Cubs

Joe Maddon breaks down Wade Davis vs. Aroldis Chapman as Cubs ramp up for another World Series run

Joe Maddon breaks down Wade Davis vs. Aroldis Chapman as Cubs ramp up for another World Series run

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. – The Cubs downplayed expectations after spending almost $290 million on free agents during their 2-for-1 offseason.

Trading for one season of Wade Davis at $10 million – and betting his right arm can withstand another deep playoff run – feels logical and measured in an environment where the New York Yankees just gave Aroldis Chapman a five-year, $86 million contract that smashed the record for closers.

Giving up Jorge Soler – an immense Cuban talent who looks like an NFL linebacker and once sparked a bidding war among big-market teams like the Yankees and Los Angeles Dodgers – seems painless. The Cubs have a roster crunch and obvious concerns about Soler’s ability to stay healthy and can’t turn him into the part-time designated hitter the Kansas City Royals envision.

But don’t confuse acting rational at the winter meetings with thinking small. Everything becomes clearer once you escape the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center bubble and head toward Reagan National Airport. Make no mistake, the Cubs left Washington on Thursday after acquiring the closer they believe will get the final out of the 2017 World Series.

“The Wade Davis move is an aggressive move,” team president Theo Epstein said. “It’s not like a hedge or a cautious move. We traded a longer-term asset for a short-term asset. But if you do that, you have to make sure the short-term asset is an impact one. And that was the case with Chapman. And that’s now the case with Davis.

“I see that as an aggressive move of an organization that’s hungry to win another World Series.”

After the Cubs handed manager Joe Maddon a shiny new toy – and gave up uber-prospect Gleyber Torres in that blockbuster Chapman deal with the Yankees in late July – Epstein asked: “If not now, when?”

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The Cubs viewed Chapman strictly as a rental and showed no interest in bringing him back to Chicago. The end would always have to justify the means after trading for a player who began the season serving a 30-game suspension under Major League Baseball’s domestic-violence policy. The Cubs got that championship parade down Lake Shore Drive and Michigan Avenue, so it won’t really matter if Torres becomes a star in The Bronx.

Beyond the enormous financial commitment and off-the-field concerns with Chapman, the Cubs are now getting an All-Star closer who worked at his craft by first making 88 starts in the big leagues. Where dealing with Chapman presented a language barrier and his preference to work one clean inning at a time, Maddon managed Davis during his first four seasons with the Tampa Bay Rays.

“They’re just different kinds of pitchers,” Maddon said. “I mean, Aroldis is pretty great. There’s several guys out there right now that everybody would like to have – and the guys that are out there as free agents are obvious. Guys like Wade Davis – ask around the industry – how many people would like to have him also?

“I can’t tell you he’s better. He’s just different. Like I said, Aroldis pretty much relies on his fastball and he’s got a great slider, whereas Wade, growing up as a starter, pitches.

“It’s just a different method of closing.”

Chapman is an athletic freak who created a buzz throughout Wrigley Field as fans looked up at the 3,990-square-foot LED video board for the velocity readings. He will turn 29 in spring training, but at some point the question will inevitably become: Can he pitch with something less than a 103-mph fastball?

Instead of waiting to pounce at the trade deadline, having Davis from Opening Day through possibly October should help protect Hector Rondon, Pedro Strop, Carl Edwards Jr. and Justin Grimm from a manager who wants to win every pitch and pushes his relievers hard.

Credit Chapman for evolving in the World Series and throwing 97 pitches in Games 5, 6 and 7 combined. But adding Davis shows the Cubs want to be a dynasty.

“He’s definitely a difference-maker,” Maddon said. “His stuff is that good. He’s high velocity, great cutter, very good curveball. He knows how to pitch, too, so part of the allure with him is he’s just not a thrower out there.

“He has other things other than his fastball. He gets out righties and lefties. So he pretty much does it all.”

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?

chavez_kamka_story.jpg
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.