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Jason Heyward will be an X-factor in Cubs-Cardinals rivalry

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Jason Heyward will be an X-factor in Cubs-Cardinals rivalry

Jason Heyward could become the next Cub killer. This also looks like a free agent who would check all the boxes for Theo Epstein’s front office. That left-handed swing and Gold Glove defense would also be perfect for Yankee Stadium.

The St. Louis Cardinals acquired Heyward with the hope that he would be their next great core player, planning for the future and eventually life after Matt Holliday and Yadier Molina.

Otherwise, the Cardinals wouldn’t have done that four-player deal last November, watching Shelby Miller (2.07 ERA) blossom into an All-Star with the Atlanta Braves.

Either way, Heyward should be an X-factor in the Cubs-Cardinals rivalry. In leaving Atlanta — the city he grew up around and the organization that made him a first-round pick in 2007 — Heyward almost sounded like Jon Lester after signing that six-year, $155 million megadeal.

[MORE CUBS: 'A loss is a loss': Cubs feel sting after Cards deal gutting defeat]

“Everyone here did their part — more than their part — to make me feel at home and welcome,” Heyward said Wednesday, sitting at his locker inside Wrigley Field’s cramped visiting clubhouse. “But I still had to do my part as far as just feeling adjusted and becoming accustomed to everything.

“It’s kind of like the monkey on your back. You have the added element every day (where) there’s something to go along with the natural preparation of getting ready for a game.

“But I’ve had a blast. And it’s been nothing but positive things for me to say about my experience.”

If the Cubs really can afford to hand out a nine-figure contract next winter, you would think they would prioritize pitching, a frontline guy like David Price or Jordan Zimmermann to go with Lester and Jake Arrieta.

[MORE CUBS: Jason Hammel injury shows how much Cubs need more pitching]

But Heyward will turn 26 in August and should have his best years in front of him, though it’s hard to put a price tag on that potential, the flashes of patience, speed, power and defense.

Heyward has already been a top-10 National League position player in terms of WAR — a metric that weighs defense heavily — in three of his five seasons. He gets on base around 35 percent of the time. He stole 20-plus bases in 2012 and 2014. He has exceeded the 20-homer, 80-RBI marks only once (in 2012).

The Cubs have questions marks in the outfield — especially if Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber stay at third base and catcher — and 2016 is too soon to count on the Albert Almoras and Billy McKinneys in the farm system.

“They’re a good team in a really good division,” Heyward said. “That’s plain and simple. They can go out and win any night. They have a good enough team to do so. They have new leadership (and that) can go a long way.”

[MORE CUBS: Maddon comfortable with Bryant, Rizzo in Home Run Derby]

The chain of events that led Heyward to St. Louis began with Atlanta’s decision to promote a hometown, homegrown player and put him in their 2010 Opening Day lineup — and not gain the extra year of club control the Cubs got when they stashed Bryant at Triple-A Iowa to start this season.

Heyward hit a three-run homer off Carlos Zambrano in his first big-league at-bat as the Braves gave the Cubs a 16-5 beatdown at Turner Field. Atlanta won 91 games that season and made the playoffs as a wild-card team.

“You don’t think about it at that time,” Heyward said. “It’s a business. Certain things you can never control. Just try to control what you can. Don’t take anything for granted.

“You understand that trades and things like that are part of it. Growing up in Georgia, I’ve seen the Braves make plenty of moves like that, and you always wonder why they’re letting go of certain guys, and it just happened time after time after time. So for anybody that was surprised — I wasn’t.”

[SHOP CUBS: Get your Cubs gear right here]

The Cardinals wanted to use this season as a recruiting pitch and a chance to get to know Heyward, who’s hitting .278 with nine homers and 30 RBIs and slowly heating up from April (.611 OPS) through May (.783 OPS) and into June (.881 OPS) and what should be a huge platform in the playoffs.

“I want to go for a winning attitude, a winning-mindset organization,” Heyward said. “After that, let everything else take care of itself. I’d just like to try to win as many games as possible and know that’s the reason you show up every day for work.

“When the time comes to make decisions, we’ll see what happens. Just tackle it then. Right now, I’m in a perfect place.”

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.