Cubs

Cubs see Addison Russell as the next big prospect on the verge

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Cubs see Addison Russell as the next big prospect on the verge

The obsession with what’s next means Addison Russell Watch starts right now for Cubs fans and the Chicago media.

The Kris Bryant Show debuted on Friday at Wrigley Field, leaving Russell back at Triple-A Iowa as the next mega-prospect on the verge.

People around the Cubs say Russell is the real deal, a potential franchise shortstop who will force big questions about what to do with Starlin Castro, a three-time All-Star who’s still only 25.

This is a good problem for an organization that thinks it is built to be a contender for years to come.

[MORE CUBS: The wait is over - Kris Bryant arrives at Wrigley Field]

When the Cubs sent Bryant, Russell and Javier Baez down to minor-league camp in late March, Joe Maddon didn’t know what to say to a 21-year-old shortstop with such a polished all-around game. The manager came up with nothing, except for giving Russell the keep-doing-what-you’re-doing message.

“He’s going to continue to develop at Triple-A and we’ll see what happens,” team president Theo Epstein said. “But certainly the No. 1 thing we like to see in our players before they move up is dominating a level. And he’s off to a good start.”

Russell entered this season as the No. 3 prospect on Baseball America’s list – or two spots behind Bryant – and with only three games above the Double-A level on his resume.

[MORE CUBS: Worth the wait - Cubs promote Kris Bryant for Wrigley Field debut]

The noise will get louder with Russell starting to play second base and hitting .355 (11-for-31) with seven RBI through his first seven games at Iowa.

“He hasn’t been at Triple-A all that long, but he’s playing great,” Epstein said. “He’s been having really good at-bats, using the whole field. He played outstanding at shortstop the first week of the season, made like four highlight plays.

“He’s probably going to continue to play second base through the weekend and we’ll see how that goes. But we’ve had a lot of injuries in the infield. We’ve had to shuffle some things.”

Beyond the health concerns, the Cubs haven’t been getting much production out of their second basemen. Arismendy Alcantara began the season on a 1-for-19 skid that makes you wonder when they might want to shake things up again.

[NBC SPORTS SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

Maddon pushed hard for Baez to make the team out of spring training, believing his up-the-middle defense, speed and flashes of power could carry him until things started to click at the plate.

Baez hasn’t rejoined the Iowa club yet after the death of his sister last week. Epstein said: “There’s still some things for him to deal with – with his family – before he comes back."

The Oakland A’s left spring training last year thinking Russell could be a difference-maker in a pennant race – before he tore his hamstring and became a headliner in the blockbuster Jeff Samardzija trade on the Fourth of July.

The Cubs have to be looking at Russell and seeing the same upside for what should be a very interesting summer on the North Side.

Remember that guy? Former Cubs shortstop Ricky Gutiérrez

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AP

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.