Cubs: Starlin Castro the odd man out of Joe Maddon's lineup


Cubs: Starlin Castro the odd man out of Joe Maddon's lineup

Joe Maddon and the Cubs are going for it.

There's no more grace period with regards to development, no more preaching patience with guys who are underperforming.

Maddon proved that again Friday by filling out a lineup against the San Francisco Giants with Addison Russell at shortstop, Chris Coghlan at second base, Kyle Schwarber in left field and Starlin Castro on the bench.

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The Cubs activated Miguel Montero from the disabled list Friday, meaning he and veteran David Ross are healthy enough to handle a large portion of the catching duties. Which means Maddon needs to find somewhere for Schwarber to play to get his bat in the lineup on a daily basis.

"Schwarber is obviously swinging the bat really well and so is [Coghlan]," Maddon said. "Just trying to be creative keeping the bats in the lineup right now. I told Starlin: It's not a day off. I want him to understand that up front.

"It's something that's going to be considered daily. I did not give him any promises regarding how he's going to be utilized other than just to stay ready off the bench. I didn't want to give him any kind of false promises whatsoever.

"He can be playing tomorrow. I'm not sure yet. I want to see how it plays today, but I wanted to be up front with him and let him know it's not a day off."

Again, this isn't Starlin Castro getting benched, necessarily. Maddon and Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein drove that point home before Friday's game at Wrigley Field. They both acknowledged that this particular lineup is for Friday's game and everything will be evaluated on a daily basis moving forward.

Maddon also made sure to explain that this move isn't just because of Castro's rough season (.236 AVG, .575 OPS), but more a testament to just how good Schwarber and Coghlan have been at the plate.

"Schwarber is the impetus regarding this maneuver right now," Maddon said. "More than Starlin. We have to include Kyle right now. Then the next guy you have to include is [Coghlan]. You've got to based on their performance and our lack of offense."

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As if to prove Maddon's point, Schwarber doubled into the gap in left-center in the first inning Friday and Coghlan immediately drove him home with a single through the infield.

That being said, Maddon admitted if Castro was playing up to his usual standards (career .278 AVG, .716 OPS), he probably wouldn't have been the one forced out of the lineup.

"I've defended this guy. I really like Starlin a lot. I think his work has been great," Maddon said. "He's done some really good things for us, even recently.

"But we're presented with a new set of circumstances based on personnel and you can't look away. None of this is punitive by any means. It's just trying to help us win today's game."

This unconventional move comes in the middle of what may be the Cubs' biggest series since 2009, with a four-game set against the Giants, the team they're currently battling for the second National League wild card spot.

Maddon wasted no time in yanking starting pitcher Jason Hammel from Thursday's series opener, replacing the veteran with nobody out in the fifth inning despite the fact Hammel had only given up two runs.

Maddon has the pedigree to make bold moves, as a two-time American League manager of the year who kept the small-market Tampa Bay Rays in contention season after season.

Epstein said Maddon does speak with the front office before making big moves, but that the celebrity manager also has freedom to go with the flow and "feel" of a game in progress.

"It's that time of year, no doubt about it," Epstein said. "The position that we're in, the manager has to have the unfettered ability to put the team on the field every single game, every single inning that he thinks puts the club in the best position to win.

"...This isn't a permanent thing or anything like that. It's just a recognition of where we are in the standings, how many good options I think we have with the players we have returning now and it's a nod to Joe's ability to push the right buttons to put the best lineup on the field on any given night."

Even with Montero back, Maddon said he does still want to fit in time for Schwarber at catcher. But he said there's no talk of moving Castro around the diamond right now.

Maddon talked with Castro before Friday's game and liked the way the 25-year-old shortstop handled the news.

"Very professional," Maddon said. "He listened, understood, he was not upset. I'm sure he's disappointed, but he was very professional about the whole thing."

Is Maddon concerned about losing Castro emotionally?

"There's always that concern and that's why you have to be two things - careful and honest," Maddon said. "You can't be cavalier about making moves like this and when you do, you have to be up front with the guy you're doing it with.

"You don't paint any kind of obscure picture that he has to read between the lines. You be very up front about it. He's a man. He can deal with it. We'll be better for it. He's going to be better for it, too.

"So yes, you're always concerned about the emotional component, but at the end of the day, it's about the Cubs winning."

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?


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.