Cubs

Epstein will have to answer the Garza question

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Epstein will have to answer the Garza question

Forget Albert Pujols or Prince Fielder. The bigger litmus test will be Matt Garza. That could reveal what Theo Epstein really thinks about this team.

The tricky question of when the Cubs will truly be able to compete could be answered by what Epstein does with Garza. There wont be an easy answer. Even the new president of baseball operations seems conflicted.

Epstein watched Garza eliminate the Boston Red Sox in 2008 and win the ALCS MVP award. Garza wasnt afraid of pitching in a brutal division and loved Fenway Parks big stage.

Thats why, when pressed, Epstein will say: Hes exactly the type of guy that wed like to build around.

But its more complicated than that. Garza, who made close to 6 million last season, remains arbitration-eligible for two more years. For a team looking to win now, a 28-year-old, big-game power pitcher might be more attractive than any free agent on the market.

The Cubs will have to at least wonder what they could get for that, maybe multiple pieces that will help accelerate this rebuilding process.

Thats one of the greatest challenges of the job, Epstein said Thursday, balancing short-term interests with long-term interests and making sure they align, being honest about where you are as an organization and when your opportunity to really win comes.

Jim Hendry never felt like he was mortgaging the future when he sent five players to the Tampa Bay Rays almost 11 months ago. The ex-general manager had studied future free-agent classes and knew it was a rare opportunity to get a frontline starter under club control through 2013.

When the industry gathers for the winter meetings next week in Dallas, Garzas name will be linked to trade rumors all over again. But that doesnt automatically mean hes going somewhere else.

There are ways to turn quote-unquote short-term assets into longer-term assets, Epstein said. Its not just through trade. You can also do it through contract extensions. There are a lot of different ways to build a foundation.

Well be open-minded about that with all of our players and see which way things go.

Epstein isnt emotionally attached to these players the way Hendry once was, though he is locked into the idea of getting more pitching. Look for more value signings, like the reasonable two-year, 10 million commitment (plus an option) just given to outfielder David DeJesus.

We need starting pitching, Epstein said. You cant take your chances very seriously as a club if you go into the season without not just five guys you can point to but six, seven, eight guys. You better know who your ninth starters going to be because (the) numbers show youre going to need (him) at some point during the course of the year.

Which seems to suggest it wouldnt make sense to unload your best starter. Epstein had good things to say about Jeff Samardzija and Andrew Cashner, but wouldnt reveal whether those two young pitchers are ticketed for the bullpen.

Epstein isnt prepared to move Sean Marshall to the rotation: If you have the best left-handed reliever in baseball, its hard to think about taking him out of that role.

Garza went 10-10 with a 3.32 ERA last season, though thats deceptive because he left with the lead seven times without factoring into the decision. He has the ability to make hitters swing and miss (197 strikeouts in 198 innings), which is something this front office values.

Garza did miss a few weeks with a right elbow contusion, but has made at least 30 starts in each of the past four seasons. He definitely has an edge, a few personality quirks, but teammates respected his energy and effort. He answered the questions about how hed handle playing in a big market.

DeJesus has spent his entire major-league career in Kansas City and Oakland, but he seems ready for the bright lights. He recently moved into a home in Wheaton with his wife and 18-month-old son, so hes seen the wall-to-wall Epstein coverage.

The hype thats going around, its a beautiful thing, DeJesus said. To be able to be a part of it (is) such a blessing.

Perhaps the biggest question for the Cubs this winter remains unanswered: Will Garza become part of Epsteins grand plan?

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.