Do Cubs have what it takes to make big deal for pitching?


Do Cubs have what it takes to make big deal for pitching?

ST. LOUIS — The Cubs have the prospects to make deals. They might or might not have the wherewithal to take on big salaries at the July 31 deadline. There’s no doubt they have to strengthen their rotation.

The Cubs didn’t need an 8-1 loss to their biggest rival to know they need more pitching. It became obvious in front of another sellout crowd at Busch Stadium, with Donn Roach up from Triple-A Iowa making a spot start and the St. Louis Cardinals running away in the National League Central.

The Cardinals knocked out Roach in the fourth inning and cruised to their 50th victory this season, leaving the Cubs 10 1/2 games back in the division and looking for help in the wild-card race.

One way to ease the organization’s business vs. baseball tension has been this idea the money will be there for the right player at the right time. The Ricketts family would make it work with Crane Kenney’s business operations department generating the revenue and Theo Epstein’s baseball side building the perennial contender.

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It doesn’t sound like the Cubs have green-lighted — or completely ruled out — a massive investment (Philadelphia Phillies ace Cole Hamels?) at this point.

“We haven’t brought that player to them yet,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “That’s a conversation where we haven’t brought that idea to them. Maybe this deadline will be that moment. It may not be. But we certainly haven’t crossed that bridge yet.”

It’s unclear what happens to the $20 million earmarked for the losing Masahiro Tanaka bid, which boosted this year’s payroll to around $120 million. Or how soon the Cubs might tap into a new TV megadeal. Or when the cable bubble might burst.

“It all depends on how that contract would fit into our books over the next couple years,” Hoyer said. “Would it make sense? Would it limit us in the offseason to what we might want to do? But we have flexibility this deadline.”

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The Cubs probably won’t flex the financial muscles you’d expect from a big-market team, but maybe there’s an opening for smaller deals if a renovated Wrigley Field becomes the place to be this summer and this team stays relevant.

The immediate focus is now on the rotation as Tsuyoshi Wada deals with a left shoulder injury. It’s up to Jason Hammel to stop a four-game losing streak on Sunday night at Busch Stadium.

The Cubs (39-34) can then regroup with an off-day on Monday in New York and will line up Kyle Hendricks, Jon Lester and Jake Arrieta for a three-game series against the Mets. They wouldn’t need a fifth starter again until the Fourth of July against the Miami Marlins in Wrigleyville.

Roach escaped a bases-loaded jam in the first inning and left a 2-1 game with the bases loaded again in the fourth, ultimately getting charged with four runs on eight hits. The Cubs need help, and it doesn’t necessarily have to be a No. 1 starter.

“We’ll see where we are as we get closer to the deadline,” Hoyer said. “You can’t make someone available. You can’t make deals that aren’t there. That’s why I think it’s going to be a deadline where we have to be creative and think through a lot of avenues.

“But we know we need to add starting pitching, whether it’s minor-league depth, whether it’s innings to get us through the season. We know that’s going to be a focus. We just have to make sure that we really leave no stone unturned.”

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.