Jeff Samardzija will bring the heat if Cubs and Giants meet in October


Jeff Samardzija will bring the heat if Cubs and Giants meet in October

MESA, Ariz. — Picture Jeff Samardzija wearing black and orange for a playoff start at Wrigley Field and you get a good idea of what a rivalry with the San Francisco Giants could become.

Madison Bumgarner vs. Jason Heyward already felt like the kind of overreaction/misunderstanding the Cubs could be bringing upon themselves this year.

Joe Maddon unveiled his new “Embrace The Target” T-shirt on Saturday morning, less than 48 hours after Bumgarner and Heyward almost sparked a bench-clearing incident in the middle of a Cactus League game. The Cubs manager posed for pictures with a bull’s-eye literally on his chest.

Even if that’s for charity — and baseball does need so much more personality and the Cubs spent their free-agent money logically in an irrational market — it’s not going to stop other teams and opposing fans from noticing how Camp Maddon is generating all this hype.

Bumgarner — a three-time World Series winner — suspected Dexter Fowler had been tipping pitches to Heyward, who signed the biggest contract in franchise history this winter (eight years and $184 million guaranteed).

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“If you’re talking to your guy on second base after you get out,” Samardzija said, “then that’s going to bring a lot of things upon yourself, regardless of what the rhetoric is, no matter who you’re playing.”

Samardzija didn’t come close to rejoining the Wrigleyville circus, not when the Cubs wanted to do a high-dollar, short-term, prove-it deal that would have allowed him to work with pitching coach Chris Bosio and hit the free-agent market again after a disappointing season with the White Sox.

The Giants didn’t even make the highest offer at five years, $90 million, but Samardzija had bet on himself long enough and wanted to go to a world-class city, a win-now organization and a pitcher-friendly ballpark.

Samardzija returned to Sloan Park on Saturday afternoon and got into a rhythm, going six innings during a 5-2 win and giving up a home run to Addison Russell, the young shortstop the Cubs acquired from the Oakland A’s in that 2014 Fourth of July blockbuster.

“That’s the game we play,” Samardzija said. “We understand where we’re at with service time and where we’re at with contracts and what the organization is looking to do.

“You just hope that 20 years from now, they’re talking about: ‘Hey, they got traded for a guy that’s pretty good.’ Instead of: ‘Well, that didn’t work out.’

“Addison looks like a good dude. He plays hard. And when you (go) to the A’s organization, usually you get some gamers from over there, too.”

[MORE: Cubs see Trevor Cahill as the Ben Zobrist in their bullpen]

Samardzija understood where Theo Epstein was coming from and certainly noticed some of the spending restrictions placed upon the baseball-operations department during the rebuilding years.

“It was a risky plan,” Samardzija said. “But it worked out. Let’s not forget about the guys they added, too. I understand the prospects got a lot of attention. But you add a guy like Jon Lester, who I know personally. Miguel Montero — having a guy (like him) behind the plate is so key. I can’t even stress to you enough how important it is to have a veteran guy back there.

“And then what Bosio has done with some of the pitchers (has) been amazing.”

Samardzija traveled to Chicago and met with Epstein for drinks at a Southport Corridor bar before signing with San Francisco. A reporter asked Samardzija if he had stayed in contact with former teammates like Anthony Rizzo during the free-agent process.

“Yeah, a little bit here and there,” Samardzija said. “But a baseball offseason, man, you don’t really talk to these guys. You’ve seen enough of them throughout the year, heard enough of them throughout the year, the last thing you want to do is waste any days in December talking to Rizzo.”

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Samardzija laughed: “I like to take my time. When the season starts, I’ll see him enough and talk to him enough throughout the year. That’s it. You got to space that time out.”

Seeing the Cubs and Giants in October would be great theater. After playing football at Notre Dame, living through the hype in Chicago and listening to all the trade rumors, Samardzija knows all about embracing the target.

“You show up every day and do your job, no matter what the lineup is,” Samardzija said. “Because you know even a team that’s under .500 and not in the mix — if they’re playing the Cubs on WGN — that’s going to be their big game of the month.

“They’re going to come out swinging. That’s just the way it is when you’re up top. Teams are gunning for you.”

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.