Cubs

Cubs: What the Jason Heyward deal means for Jorge Soler and Javier Baez

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Cubs: What the Jason Heyward deal means for Jorge Soler and Javier Baez

Jason Heyward opens up even more possibilities as the Cubs try to win the World Series in 2016 and still keep their window to contend open for years to come at Wrigley Field.

But while juggling so many balls in the air, the Cubs won’t be immediately flipping Jorge Soler or Javier Baez, sources said in the aftermath of Friday’s eight-year, $184 million commitment to Heyward.

There’s not another “multiple bank shot” lined up for team president Theo Epstein, the way the Cubs could only sign Ben Zobrist to a four-year, $56 million contract once the New York Yankees agreed to take on Starlin Castro’s money ($38 million guaranteed) and give up a valuable pitcher (Adam Warren).

[MORE: Jason Heyward megadeal reinforces World Series expectations for Cubs]

The prices for pitching keep soaring, and that’s one reason why the Cubs plan to hold onto their young hitters for now, beyond Baez and Soler’s untapped potential.

The demands from the Cleveland Indians (Danny Salazar, Carlos Carrasco) and San Diego Padres (Tyson Ross) aren’t going to suddenly drop when the Arizona Diamondbacks just paid a fortune in the Shelby Miller deal, sending the Atlanta Braves a No. 1 overall pick (Dansby Swanson), a highly regarded pitching prospect (Aaron Blair) and a big-league outfielder (Ender Inciarte).

The Cubs have been talking directly to those teams about offense-for-pitching trades since at least last summer. The cost of acquiring the young starter the Cubs would want in any Soler deal is seen as unreasonable with the Diamondbacks and Boston Red Sox driving up that market, too, by laying out $423 million for Zack Greinke and David Price.

In terms of depth, the Cubs have already diversified their pitching staff with swingmen like Warren, Trevor Cahill, Clayton Richard and Travis Wood.

Baez is now the insurance policy if shortstop Addison Russell has another hamstring injury and an antidote to day games at Wrigley Field, allowing Zobrist to recover during his age-35 season and third baseman Kris Bryant to get a mental break.

[NBC SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

Zobrist is supposed to be more of an everyday second baseman now, but in a best-case scenario for 2016 the Cubs see Baez in the super-utility role once perfected with Joe Maddon’s Tampa Bay Rays teams.

Maybe the winter-ball experiment works in Puerto Rico and Baez could occasionally play center and move Heyward over to the right-field spot where he won three Gold Gloves.

“I think Javy has a chance to be a lot like Zobrist was in Tampa,” general manager Jed Hoyer said this week during the winter meetings. “He can play everywhere and play everywhere really well. If someone gets hurt, he can slot into that position and play there for a long time.

“But if we’re healthy, the ability to move around like that is really valuable. Joe being able to move Zobrist and Baez around gives him so much flexibility. It gives the roster so much flexibility. That’s kind of how we’re envisioning things right now.”

The Cubs could always do more with the pitching staff and add specific role players – and no one is untouchable – but Maddon now has the defensive versatility he craves and a monster lineup for October.

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.