Cubs

Cubs, White Sox enter Crosstown series on different paths

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Cubs, White Sox enter Crosstown series on different paths

Joe Maddon caused a minor uproar on the South Side when he dared to compliment the White Sox on Wednesday.

“I look at their lineup, and I know these guys. They’re good,” Maddon said. “They’re really good. I’ve seen it firsthand.”

The White Sox offense hasn’t been good this year — there’s no way to sugarcoat that, not when it’s scored 3.45 runs per game and only managed two runs against Toronto Blue Jays knuckleballer R.A. Dickey, who entered his start Thursday at U.S. Cellular Field with a 5.02 ERA. But Maddon’s positivity isn’t without merit, not while guys like Melky Cabrera, who’s played much better lately, Adam LaRoche and Alexei Ramirez hit well below their career averages.

That’s the dilemma facing the White Sox right now: Should the team enter sell mode over the next few weeks, or should Rick Hahn & Co. continue to wait for an under-performing offense to start hitting at the level they expected coming into the season?

[MORE CUBS: What if Joe Maddon managed on the South Side?]

“It is hard having now seen this for 81 games, to not trust what your eyes are showing you,” Hahn said earlier this week. “And it’s showing you it’s not clicking for whatever reason and you’ve got to change this mix.

“Those are the two avenues in front of us right now.”

The White Sox, at this point, just need wins. After Jeff Samardzija’s four-hit shutout of Toronto on Thursday, they’re 39-44 — which leaves them one extended hot streak away from legitimately climbing back into the AL Wild Card race. It also leaves them one extended losing streak away from possibly seeing some of their teammates dealt in the coming weeks.

“We know the situation,” first baseman Jose Abreu said through a translator. “We know what part of the year we are in. But we don’t have the power to control it. We just have to play our game and let the front office do their job.”

[MORE WHITE SOX: Crosstown Question: Should the White Sox trade Jeff Samardzija?]

The Cubs are in a decidedly different position heading into this weekend’s three-game Crosstown series at Wrigley Field.

The questions on Clark and Addison center around who the Cubs should consider adding at the trade deadline. The Cubs could always use more pitching to solidify their status as legitimate Wild Card contenders.

A young, talented roster enters the weekend with a healthy 46-38 record and three-game lead on the New York Mets for the second Wild Card spot. The San Francisco Giants, the defending champions, are fading while the Arizona Diamondbacks and Atlanta Braves have done well to hang around .500 and the playoff race.

But the Cubs aren’t getting ahead of themselves as they try to end a seven-year postseason drought.

[SHOP CUBS: Get a Kris Bryant jersey right here]

“It’s only a half,” All-Star third baseman Kris Bryant said. “I think we have a long way to go, but we’re playing pretty good.”

This is a team that was legitimately disappointed to not take a four-game series from the first-place Cardinals this week, with Jhonny Peralta’s go-ahead two-run home run in the ninth inning Wednesday a gutting blow to the clubhouse. That was the kind of game the Cubs feel like they’ll have to win to stay in the playoff race and make and impact in October.

While the White Sox enter this weekend squarely below .500, they do represent another important hurdle for the Cubs to clear. This is a team that’s played well against teams like the Pirates (6-4) and Mets (7-0) but has struggled against a handful of teams near the bottom of their respective divisions.

“If you really want to play in October and you believe that’s your goal, then you have to — the teams that are really, really good right now that are playing at a high level, of course, you’re almost looking to stay with them," Maddon said. "The teams that are not playing that well, there’s probably a reason why they are not. You really do need to take advantage of those moments.”

[SHOP WHITE SOX: Get a Chris Sale jersey right here]

But Crosstown games can be unpredictable. The Cubs were eight games over .500 in 1999 before the White Sox dealt them a three-game sweep at Wrigley Field — and by the time the series returned to the South Side, the Cubs were four games under .500. The two teams split six games in 2005, four months before the White Sox went on to win the World Series.

While you’ll hear refrains of "it’s just another game” emanating from the home and away clubhouses at Wrigley Field over the next few days, there is a different dynamic to these games — even with both the Cubs and White Sox at different positions heading into the weekend.

“Everybody downplays it,” White Sox manager Robin Ventura said, “but there’s always a little more energy in either stadium, whichever one you’re playing in, when you’re playing in those games.”

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.