House of cards: What if Cubs had traded for Jonathan Papelbon?


House of cards: What if Cubs had traded for Jonathan Papelbon?

CINCINNATI – Jonathan Papelbon choking Bryce Harper became the perfect billboard for the Washington Nationals and their dysfunctional season.

And perhaps a sign the Cubs got another break in a magical year where almost everything seems to have gone right.

While the Cubs crunch numbers against the Pittsburgh Pirates and run through scenarios for the National League wild-card game, they can’t rely on a closer with six All-Star selections, 349 career saves and a 2007 World Series ring from the Boston Red Sox.

The Cubs also haven’t had to deal with that many clubhouse headaches or the “Cinco Ocho” alter ego.

There are factors that have nothing to do with computers and can’t be seen on spreadsheets. There’s no doubt this overall vibe has contributed to what has become a 94-win team.

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The rookies had to squeeze into ridiculous dresses after sweeping the Cincinnati Reds with Thursday afternoon’s 5-3 victory at Great American Ball Park. Let the good times roll. 

“I’ve known Jonathan for a long time, so I certainly would never disparage him,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “He had some pretty unbelievable seasons in Boston. But it does say a lot about (chemistry).

“That’s one of the things you wrestle with a lot at the trade deadline. You always want to improve your team. You always want to add depth to your team. But however you want to say it, it’s a house of cards all the time.

“You don’t know which move is going to topple things, or which move is really going to bolster things.”

With their bullpen in flux throughout the season, the Cubs had extensive talks with the Philadelphia Phillies and tried to trade for Papelbon before the July 31 deadline, but they didn’t have the financial muscle to beat the Nationals.

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The Cubs have so many Red Sox connections inside their front office and within the clubhouse. Jon Lester publicly vouched for Papelbon, saying his ex-teammate would be more than a WWE villain/cartoon character. Manager Joe Maddon has an open mind and can relate to all kinds of players.

The Cubs had less than $5 million to play with at the July 31 deadline and wound up making smaller deals with the Miami Marlins and Baltimore Orioles, acquiring a veteran No. 5 starter (Dan Haren) and an intriguing/inconsistent reliever (Tommy Hunter).

Three days earlier, the Nationals added Papelbon to a combustible mix, giving up a Double-A pitcher and getting the Phillies to kick in $4.5 million to help cover his salary. Washington also reportedly convinced Papelbon to rework next year’s option, getting it guaranteed at $11 million instead of $13 million, with $3 million deferred to 2017.

The Washington Post just published an excellent three-part series on the rise and fall of the Nationals, a team that won 96 games last year and began this season as a World Series favorite on paper.

It exposed Matt Williams as an overmatched, tone-deaf manager and revealed the insecurities inside the clubhouse, what it did to homegrown closer Drew Storen, who got bumped out of the ninth inning and wound up breaking his thumb while slamming his locker in frustration.

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The headline to the third story in that ambitious Washington Post project: “In Jonathan Papelbon, Nationals got their closer – and their kiss of death.”

“It’s hard,” Hoyer said. “I’ve seen examples when it worked great – a team makes big changes at the deadline and they take off. And I’ve seen a lot of examples where doing almost nothing or doing small things is the right thing.”

Hoyer once interviewed for the job that went to Chicago guy Mike Rizzo, an old-school scout at heart with strong convictions and a sharp eye for talent.

The Nationals have gone from being a rebuilding blueprint to a cautionary tale for a Cubs franchise that is feeling pretty, pretty good about itself these days and will have to guard against the institutional arrogance rooted in Washington.

But Theo Epstein’s front office should get credit for all the smaller moves that have added up to the third-best record in baseball and a 21-game improvement from the year before.

It’s getting Clayton Richard for one dollar from Pittsburgh’s Triple-A affiliate. It’s signing Trevor Cahill to a minor-league deal. It’s dealing with the Seattle Mariners to get Fernando Rodney and Austin Jackson – who blasted a three-run homer to give the Cubs the lead in the third inning on Thursday, the day after putting up five RBI – as insurance policies.

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It’s allowed Maddon to play mix-and-match with the lineup and push whatever buttons he wants in the bullpen. Since getting no-hit by Cole Hamels and swept by the worst team in baseball in late July, the Cubs have gone 43-19.

“We’ve been able to add quite a bit of depth,” Hoyer said, “and that’s really helped us as guys have struggled or as guys have gotten hurt.

“To a man, the guys that we’ve added have really brought something to the clubhouse and brought something to our team.”

Keep playing it out: What if Chase Utley hadn’t been so focused on going home to the West Coast and directing the Phillies to make a trade with the Los Angeles Dodgers?

The Cubs tried to get the six-time All-Star second baseman in August for his postseason experience and lead-by-example qualities.

But with Utley, would Starlin Castro have gotten buried and never come close to his red-hot September (1.202 OPS)? Could Javier Baez have showcased his all-around ability, either for the playoff roster, an offseason trade for pitching or the 2016 Opening Day lineup?

“You never know,” Hoyer said. “That’s the hardest part. You have to make decisions at the time not knowing what ripples in that pond are going to happen based on that move.”

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.