Cubs

Leading off, Castro only scratching the surface

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Leading off, Castro only scratching the surface

Sunday, April 3, 2011Posted: 3:00 PM

By Patrick Mooney
CSNChicago.com

Starlin Castro glided to his left and leaned down to grab the bouncing ball. The shortstop spun and had one foot planted on the edge of the outfield, his momentum carrying him past second base.

Castro had trouble gripping the ball in the 41-degree cool of Wrigley Field. But he saw first base and made an accurate throw. Carlos Pena swiped it out of the air after one hop, just before the runner stepped on the bag.

The Cubs still have to account for more than 4,000 outs this season. But the first play on Opening Day a chopper up the middle reinforced everything the Cubs think about their 21-year-old shortstop.

For Castro, there will be many ups and downs across these 162 games. Sundays 5-4 loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates was a microcosm, filled with moments that can be electrifying and easy to second-guess.

Initially, Mike Quade didnt want to overload Castro with leadoff responsibilities. It took two games before the manager changed his mind. From the top of Sundays lineup, Castro went 3-for-4 with two triples. He crushed one 400 feet off the top of the brick wall in center, and smashed the other up the third-base line.

Anywhere you put him, he looks good, Alfonso Soriano said, because hes got so much talent.

That makes it hard to rip Castro for the split-second decision he made with one out in Sundays ninth inning. The Cubs were clinging to a one-run lead and the Pirates had runners on second and third when Castro charged a soft groundball hit by Pedro Alvarez.

Castro didnt go home and he didnt hang onto it. His throw to first pulled Pena off the bag, allowing two runs to score. Quade reserved judgment on that play, saying that hed have to take another look.

The manager also admitted that he doesnt see leadoff as a regular thing for Castro, who will likely hit second on Monday. But its a clear sign of how much the shortstop has grown.

He acts like hes been here for years and I mean that in a good way, Pena said. Im talking about the way he goes about his at-bat, (how) he is so calm, regardless of the situation. (He) takes his pitches and when he gets a good (one) he takes an aggressive swing with an incredible confidence.

Yet Im also impressed with the fact that he doesnt seem to know how good he is. (I) like that humility in him, (how) hes working out there every day. Hes here early. He respects everyone (and) he respects the game, (yet) we all know the potential this kid has.

The Cubs are trying to find the balance in Castros rookie season a .300 average weighed against 27 errors. They want him to slow the game down, to know how fast the runner is and realize how much time he has on each play.

Quade benched Castro for a few games last September. The manager also met with the shortstop about his practice habits in early March. Castro hasnt tuned out his coaches, or backed down from the challenge.

Once again, were talking about a 21-year-old kid, Quade said. I cant lose sight of that fact. Instead of me getting irritated all the time, I probably ought to recognize that hes still a very young player.

Castros birth certificate shouldnt be an excuse for mental lapses, but it is good for an occasional reminder. While his game matures, his English has improved to the point where hes doing some interviews without an interpreter at his side.

You also noticed Castro sitting in a laundry cart on Sunday morning in the clubhouse, chatting with Soriano and Marcos Mateo. He didnt exactly feel out of place last year, but now he knows he belongs.

I feel really comfortable because they look at me as a player, not a rookie, Castro said. (I get) a little more respect.

The Cubs are stuck with players getting paid for past performance and not necessarily future results. That doesnt make them unique. Thats how compensation works in professional sports.

But for the Cubs to contend, they will need players to exceed expectations. A huge year from Castro could change their offensive profile. Maybe this is foreshadowing he went 8-for-13 (.615) and scored four runs in the opening series.

You can wonder whether Castro will hit first or second, but thats probably missing the point. He has the potential to be a No. 3 hitter, an anchor in the lineup, almost everything out of the marketing departments dreams.

The skys the limit, Pena said. We may be seeing one of the best up-and-coming shortstops in the game. Im just happy to have a good seat to watch him play.

PatrickMooney is CSNChicago.com's Cubs beat writer. FollowPatrick on Twitter @CSNMooneyfor up-to-the-minute Cubs news and views.

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.