Cubs

Cubs looking to deal, but Cole Hamels sounds like a long shot

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Cubs looking to deal, but Cole Hamels sounds like a long shot

The Cubs are looking to deal, but trading for Cole Hamels by the July 31 deadline still sounds like a long shot.

Hamels throwing the first no-hitter against the Cubs in 50 years doesn’t really change the calculus for Theo Epstein’s front office. The Philadelphia Phillies weren’t sold on Javier Baez heading into this injury-interrupted season, and it’s hard to convince anyone that Starlin Castro is a player worth rebuilding around now.

“I don’t necessarily think we’re close to trading for a big contract,” Epstein said before Monday’s 9-8 win over the Colorado Rockies at Wrigley Field. “Certainly, in our position, right now it’s not necessarily something that we’re close to – giving up a ton of talent and taking on a big contract.

“Maybe that changes between now and Friday, but right now we’re not close to something like that.”

[MORE CUBS: Cubs catcher David Ross has 'Babe Ruth' moment against Phillies]

Hamels is guaranteed $73.5 million over the next three years, plus about $8.5 million for the rest of this season. The Cubs have been resistant to the idea of paying the price in terms of dollars and prospects for the 2008 World Series MVP, figuring it makes more sense to just buy another frontline pitcher in free agency.

Assuming the Cubs can operate with that much financial flexibility. Epstein’s baseball operations department has less than $5 million to play with at the trade deadline, a built-in cushion for a payroll that can essentially be broken out as $100 million plus the $20 million leftover from last year’s Masahiro Tanaka sweepstakes.

The Cubs made a waiver claim on Hamels last August, but couldn’t work out a deal as the Phillies pulled back their homegrown, face-of-the-franchise lefty, letting the trade rumors hang over this entire season.

[NBC SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

Since then, the Cubs have graduated Jorge Soler, Kris Bryant, Addison Russell and Kyle Schwarber to the big leagues, making them virtually untouchable. The upper levels of their farm system don’t have the same blue-chip prospects right now.

If you were trading for Hamels, wouldn’t it have happened by now?

“I don’t know,” Epstein said. “Deadlines are there for a reason. There’s always a flurry of activity right before the deadline. Teams’ bargaining positions tend to move towards the middle the closer you get to the deadline.”

The Los Angeles Dodgers and Texas Rangers are reportedly the frontrunners to land Hamels, who made history on Saturday afternoon at Wrigley Field and erased any doubts about his stuff.

“I think he was a pretty good pitcher before he no-hit us,” Epstein said. “He came out throwing 96 (mph) in the first inning. It was pretty clear he was trying to make a point. Point well made.

“I think he wanted to show that he’s still pretty good, even after a couple rough starts. He could have made the point against someone else but…we were in the way.”

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.