Miguel Montero, Willson Contreras and where the Cubs go from here

Miguel Montero, Willson Contreras and where the Cubs go from here

The Cubs could activate Miguel Montero as soon as this weekend at Wrigley Field, adding another edgy personality to what’s becoming a heated rivalry with the Pittsburgh Pirates.

The Cubs have stacked up the most wins in baseball (25) without getting a home run from Jason Heyward or a hit from Kyle Schwarber or much of a jolt from Montero, a two-time All-Star catcher who had been hitting .208 when he went on the disabled list on April 28 with lower back tightness.

Until getting swept by the last-place San Diego Padres during Wednesday’s doubleheader, the Cubs made it past a Blackhawks playoff run, the NFL Draft, Cinco de Mayo, the Kentucky Derby and Mother’s Day before finally losing back-to-back games for the first time this season.

The Cubs understand it will be impossible to maintain a .758 winning percentage for the next 129 games. Theo Epstein’s front office is already bracing for the crash, trying to think through worst-case scenarios and how to respond in the middle of a pennant race.

The dynamic between Montero — who’s nearing the end of his rehab assignment with Triple-A Iowa — and elite catching prospect Willson Contreras helps show how the Cubs got to this point and where they go from here.

The Cubs won’t rush Contreras, a Southern League batting champion last season, or Albert Almora, the first player drafted here by the Epstein administration in 2012. But Contreras is viewed as a future frontline catcher, and Almora has such good instincts that he could be a plus defender in a big-league outfield tomorrow.

“You always try to balance major-league need with long-term player development,” Epstein said. “We think it’s really important that our best prospects spend as close to a full year as possible at the Triple-A level.

“Especially with catchers, their time at Triple-A is invaluable, because it’s as close as you can get to the major-league dynamic, understanding how to handle pitchers, how to call games, how to maintain a sense of calm, even when things are speeding up during the course of a game.”

With Schwarber recovering from knee surgery, it didn’t become a difficult decision when Montero felt something similar to the lower back strain that forced him to miss almost a month with the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2013.

This is the kind of situation the Cubs envisioned when they agreed to a minor-league deal with Tim Federowicz, a former Boston Red Sox draft pick (shocker) who caught Matt Harvey at the University of North Carolina and worked with Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke on the Los Angeles Dodgers.

“When you have a catcher making his major-league debut, there’s a lot that goes into that,” Epstein said. “A lot of guys have to kind of nurse him through that. He’s got to make some mistakes, so that he can learn from (them). He’s got to build relationships. There will be a time for that.”

The Pacific Coast League can create some numbers inflation. But the Cubs don’t doubt Contreras — who’s batting .347 with a .939 OPS through his first 27 games with Iowa — will become an impact hitter in The Show.

“He’s a really talented hitter,” Epstein said. “But we’re not as concerned with his offensive development. He’s a real natural hitter. He hits the ball hard, sprays line drives from line to line, drives the ball through the gaps, doesn’t strike out a lot, has a pretty good feel for the strike zone.

“So I think he’s going to adjust pretty well over time offensively. It’s really the nuances of running a pitching staff that he’s working on. Triple-A is the perfect place to do that.”

The Cubs left their pitchers in the capable hands of David Ross and Federowicz, who have helped the rotation go 24-for-33 in quality starts and put up a 2.29 ERA that leads the majors by a wide margin (with the Washington Nationals second at 2.77).

That’s also a product of the complex game-planning system designed by coaches Chris Bosio and Mike Borzello and supported by Joe Maddon’s Geek Department.

It’s unfair to think Contreras — who grew up in Venezuela and will turn 24 on Friday — can just show up and take charge of a Cy Young Award winner (Jake Arrieta) and two two-time World Series champions (Jon Lester and John Lackey).

“A Triple-A clubhouse is an interesting place to navigate,” Epstein said. “You got some guys on the way up, some guys on the way down who feel they should be back up there. Pitchers are working on things, and sometimes you can learn a lot just keeping those guys happy and being the guy they want to throw to.

“Advance (scouting) reports are more a part of the equation at Triple-A than they are at Double-A or the lower levels. It’s the perfect place for him to be right now and continue to evolve.

“He’s an outstanding thrower, an outstanding blocker, but he’s continuing to work on his receiving as well. Besides the intangible components of catching, he’s working on receiving all the different pitches in all the different parts of the zone.”

The Cubs will hold a seven-game lead over the Pirates when they face Francisco Liriano on Friday afternoon in Wrigleyville, knowing that it will take veterans like Montero and Heyward picking up the pace, energy boosts from the farm system and the trade deadline and even more unexpected contributions (Shane Victorino?) to successfully finish this marathon.

“It’s so early,” Epstein said. “We’re thrilled with the start we’ve gotten off to, but we’re not blinded by it.

“The season’s 26 weeks long. A team could make up a game every other week on us and catch us and pass us. It doesn’t change the thought process at 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?


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.