizona, where the Cubs will be hyped as a World Series favorite.

The Cubs don’t believe their window is closing — the way the Denver Broncos did with Peyton Manning — but there is still a sense of urgency to win now. The Cubs don’t have a move-the-needle star quite like Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton, but they think they have the right mix of big personalities needed for a championship-caliber team.

“The dynamics of the National League this year will mean that it will take a lot of wins to make the playoffs,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “We know that.”

The Cubs committed more than $276 million to outfielder Jason Heyward, second baseman Ben Zobrist, pitcher John Lackey and swingman Trevor Cahill, leading the majors in spending on free agents this winter, according to ESPN’s tracker.

[MORE: Cubs, Jake Arrieta agree to $10.7 million deal, avoid arbitration]

Of the next 11 biggest spenders on that list, seven are NL teams, including the San Francisco Giants, Arizona Diamondbacks, Los Angeles Dodgers, New York Mets, St. Louis Cardinals, Miami Marlins and Washington Nationals.

The Cubs also can’t dismiss the Pittsburgh Pirates, an exemplary small-market team coming off a 98-win season and their third consecutive playoff appearance. President of baseball operations Theo Epstein understood nothing could be taken for granted after the Mets swept the Cubs out of the NL Championship Series.

“There are many great teams — great, not just good — in the National League,” Epstein said during his state-of-the-team press conference in October. “The Cardinals aren’t going anywhere. They haven’t for a hundred years. They won 100 games. They have a pretty young core.

“Pittsburgh has had three outstanding seasons in a row and have the building blocks in place to be good for a really long time. The Giants are three-time World Series champs (since 2010) and I’m sure are going to add a number of key pieces this winter.

“The Dodgers are extremely talented and extremely rich. They’re not going anywhere. The Nationals’ window hasn’t necessarily ended at all. They’re still really, really good and I’m sure will bounce back.

“The Mets — if they can keep their rotation healthy and performing the way it is now — are going to be dangerous as can be for a long period of time.”

At the same time, FanGraphs projects the Milwaukee Brewers, Philadelphia Phillies and Atlanta Braves will be the three worst teams in the majors, forecasting between 91 and 95 losses, with negative run differentials ranging from -97 to -126.

FanGraphs also predicts the Colorado Rockies, Cincinnati Reds and San Diego Padres will be bottom-third teams, finishing with around 86 losses this season.

“Obviously, you don’t want to have too many teams in a rebuilding cycle at one time in one league, and I accept that,” Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred told ESPN.com for a column headlined “The odd and troubling state of the National League.”

“But the fact of the matter is, when you have 30 teams, it’s not unusual that you have five or six in a rebuilding cycle. I think if you look back historically, that would not be a number that’s out of line.”

So far, the Reds, Brewers and Phillies haven’t spent a penny on a major-league free agent this offseason. Combined, the Cubs will play the Reds and Brewers 38 times this season as those small-market teams try to follow the tanking blueprint and collect as many long-term assets as possible.

[SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

Since July, the Reds and Brewers have traded away Johnny Cueto, Mike Leake, Todd Frazier, Aroldis Chapman, Carlos Gomez, Mike Fiers, Aramis Ramirez, Jonathan Broxton, Gerardo Parra, Francisco Rodriguez, Adam Lind and Jean Segura.

The Cubs will have to capitalize on those big-league talent drains in Cincinnati and Milwaukee, knowing 97 wins was only good enough for third place in the Central last season.

“It’s an incredibly competitive landscape in the National League, and that motivates us,” Epstein said. “There are some years you can just sit back and say: ‘Ah, you know, there aren’t that many great opportunities to get better. Let’s take our chances. Let’s build a team that can win between 86 and 88 games and we’ll find ourselves in the wild-card mix and maybe we can improve during the course of the season and see where we (are at).’

“Now, with what’s going on in the National League, it’s a better approach (to) say: ‘Hey, in order to compete with teams just in our division — like the Cardinals and Pirates — we have to try to attain a really high standard. We have to put ourselves in a position where we have a chance to be great. So that we can win the division and not have to go through the coin flip of the wild-card game.’

“Certainly, we need to raise the bar as far as the type of team we want to build and the path to being a great club — not just a good club.”

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.