Cubs

One year early? Belief in young players pays off for Cubs

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One year early? Belief in young players pays off for Cubs

Who says this young Cubs team arrived a year ahead of schedule?

A team infused with young talent and four rookies playing almost every day has found itself clinching a playoff spot with more than a week left in the regular season.

There is no clear-cut timeline for when a team is "supposed" to be a contender.

Joe Maddon talked seriously about the playoffs at his opening press conference. He really believed it was possible for a franchise that had recorded five straight fifth-place finishes entering 2015.

[MORE CUBS: Party like it's 2008 - Cubs clinch playoff berth with Giants loss]

"Coming through this baseball thing like I have, from the minor leagues on up, I've had a lot of young, good players," Maddon said. "I've always believed our teams are going to do well. Maybe it's just a positive nature. I don't know.

"But then it's accelerated with the skill level of these young guys. They're an unusually skillful group of young players."

On Saturday, Maddon discussed a lineup he filled out earlier in the week that featured four rookies in Kris Bryant, Addison Russell, Jorge Soler and Kyle Schwarber and then Javier Baez (who is not technically a rookie despite his lack of major-league experience).

In late September, most teams that play five young players like that are out of the postseason race. The Cubs are right in the thick of it.

"We're in this position and a lot of it is built on them," Maddon said, while also crediting veterans like Jon Lester and David Ross for leading from within the clubhouse.

[MORE CUBS: Jon Lester’s big-game reputation gave Cubs credibility in rebuild]

The Cubs understand the "one-year-too-early" angle, but they're not exactly adopting that as the next T-shirt slogan.

"It would have been impossible to expect this group of young players to play at this level," general manager Jed Hoyer said. "We're not suprised we've done it, but certainly expecting it would have been difficult.

"If it means we exceeded expectations, that made this summer a little bit more improbable. I think that's great. No individual player has done anything we know they can't do. And we think all these guys will do this going forward.

"I understand this narrative that we're one year too early. But I think Joe and this coaching staff really believed in this group all year and they proved him right."

Bryant has been touted as a possible Rookie of the Year candidate since he tore up the minors last year, but Russell wasn't expected to make his big-league debut on April 21 or supplant Starlin Castro as the franchise shortstop in August.

Schwarber wasn't supposed to be able to hold his own as a catcher in the majors, let alone mash the ball at the ridiculous pace he accomplished in his first two months in "The Show."

Baez had his season almost completely derailed by the death of his sister and then a finger injury, but he emerged on Sept. 1 as a factor with his defense all over the infield as well as his speed and more mature approach at the plate.

"It is amazing," Jake Arrieta said. "Being around for a while and knowing how difficult it is to play this game and to play it at a high level consistently and seeing Addy, Schwarbs, Bryant, all these guys do it at such a high level and continue to progress and learn on a daily basis, it's tremendous."

Russell isn't surprised by the production from the Cubs rookies this season.

[SHOP: Get your official Cubs postseason gear]

"I think we're doing what we need to do," Russell said. "Just looking around, it's clear this clubhouse is different. There are a lot of young guys, but we're young guys ready to win, willing to fight.

"Joe's giving them an opportunity and Theo [Epstein] and Jed are giving them an opportunity as well. I think we're all hungry and we're all blessed to be here and to get to this point.

"Now we just need to have fun and come out with some wins."

Even with the playoff berth, Maddon is keeping the Cubs focused on the big picture.

"It's an exciting time for all of us," Bryant said. "But we've got a lot of work to do. 

"We kind of had a feeling we were gonna get [a playoff spot]. But it's not over there."

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.