With Fowler signing, Cubs make another statement that future is right now


With Fowler signing, Cubs make another statement that future is right now

MESA, Ariz. - Jake Arrieta walked up to Theo Epstein, extended a fist-pound and simply said, "Nice job."

In a sense, that was the perfect way to sum up Thursday at Cubs camp.

Of course, Arrieta was talking about Dexter Fowler's return to the Cubs and the dramatic, thrilling way in which the veteran centerfielder was announced to the team before the second official day of full team workouts.

[MORE - Cubs players react to Fowler's surprise arrival: 'Theo got us all']

To say the move was stunning is an understatement.

In the world of Twitter, nothing is kept secret for long. Yet in this case, the reporters were just as stunned as most of the Cubs organization when Epstein and Fowler stalked across a path between two practice fields.

In one fell swoop, Epstein's front office added a leadoff hitter and centerfielder and erased a potential issue in the clubhouse - Chris Coghlan was not happy with his playing time at the end of last season and his role wasn't exactly going to expand anytime soon. (Plus, $4.8 million for a guy who figures to be a backup is a pretty hefty price tag.)

[RELATED - Cubs deal Chris Coghlan to make room for Dexter Fowler signing]

Fowler's presence means Jason Heyward can move back to his more natural position of right field and it also gives Joe Maddon's lineup a bonafide leadoff hitter, setting the table - something Fowler excels at - and lengthens the order.

We're not Maddon and there are so many things that are bound to happen before the first regular season game April 4, but as it stands right now, this could be the Cubs' lineup against the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim on Opening Day:

1. Dexter Fowler - CF
2. Ben Zobrist - 2B
3. Anthony Rizzo - 1B
4. Kris Bryant - 3B
5. Jason Heyward - RF
6. Jorge Soler - LF
7. Kyle Schwarber - DH
8. Miguel Montero - C
9. Addison Russell - SS

Quite a bit different from the lineups Dale Sveum wrote out in the first years under Epstein's administration, eh?

Even when the Cubs move to National League games, Schwarber can catch or else he and Soler can platoon in left field. Maddon can give guys days off to keep them fresh and if there's an injury in the outfield, the Cubs now have quality options.

Maddon's message all spring so far has been for the Cubs to embrace the target on their backs as World Series favorites.

[SHOP: Gear up for the 2016 season, Cubs fans!]

Adding Fowler to the mix only makes that target larger.

"It's not even a consideration," Epstein said. "If it is, it is. We had the chance to add a really, really good player on a one-year contract to provide talent and depth and address a potential vulnerability on the team.

"It would be irresponsible not to make that move, in my opinion, given where we are. ... Our players are embracing the target. They are completely united. They're here for the right reasons. They have one goal in mind.

"They're having a blast. It's fun to just be around this group and even more so now."

It's only February, and the 2016 Cubs have already shown a flair for the dramatic. But will the season end in drama in late October/early November?

Only time will tell.

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.