Cubs

Cubs need Jon Lester to pitch like an ace

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Cubs need Jon Lester to pitch like an ace

DETROIT – Whether or not this is some grand plan, or just the random nature of opportunities in this business, the Cubs have been developing hitters and buying pitchers, using their eyes and their laptops to build a team their own way.

It’s not quite as simple as that, especially with so many financial complexities surrounding this franchise, but the $155 million ace is the bottom-line place to start after Tuesday night’s 6-0 loss to the Detroit Tigers at Comerica Park.

Head down, Jon Lester walked off the mound with the bases loaded and one out in the fifth inning, the Cubs already trailing 4-0 and $52 million reliever Edwin Jackson coming out of the bullpen.

“There are a lot of things that need to be fixed – and they will,” Lester said afterward. “It sounds simple, but it’s just a matter of getting back out there and doing it again. I had a great bullpen this last time. I felt good about coming into this. And I go out there and throw that slop.”

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The Cubs have spent first-round picks on position players in each of the last five drafts, beginning with Javier Baez in the final year of the Jim Hendry administration and leading up to Ian Happ, the University of Cincinnati outfielder/second baseman Theo Epstein’s front office grabbed on Monday night with the No. 9 overall pick.

The Cubs backed themselves into this corner, understanding they would eventually have to overpay for a No. 1 starter, knowing that history shows nine-figure contracts for pitchers are usually bad investments.

After an awful April (0-2, 6.23 ERA) and an excellent May (4-1, 1.76 ERA), Lester hasn’t looked sharp in June (0-2, 10.61 ERA).

“I’ve actually felt better the last two starts than I did in May, so take that for whatever it’s worth,” said Lester, who gave up five runs on nine hits against the Tigers (31-28).

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“They both sucked. Just not good. Not good. Not getting deep into games. Regardless of runs, hits, errors, walks, strikeouts, whatever, (I) gotta do a better job pitching innings. (That’s) what it comes down to.”

The Cubs say they aren’t worried about the 31-year-old lefty, who won two World Series rings with the Boston Red Sox and seems almost numb to big-market overreactions after spending so much time at Fenway Park.

“I wouldn’t say he pitched well, but he had good stuff,” personal catcher David Ross said.

Manager Joe Maddon pointed to the 93 mph fastballs, the depth on Lester’s breaking ball and a lineup that revolves around Miguel Cabrera.

“They moved the ball around,” Maddon said. “It’s not like they just beat him up badly. It was well placed and he never could really seem to find a real rhythm or groove.

“It’s just one of those nights. Move it along and I’m good for his next time out there. I’m really not concerned or upset."

[SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

The Cubs couldn’t generate anything against Anibal Sanchez, who came into the game with a 3-7 record and a 5.69 ERA but walked off the mound to a standing ovation in the eighth inning, saluting the crowd of 33,301 (even with the bases loaded).

The Cubs courted Sanchez in December 2012, with Epstein and chairman Tom Ricketts meeting the pitcher, his wife and his agent at a Miami restaurant. That same day, general manager Jed Hoyer and Dale Sveum, the manager at the time, met with Jackson, his fiancé and his agent in Newport Beach, California.

The Cubs got used for leverage in the Sanchez negotiations, the Tigers ultimately stepping up with five years and $80 million guaranteed. The Cubs maxed out at five years and $77.5 million and moved on to Plan B: Jackson (who gave the bullpen a break by finishing this game).

This isn’t how you envision the big-ticket signings at that first press conference. But even without Lester hitting his stride, the Cubs are still 30-26 and in wild-card position. Everyone knows what it would mean if their No. 1 guy starts living up to his own expectations.

“If we’re worried about the wild card right now, we’re worried about the wrong things,” Lester said. “We got to play a good baseball team tomorrow. That’s No. 1. But if you want to talk about the future, yeah, obviously, that would mean a lot to this team, this organization, this city.

“We’ve been playing good baseball. I feel like at times we’ve been playing better baseball than what the results have been. But this team does a good job of grinding. It seemed like we grinded a lot on Anibal. He just seemed to be one step ahead of us, and that happens sometimes. I didn’t do my part tonight.”

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.