Cubs

Cubs: Scott Boras is thinking big with Jake Arrieta

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Cubs: Scott Boras is thinking big with Jake Arrieta

LOS ANGELES – Super-agent Scott Boras hasn’t engaged the Cubs in any preliminary discussions about a contract extension for Jake Arrieta, who sooner or later could get paid like a superstar pitcher. 

“I think teams know us and we know them,” Boras said Friday inside his corporation’s Dodger Stadium luxury suite. “We’re trying to focus on the season and performance.”

But Boras is always thinking big and planning for the future. Remember, Max Scherzer once reportedly turned down a six-year, $144 million offer to extend with the Detroit Tigers before Boras delivered a seven-year, $210 million megadeal from the Washington Nationals last winter.

Arrieta is now tied for the major-league lead with 16 wins in another breakthrough season – 2.22 ERA, 0.98 WHIP and 178 strikeouts in a career-high 174 innings – that has put him in the National League’s Cy Young Award conversation.

There’s no rush with Arrieta, who’s making $3.63 million as an arbitration-eligible player this year and isn’t positioned to become a free agent until after the 2017 season, when he will be in his early 30s.

[MORE: Cubs trying to fix what went wrong with Fernando Rodney]

The Cubs might want to prioritize investing in another frontline pitcher to join Arrieta and Jon Lester at the top of their rotation during this open window of contention. And Boras typically steers his clients onto the open market.

“I always tell teams when they talk long-term, we’re always happy to stay long-term,” Boras said.

Boras credited Theo Epstein’s front office and pitching coach Chris Bosio for allowing Arrieta to be himself and pitch to his strengths after such an up-and-down beginning to his career with the Baltimore Orioles.   

Boras appreciated what the Cubs did in that 2013 Scott Feldman trade, a deal that accelerated the rebuilding plan and helped turn the franchise into a playoff contender.

At this point, Arrieta doesn’t have as much wear and tear on his right arm after pitching only 740.1 innings in the big leagues. Like manager Joe Maddon, Boras believes there is another level to Arrieta’s game.

“It’s like Scherzer,” Boras said. “The great thing is that Arrieta doesn’t have many innings on his arm.

“I always tell owners: The best bet for you when you want to sign players is ones that are proven – but yet are proven with lesser innings.

“Max Scherzer. Pitching odometer. He had 1,200 innings. You find me a guy that has Cy Young capabilities with only 1,200 innings in the big leagues.

“Most guys have to have nearly 2,000 innings and they’re throwing much earlier in their careers. So the idea of it is this is not an age component as much as it is a durability component.”

[NBC SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

Arrieta is a fitness/nutrition freak with supreme confidence, an analytical sense and a 6-foot-4, 225-pound frame.

“Yeah, some guys are just off the charts,” Boras said. “They’re going to be magically durable. They’re one of those arms. But the truth of the matter is, when you do all the studies, the hardest thing for a pitcher to do in the major leagues is to get past the fourth year.

“If you get past the fourth year, and you’re a healthy guy, you’re probably going to pitch – the numbers show – over 10 years. So we have all the data.

“It’s kind of ideal for the free-agent dynamic, because he’s a brilliant talent, and he’s had to utilize fewer innings to find the station of a No. 1 pitcher. And I think we can say that about Jake Arrieta. He’s reached the status of a No. 1 pitcher.”

It sounds like you have one of those big free-agency binders already written for Arrieta.

“We’ve done this a few times,” Boras said. “There’s a very low probability of players that can get to these levels and meet the metrics of what we’re talking about here.”

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.