How Cubs created the ideal environment for young talent

How Cubs created the ideal environment for young talent

Javier Baez wheeled his suitcase into the Wrigley Field clubhouse on Wednesday morning, wearing sunglasses indoors, rocking a leopard-print sport coat and navy shorts and holding one of his two pit bulls – Kimbo – on a leash. (“Like Kimbo Slice,” the mixed martial arts fighter who died from heart failure this month.)

The Cubs had the best record in baseball – with 11 26-or-younger players on their active 25-man roster for that afternoon’s game against the St. Louis Cardinals – and another Joe Maddon frat-house stunt lined up for the getaway flight to Miami.

“It’s ‘The Anthony Rizzo Who Wears Short Shorts? Anthony Wears Short Shorts Road Trip,’” Maddon said during a pregame media session that lasted almost 18 minutes. “There’s no real rule. If you’re wearing sandals, you have to have painted toenails. That’s it.”

The manager’s gimmicks wouldn’t seem so cute if this was still a last-place team. Chemistry experiments always work better with real talent. And the Cubs haven’t really won anything yet.

But so far this season Cubs fans used to grumbling about overhyped prospects – in a weird media market and a city filled with so many temptations for professional athletes – might have been watching five of the eight position players who will start the All-Star Game for the National League.

For all the talk about The Cardinal Way, St. Louis has been shuffling core players to (Randal Grichuk) and from (Kolten Wong) Triple-A Memphis. The New York Mets are already sending postcards from “Panic City,” with reports suggesting demoting Michael Conforto – a breakout performer in last year’s playoffs – to Triple-A Las Vegas would be one way to shake up the team.

Of all places, Wrigleyville has become an ideal spot to welcome Albert Almora Jr. and Willson Contreras to The Show. During Wednesday’s 7-2 loss, Contreras came off the bench when Miguel Montero hurt his knee in the sixth inning and drove a two-run homer into the bleachers in the seventh.

“It’s the environment we’re in (and) the people surrounding us,” said Kris Bryant, a Rookie of the Year closing in on his second All-Star selection before his first full season in the big leagues. “It really goes unnoticed just how much fun we’re having. It really makes those times where we’re struggling turn quicker, just because you’re playing the game for the right reasons and not putting any more pressure on yourself.”

So the Cubs (47-23) aren’t going to overreact to getting swept by the Cardinals (38-33). Pedro Strop, the chest-pounding, pointing-to-the-sky reliever, credited Maddon for allowing players to feel free and be themselves, as well as the good mix of personalities inside the clubhouse. Strop compared this group to the old-school Texas Rangers team he joined in 2009.

“You could not ride the bus if you were a rookie,” Strop said. “You got to be there earlier. Stuff like that. I couldn’t wear my hat to the side.

“Stuff that really doesn’t (matter) in the games. That’s what I mean when I say ‘old-school.’ There was a lot of stuff that rookies couldn’t do. You could not lay on the table getting a massage before some veteran (players).

“If you need a massage, I don’t care if you’re 21 years old. If that massage is going to help us win, get it.”

A major-league scout described Contreras as a little “hyper” behind the plate, but that intensity/energy level also helped transform him into arguably the game’s top catching prospect.

“I want him to continue to be that guy,” Maddon said. “I never want to see that leave him. Too many times, a young player like that will come up and eventually (someone) will get in (his) ear and try to tell (him) you can’t be that way.

“(Willson) can be that way for the next 15 years, and I’m good with it. I love his enthusiasm, (and) his effort is sincere. It’s just who he is. Never change who you are, man.”

Compare this atmosphere to the circus that greeted Rizzo almost exactly four years ago for his debut in a Cubs uniform on June 26, 2012. That team was already 20-plus games under .500 and used five pitchers – Randy Wells, Scott Maine, James Russell, Shawn Camp and Carlos Marmol – to get through a 5-3 win over the Mets at Wrigley Field.

“We pride ourselves on player development,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “But I also think that the guys that are coming up right now have a distinct advantage over the guys like Rizzo that came up when they were batting third and expected to carry the lineup.

“It’s never easy to debut in the big leagues, but I do think when you’re debuting on a really good team, you’re not in the spotlight quite as much. You’re not expected to carry the team. A guy like Rizzo really had to carry the load when he came up and that’s a different way to break into the big leagues than these guys are now.”

Those 101 losses in 2012 also yielded No. 2 overall picks in the Rule 5 and amateur drafts, leading to future closer Hector Rondon, Bryant’s billboards in Wrigleyville and what’s become a destination for young talent and big-name free agents.

“We all get together as a team,” Baez said. “We always stay together.”

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.