How Oakland helped redirect Jon Lester and turn Cubs into contenders

How Oakland helped redirect Jon Lester and turn Cubs into contenders

Maybe institutional arrogance would have inevitably driven Jon Lester out of Fenway Park. The Boston Red Sox lowballed their homegrown ace – really their only consistently reliable drafted-and-developed starting pitcher in a generation – with a no-chance spring-training extension offer in 2014.

But Oakland A’s baseball czar Billy Beane gave the Cubs another assist at that trade deadline – four weeks after the Jeff Samardzija/Addison Russell deal – by shipping out Yoenis Cespedes and acquiring Lester in a move that shocked the industry.

That meant Lester – a creature of habit comfortable in Boston – would get an eye-opening experience outside Red Sox Nation and broaden his horizons a little bit. The Red Sox couldn’t seriously play the loyalty card anymore, while the A’s couldn’t tag Lester with a qualifying offer after his no-decision in an American League wild-card loss to the Kansas City Royals.

The Oakland Coliseum doesn’t have a reputation for being family-friendly, and the Cubs played up all the planned amenities at a renovated Wrigley Field during Lester’s recruiting visit to Chicago, paving the way to a six-year, $155 million megadeal with a last-place team that needed to show the franchise would be serious about winning.

The butterfly effect is a fascinating concept while looking back on how Theo Epstein’s baseball-operations group built the team with the best record in baseball. Seeing Lester (11-4, 2.95 ERA) pitch against a green-and-gold backdrop on Friday night on the same lot where the Golden State Warriors built a Super Team will be another reminder.

[MORE: John Lackey came to Chicago to win a World Series]

“It was a big surprise,” Lester said. “I didn’t actually think I would get traded. I knew that was a possibility. But I was just thinking if things didn’t work out, they would want that draft pick, knowing those guys (in Boston). It ended up working out.”

Lester will always remember July 31, because it’s his oldest son’s birthday. Hudson turned four the day Lester got traded from the organization that drafted him out of high school in 2002 and gave him two World Series rings.  

“We were having a party,” Lester said, at the family’s house in suburban Boston. “I had found out that morning. I went and got some stuff from the (clubhouse). We all sat around and we were watching MLB (Network). Somebody would get up and take a phone call and we’d be like: ‘Oh, OK.’

“And then Andrew Miller would come (back) in and (say): ‘Yeah, I’m going to Baltimore.’ It would come up on the screen: ‘Andrew Miller traded to Baltimore.’ And then Stephen Drew got traded to the Yankees, who we were playing at the time. ‘Lack’ (John Lackey) got traded (to St. Louis).

“We were all sitting around just watching MLB (Network) while the kids were going crazy. And paused for some cake and went back to watching MLB.

“It was just a really weird day that will definitely go down as a lasting memory for my family.”

[SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

The Cubs focused most of their energy on upgrading the bullpen before this week’s non-waiver deadline, getting game-over closer Aroldis Chapman and a few more complementary pieces. While supply-and-demand dynamics, long-range planning and intradivision/crosstown politics factored into those decisions, the bottom line is the Cubs already made their biggest moves.

“We’re all kids here in the toy aisle,” Lester said. “We’re all trying to play GM and say: ‘Why don’t you get this guy?’ There’s always logistics that we don’t understand, (things) that we don’t see. ‘Just get this guy and give him $10 million bucks next year’ – we don’t understand the ramifications of that.

“It’s still fun to sit back and say: ‘What if? What if we get this guy? What it we get that guy?’ You’re definitely paying attention to it. (But) I pay less attention to it now that I don’t have to worry about it.”

Epstein’s front office ignored the rule already broken for Lester and gave no-trade protection – and $240 million combined – to Ben Zobrist and Jason Heyward with October power pitching in mind. How much is enough? A lineup anchored by MVP candidates Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant – with All-Star leadoff guy Dexter Fowler at the top – is either good enough or it’s not.

Jake Arrieta must perform at a Cy Young Award winner-level in the playoffs. Lackey will show up for the Big Boy Games or he won’t. And the Cubs aren’t going very far in October without Lester living up to his reputation as one of the best big-game pitchers of his generation.

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.