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Cubs see Opening Day roster come into focus

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Cubs see Opening Day roster come into focus

MESA, Ariz. – “Today has been a ‘Godfather’ day.”

Joe Maddon had settled almost all the family business by the time he sat down in the Sloan Park complex’s media workroom on Tuesday, the Cubs manager making arrangements for what he needed from “The Cousin Eddie” RV, telling three bubble players they already made the team and seeing his Opening Day roster come into focus.

The Cubs confirmed Javier Baez will begin the season on the disabled list with a left thumb contusion, still needing more at-bats and time in the outfield and only one game left on their Cactus League schedule.

Maddon said he informed reliever Neil Ramirez, outfielder Matt Szczur and infielder Tommy La Stella that they are part of the projected 25-man group that will leave Arizona.

[MORE CUBS: Bryce Harper, Kris Bryant and how Cubs can help a 'tired' sport]

As insurance, the Cubs also released and re-signed infielder Munenori Kawasaki, outfielder Shane Victorino and left-hander Manny Parra to minor-league deals (which are cost-saving moves while facing $100,000 retention bonuses).

With less than a week to go until the season opener at Angel Stadium of Anaheim, the Cubs are planning to carry 12 position players and 13 pitchers:

Catchers: Miguel Montero, David Ross, Kyle Schwarber.

Infielders: Anthony Rizzo, Ben Zobrist, Addison Russell, Kris Bryant, La Stella.

Outfielders: Jason Heyward, Dexter Fowler, Jorge Soler, Szczur.

Rotation: Jake Arrieta, Jon Lester, John Lackey, Jason Hammel, Kyle Hendricks.

Bullpen: Trevor Cahill, Adam Warren, Clayton Richard, Travis Wood, Justin Grimm, Pedro Strop, Hector Rondon, Ramirez.

The Cubs constructed a deep, versatile roster beyond Zobrist, who made his reputation as the game’s premier super-utility player and will be considered the backup shortstop for now. When needed, Bryant can move from third base to any spot in the outfield. Schwarber can be Hammel’s personal catcher and will still get most of his playing time in the outfield.

But Baez – who’s been sidelined since March 20 after diving headfirst into first base – presents Maddon with so many in-game options as a good baserunner and a strong defender who can play all over the field.

“We don’t want it to linger,” Maddon said. “I had him in the office, talked to him, he’s kind of disappointed because he feels he can be ready. (But) he needs to play.

“We’re not comfortable that it is 100-percent well. So let’s just make it 100-percent well and then bring him back up.”

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Around this time last year, the Cubs set an Opening Day roster that didn’t include Bryant, Russell, Schwarber or Baez and didn’t look like the beginning of a 97-win team.

While the Cubs probably won’t get that kind of jolt from their farm system again this year, Maddon knows it will take waves and waves of players to get through October. So the manager kept rolling with questions from the Japanese media about Kawasaki, who impressed with his karaoke skills and fundamental play.

“He gets a lot of publicity based on his personality, but this guy’s also a very good baseball player,” Maddon said. “He’s definitely an energy source. This guy is somebody you want to plug into. He provides that little motivation the whole group needs on a daily basis.

“We’re just talking about the beginning of the season, man. This is a long year and you definitely need more than 25 guys. He’s going to get his opportunity. He’s going to help us. He’s going to be a big part of our success this year. And he’s going to be one of the most popular athletes to ever play in Chicago when he finally arrives.”

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.