Cubs

Cubs still planning to launch TV network (but not expecting Dodger megadeal)

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Cubs still planning to launch TV network (but not expecting Dodger megadeal)

The Cubs are absolutely banking on the cable bubble not bursting before they can cash in with a new TV megadeal. There are so many variables within that equation, from a red-hot, DVR-proof team to Major League Baseball’s byzantine rules to Congress and federal regulators. It’s the rise of Netflix, Amazon and HBO Go, plus technology we’re not even thinking about now.

But Crane Kenney can survey the entire landscape and look back at the Dodgers and see what’s happening with SportsNet LA and say this much with certainty: “That deal will never happen again.”

That would be Time Warner Cable’s $8 billion boondoggle and yet another cautionary tale for the entire industry. As president of business operations, Kenney is on the clock again, saying the Cubs are still “focused 100 percent” on launching their own network by 2020.

But there’s no Dodger blueprint with a $300 million payroll on the horizon and a blank check to sign international players (and all those carriage issues in Southern California).

“Remember, there is no sell the rights to someone else and they take all the risk,” Kenney said Saturday, speaking with reporters after his Cubs Convention presentation at the Sheraton Grand Chicago. “The world doesn’t work that way, with one exception: That’s what happened in L.A., where now Time Warner can’t clear the games in half the homes. And obviously it’s a huge loss for them.

“Like everything we do, whether it’s Kiss Cams or anything else, we’re studying it to death to look at the pros and cons and weigh the risks of launching on our own, or launching with a partner.”

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This is a central part to the follow-the-money story in Wrigleyville. Team president Theo Epstein is waiting for that windfall to make sure this young core matures into a perennial contender. Outside of changing baseball leadership and hiring Epstein, chairman Tom Ricketts called this the biggest decision for his ownership group.

“Got to get it right,” Ricketts said.

Kenney also stressed there’s no scenario where the Cubs are getting 100-percent equity in a new channel. It’s always going to have to be working with another big media player, either a content producer and/or a distributor with the infrastructure to get the games into your living rooms.

“The Dodgers are a one-off world,” Kenney said. “But the other deals you read about, whether it’s St. Louis or Seattle, where they got big equity pieces, they’re wearing the risk of cord-cutting and cord-shaving no different than we are at Comcast SportsNet.”

The Cubs have an ownership stake in CSN Chicago, which keeps exclusive cable rights through the 2019 season. Kenney estimated the Cubs would need a two-year runway to build out their new network.

“Can I predict exactly what 2019’s going to look like?” Kenney said. “No, I can’t. (But) we love the trajectory of sports rights. So if you look at any of the recent deals that were done, they’re still going up.

“We love that trajectory. We watch with a very wary eye what’s going on in the cable universe, though. You’d have to be a fool not to pay attention.”

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Kenney did predict one smaller breakthrough for this season: authenticated in-market streaming. MLB recently made a deal with Fox Sports involving 15 teams, which will make games on regional networks available to local cable subscribers (without erasing MLB’s complicated blackout rules).

“I’m finally pretty confident we are going to have streaming in 2016 (on) our mobile devices,” Kenney said. “All of the Fox RSNs will be up this year, (and) I think that’s going to give the league both the pressure and the momentum to get something done with Comcast.”

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.