Cubs

Cubs keeping their eyes on Jackson and Rizzo

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Cubs keeping their eyes on Jackson and Rizzo

Even if Theo Epstein insists that the Cubs will block out all the external noise, that wont stop the fans and the media from wondering: When are Brett Jackson and Anthony Rizzo getting here?

It will only grow louder on talk radio and the message boards if the Cubs dont get off to a good start. But Epsteins front office is supposed to run things like a corporation, without emotions. So this year an individual player plan was created for every prospect in the organization.

Jackson and Rizzo are near the intersection of the parallel tracks Epstein likes to talk about. In the years to come, they are supposed to anchor the lineup and glue the clubhouse together. So whats left to prove at Triple-A Iowa?

Its kind of a broad word, but consistency in terms of how they approach their at-bats, really the mental focus from at-bat to at-bat, said Jason McLeod, the senior vice president of scouting and player development. Its kind of easy when you go down to the back fields to lose concentration. Even when you get into Double-A and Triple-A, everyones kind of itching, scratching, like they can feel it, getting to the major leagues.

Sometimes guys, even on the way up, kind of get complacent being there because Im not saying these guys are but you fall into this trap of just kind of biding your time until you get called up. (So its) consistency, mental focus and preparedness every single day.

Epstein said that major-league service time and the financial advantage gained by delaying it will not really be a consideration. It sounds like the Cubs wont be reactionary if there are injuries or trades.

With potential impact young players, we always try to make decisions based on whats best for their development, Epstein said. Theres a certain set of criteria for advancement that we have for each level of the minor-league system and that sort of checklist that goes into how those decisions are made.

So Id like to see players get a significant amount of time at Triple-A, usually a full calendar year, if possible, and certainly Id like to see them check all the boxes (before) theyre advanced up here.

As talented as Anthony and Brett are, there are still some issues left in their development, so wed like to see those addressed before they get up here.

Manager Dale Sveum called Jackson probably the best young player hes seen in camp since he started coaching in the big leagues almost 10 years ago. Its just that there werent any job openings in the outfield.

A 2009 first-round pick out of Cal-Berkeley, the 23-year-old Jackson began this season with only 48 games above the Double-A level. The attention to detail in that player plan is such that the Cubs want to see certain improvements in his baserunning, as far as angles, turns and jumps.

With Brett being the athlete that he is, he can do so many things, McLeod said. Hes probably got a little more power than is good for him, because he knows he can juice a ball. But when you have multiple skills like he does, hes got to learn how to take advantage of and get the most out of all those skills.

Hes a guy that can hit in the top of the order and he can probably hit in the middle of the order. Hes got that kind of power. So (theres) his plate discipline. Approach, again, is way too broad-based of a word. Its (more): What am I looking to do in this at-bat? What am I looking to do in this count? Whats the game situation?

(Its) understanding his strengths and weaknesses, because he can get on base, he can walk and he can steal bases. There are reasons mechanically and mentally why the strikeouts are a little high.

Rizzo is the Cubs first baseman of the future, but then again he had that same label for the Red Sox and Padres. Drafted by these Boston executives, and traded to San Diego in the Adrian Gonzalez deal, he knows all about The Red Sox Way the Cubs are trying to recreate.

They just preach winning, Rizzo said. Right when I signed, (it was): Win a World Series. They brought up a ton of talent through their minor-league system.

General manager Jed Hoyer has admitted that Rizzo was rushed last season to San Diego, where he hit .141 with 46 strikeouts in 128 at-bats. The Cubs dont want to make the same mistake.

With Rizz, its again that mental focus, McLeod said. His, obviously, is a swing mechanics type thing and he likes to tinker a little bit, so its staying consistent with what feels good to him.

I try to think back to when I was 22 years old. I think its a hard thing to not be like always looking at Wrigley and (wondering): Whens my time? Whens my time? Whens my time? So its just kind of more being in the now and every day getting yourself focused.

The idea is that once Jackson and Rizzo get to Clark and Addison, theyre never going to leave.

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.