Cubs

Don’t take it for granted: Cubs will face great expectations in 2016

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Don’t take it for granted: Cubs will face great expectations in 2016

This might have been the best chance for the Cubs to win a World Series in your lifetime. Or it could have been the opening scene for a dynasty. The point is you never know.

Yes, this franchise is positioned to get back to October over and over again, but there are zero guarantees. The Cubs stayed exceptionally healthy, developed a special chemistry and shattered all their internal projections for a talented young nucleus.

That’s why this should sting, even with all the unexpected good times at Wrigley Field this summer, the laugh-out-loud quotes from manager Joe Maddon, the quantum leaps made by rookies Kris Bryant, Addison Russell and Kyle Schwarber, the spontaneous clapping to the music when Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro walked up to home plate.

But it’s not like the New York Mets are a smoke-and-mirrors team that just swept the National League Championship Series with Wednesday night’s 8-3 victory in Game 4, leading for all 36 innings and showing their foundation should be built to last.

“I don’t want any of the guys to take it for granted,” catcher Miguel Montero said afterward. “You got to remember we maybe made it look a little easy the first year and we got to the NLCS. But don’t take it for granted. And I say that because I lived that before.”

Montero had been part of the 2007 Arizona Diamondbacks team that swept Lou Piniella’s Cubs in the divisional round – and then got swept by the Colorado Rockies – and wound up finishing two games over .500 in 2008.

“We were a young team who got to the NLCS,” Montero said. “A year later, we didn’t do anything. We played good, but not good enough. That’s my advice: Don’t take it for granted.

“Next year, just get to spring training with the same intensity, even hungrier than this year, so we finish what we started.”

[MORE: A season comes crashing down for Cubs in NLCS]

The Cubs still haven’t advanced to the World Series since 1945 or won a championship in 107 years, the longest droughts in North American professional sports.

With Jacob deGrom, Matt Harvey, Steven Matz and Noah Syndergaard, the Mets have four frontline starters between the ages of 22 and 27. That group limited the Cubs to six runs across 25 innings, notching 29 strikeouts by mixing speeds, hitting spots and consistently approaching triple-digit velocity.

“With good health, these guys are going to be good for many years to come,” manager Joe Maddon said. “There’s no question.”

Remember, the Cubs finished third in the division behind the St. Louis Cardinals and Pittsburgh Pirates. The Washington Nationals are still stacked with perennial MVP (Bryce Harper) and Cy Young Award (Max Scherzer) candidates. The Los Angeles Dodgers have a seemingly unlimited checkbook to fix a 92-win team. The San Francisco Giants have those three World Series titles since 2010.

It’s going to get more complicated now, bigger egos and bigger expectations surrounding this team. The harsh reality for the 2016 Cubs is that winning 90-plus games will be met with so-what shrugs and not the shaking-your-head, what-just-happened looks of joy and amazement.

That’s why president of baseball operations Theo Epstein understood this would be the end of the innocence, relating it to a conversation with his old buddy, Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder.

The 2015 Cubs would be like the band that catches fire with a first record, bursting onto the national scene, enjoying the newfound fame and then having to deal with the backlash.

“It stings right now getting swept,” pitcher Jake Arrieta said. “But to be one of four standing at the end of the year and still playing meaningful games in the middle of October is pretty special. We got to be happy with that. Use it as some motivation moving forward.”

[NBC SHOP: Buy Cubs playoff gear]

At this point, it’s unclear what a playoff push means for next year’s payroll and when the Cubs will be able to strike it rich with their next TV deal.

The David Price rumors started months – if not years – ago and the Cubs will probably need to add at least two legitimate starting pitchers to their rotation. Russell appears to be untouchable as the franchise shortstop, but trading Castro or Javier Baez could help address the organization’s pitching deficit.

The Cubs will likely explore the possibility of a long-term deal for Arrieta, who won’t become a free agent until after the 2017 season. But super-agent Scott Boras won’t do a team-friendly deal and wants his clients to test the open market.

The Cubs will give Dexter Fowler the qualifying offer and expect him to get paid elsewhere, meaning they will probably be looking for someone else to hit leadoff and play center field.

The Cubs can upgrade their bullpen, get better defensively and cash in some prospects for real big-league players in win-now trades. But The Plan is now clearly in place.

“We have a good idea of things we’ll potentially be able to accomplish in the future with the group of guys that are here,” Arrieta said. “I’m not big on outside expectations, but I think that we exceeded pretty much anybody’s expectations for the way we were able to play as a team throughout the season.

“Still playing meaningful games in the middle of October is really important and a very valuable experience for everybody involved. Moving forward, it’s only going to make us better.”

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.