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How Cubs rebuilt their pitching staff without a David Price

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How Cubs rebuilt their pitching staff without a David Price

The Cubs didn’t make one huge splash this winter, hoping the ripple effect from their smaller moves will create a pitching staff that can win a World Series.

David Price put the word out that he wanted to come to Chicago, play for Joe Maddon again and be part of the team that finally rides down Michigan Avenue for a championship parade. But the Cubs already had five more seasons to go on Jon Lester’s $155 million megadeal and didn’t feel as desperate as the Boston Red Sox.

So much for Price having a problem with David Ortiz and the fans at Fenway Park. President of baseball operations Theo Epstein told Boston’s WEEI that the Cubs finished “a distant third” in the bidding war, or roughly $50 million less than the $217 million the Red Sox guaranteed.

Three seasons of Shelby Miller would have cost the Cubs at least a young, middle-of-the-order hitter (Jorge Soler) and the organization’s best pitching prospect (Duane Underwood), and the Atlanta Braves still would have wanted more.

The Arizona Diamondbacks met Atlanta’s demands at the winter meetings, giving up last year’s No. 1 overall pick (Dansby Swanson), a good pitching prospect (Aaron Blair) and a legitimate big-league outfielder (Ender Inciarte).

[MORE CUBS: Why Cubs spent big this winter (and won't be major players next offseason)]

That same week in Nashville, the Cubs completed the Starlin Castro-for-Adam Warren trade they pitched to the New York Yankees at the July 31 deadline. Even before most of the industry checked into the Opryland, the Cubs had already agreed to a two-year, $32 million contract with John Lackey.

The Cubs wanted to close the Lackey deal before Zack Greinke made his anticipated decision between the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Francisco Giants and reset the market. Hours after the Lackey news broke, word leaked out that the Diamondbacks had shocked the baseball world with a six-year, $206 million offer Greinke couldn’t refuse.

“We really came to feel like the price of poker was very high to acquire starting pitching,” Epstein said. “Years and dollars were really significant for starters of note in free agency — and came with a significant amount of risk, frankly, that we weren’t completely comfortable with.

“(In) the trade market, we felt like in a lot of cases we would have had to pay like two dollars on the dollar almost in return.

“I think Lackey on a two-year deal, Warren with three years of control with the ability to start and also be effective (out of) the ‘pen made a lot of sense for us as a reaction to what was going on in the market.”

[MORE CUBS: Adam Warren brings 'World Series or die' mentality from Yankees to Cubs]

Lester kept recruiting Lackey, who had already done a big contract with Epstein when he ran the Red Sox and wanted to win a third World Series ring. Yankee insiders raved about Warren’s guts and unselfish attitude, while Cubs people think this swingman can be sneaky good outside the American League East.

“We believe he can be a starting pitcher — and a good one — in the National League Central,” Epstein said. “But we also think he can be extremely effective out of the bullpen. His ability to do both makes him incredibly valuable to us.”

Whether or not Warren becomes a glue guy for the entire pitching staff, the Cubs bought insurance by bringing back Clayton Richard, Trevor Cahill and Travis Wood for less than $13 million combined. Richard has 132 starts and two 14-win seasons on his big-league resume, while Cahill and Wood each made an All-Star team before reinventing themselves as relievers.

Pitching coach Chris Bosio even said Cahill turned down a two-year offer to start for the Pittsburgh Pirates — an organization that’s had so much success with pitching reclamation projects — and took a one-year, $4.25 million deal to return to the Cubs in a hybrid role.

“We have four guys that have really four pitches — some guys (have) five — it depends on a righty-lefty matchup and the numbers,” Bosio said. “But the versatility — teams are starting to try to follow what we’re doing. Other teams coveted guys that we had. But guys wanted to come here because they’re comfortable with what they’re doing.”

[SHOP CUBS: Get your Cubs gear right here]

The Cubs still have their intricate game-planning system, reigning Cy Young Award winner Jake Arrieta and a manager with a great feel for in-game decisions as well as big-picture concerns about workload and overuse.

The farm system hasn’t come anywhere close to delivering enough pitching talent and matching what’s been an unbelievable run for the organization’s young hitters. But the Cubs still put together a pitching staff that won 97 games and led the majors in WAR (24.2), WHIP (1.152) and strikeouts (1,431) last season.

“You can have impact pitching without necessarily having all household names (or) bona fide top-of-the-rotation guys,” Epstein said. “Knock on wood, we have to go out and accomplish this. But if you have a (really deep) staff where there’s no negative contributors, no replacement-level pitchers, all solid pitchers who throw strikes and can follow a game plan and miss bats and be effective, that can make you one of the better pitching staffs.

“I’d like to think if everyone pitches up to their potential (this) year, we’re getting close to that ideal.”

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.