With or without Chase Utley, Cubs banking on young hitters


With or without Chase Utley, Cubs banking on young hitters

The ball has been in Chase Utley’s court, trying to come up with an exit strategy from the Philadelphia Phillies.

It’s up to Utley to leverage his no-trade rights and decide what he wants to do the rest of this season, whether that’s staying in the City of Brotherly Love, trying to make history in a Cubs uniform or going back to his West Coast roots with the Los Angeles Angels or San Francisco Giants.

The Los Angeles Dodgers and New York Yankees have also been floated as possible destinations for the six-time All-Star second baseman. Utley is said to be making playing time the No. 1 priority in his calculus, the chance to showcase his skills and get another contract for next season.

Sure, Utley could help this team, but ultimately the Cubs are going to win or lose with the young hitters they’ve collected through Year 4 of the Theo Epstein administration.

“These are our guys,” Epstein said at least four times while meeting with beat writers after a July 31 trade deadline where the Cubs focused on smaller deals for pitching.

[MORE CUBS: Why Cubs are still winning big after winning the offseason]

Their guys had no chance against Chris Sale on Sunday afternoon at U.S. Cellular Field, something Miguel Montero admitted on Twitter after a 3-1 loss to the White Sox that snapped a nine-game winning streak.

“It’s ok we have to lose sometime,” Montero tweeted. “#WeAreGood.”

Montero said Sale is from another planet. The 6-foot-6, 180-pound lefty who creates all those crazy angles took a no-hitter into the sixth inning before Dexter Fowler knocked a single into left field.

There are going to be days like this. Sale finished with 15 strikeouts in seven scoreless innings. The Cubs struck out 18 times for the third time this season.

Dan Haren — the No. 5 starter the Cubs acquired from the Miami Marlins at the trade deadline — got pulled in the fifth inning after giving up solo home runs to Jose Abreu, Alexei Ramirez and Melky Cabrera that combined traveled 1,073 feet.

[MORE CUBS: Cubs trying to find a way to unlock Jorge Soler's power]

“We’ve been open from the beginning that we’re going with young players at the big-league level,” Epstein said on July 31. “When you go with young position players, it comes with a lot of excitement. Sometimes it comes with some frustration and then oftentimes excitement again. You have to let your players work their way through slumps and see what it brings you.”

It brought the Cubs within 2 1/2 games of the Pittsburgh Pirates and the chance to host a playoff game at Wrigley Field. The Cubs have gone 15-2 in their last 17 games, building a 3 1/2-game lead over the Giants for the second wild-card spot.

Epstein said the Cubs didn’t want to add “just any bat” on July 31. Utley has cleared waivers and gone 13-for-26 in seven games since recovering from an ankle injury and coming off the disabled list.

But Utley might not see the clearest path to playing time here with manager Joe Maddon valuing Chris Coghlan’s offense (13 homers, .758 OPS) and versatility while trying to not destroy Starlin Castro’s confidence after three All-Star selections.

[MORE CUBS: Cubs bats disappear as Sale, White Sox halt winning streak]

“(The front-office guys are) absolutely out there trying to make us better,” Maddon said. “They’ll ask me what I think. I don’t necessarily want to come out and say we need things. More often than not, the overarching philosophy is what they’re thinking about and then they’ll say: ‘Well, what do you think about this?’

“I kind of like that approach. Because I’m so focused on what we’re doing here right now. I mean that sincerely. I rely on their abilities to make good decisions. It’s up to me to give my opinion when I’m asked.”

Beyond the chemistry issues, Utley is 36 years old and owed around $4 million for the rest of this season, plus a $2 million buyout of his 2016 option (which kicks in at 500 plate appearances but looks like a non-starter now).

With or without Utley, the Cubs are betting on their young hitters for the rest of this season and beyond.

“You got to give these guys a chance to play,” Epstein said, “a chance to learn, a chance to work their way out of slumps and a chance to win for you. These are our guys. We believe in them.”

Podcast: Bold predictions for the Cubs offseason


Podcast: Bold predictions for the Cubs offseason

With the MLB offseason about to kick off, we run down the boldest predictions for the Cubs winter from around the NBC Sports Chicago Cubs content team. Topics include where Bryce Harper and Manny Machado will sign, how much money they’ll get, what the Cardinals will do this winter, Cubs offseason trades and how Theo Epstein’s front office may add to the pitching staff.


One topic we could all agree on was David Ross' potential as Cubs bench coach if the incumbent Brandon Hyde ends up taking a job as manager for another team around the league.


Listen to the entire podcast here and check out all of our bold predictions below:



David Kaplan


—Anthony Rizzo and his new wife, Emily, will adopt Manny Machado, change his last name and see Manny Rizzo playing third base for the 2019 Cubs.

—Because of the Rizzo move, the Cubs will move Kris Bryant to a full-time outfielder.

—The Cubs will trade away Jose Quintana and sign Patrick Corbin.

—The Cubs will sign a pair of former Indians relievers for the back end of the bullpen in Andrew Miller and Cody Allen.

—The Cubs will trade Kyle Schwarber to the Royals for Whit Merrifield, who will start 155 games in the leadoff spot in the order.

—Joe Maddon will be a lot more consistent with the Cubs' lineup and batting order all season.


Kelly Crull


—Anthony and Emily Rizzo will receive more wedding gifts from Cubs fans than Kris and Jessica Bryan received.

—Anthony Rizzo will train this offseason so he will be able to sing — or play the piano — for the National Anthem at Wrigley in 2019.

—The Cubs will have no money left to remodel the media room at Wrigley Field.


Luke Stuckmeyer


—The Captain Morgan Club at Wrigley Field is going to be replaced by Kap's Kryo & Keto Korner.

—The Cubs will finally find a solution to the leadoff hitter issue.


Tony Andracki


—The Cubs sign Bryce Harper for less than $250 million. (He follows 23 people on Twitter)
—Manny Machado does not get a contract for more than $250 million, either.
—The Cardinals will sign Craig Kimbrel and either Machado or Josh Donaldson to play 3B. 


Rationale: St. Louis could really use the bat and closer and they have a sense of urgency in the division this winter we haven't seen from them in at least a decade. The Cubs and Brewers have clearly been better for two seasons now and look to have a better chance at contending than the Cardinals in 2019, as well. That can't be sitting well with the "Best Fans in Baseball." 


Jeff Nelson, producer


—The Cubs will trade 2 of the following players:  Kyle Schwarber, Ian Happ, Addison Russell, Albert Almora Jr.

—The Cardinals will sign Manny Machado to play third base.

—Because of construction delays, the visitors’ clubhouse will not be ready for the home opener, forcing the Pirates to dress at their hotel and come to the ballpark in full uniform.

Mike Piff, social media manager

—Cubs sign Nick Markakis.
—Cubs sign Tyson Ross.

Eric Strobel, producer

—The Cubs 2019 saves leader is not currently on the roster.

Rationale: We saw what happened to the bullpen in Brandon Morrow's absence; it got the job done by and large, but was not longer truly feared. Deep 'pens are the norm in October now with lockdown relievers being counted on more and more. The front office knows they can't truly entrust that kind of workload to Morrow with his injury history - Theo admitted as much in his end-of-season press conference. While they probably will not make a big splash, a huge focus of the offseason will be to surround Morrow/Strop/Edwards/etc. with as many talented arms as possible. The Cubs could very well enter next season without a designated closer, but if they do, it will not be Brandon Morrow.

Scott Changnon, multi-platform producer

—The Cubs will sign Bryce Harper.

Rationale: "I dunno, maybe."

Nate Poppen, producer

—Cubs sign Andrew McCutchen, plug him into CF and make Almora a 4th OF (or expendable)
—Bryce Harper signs with Yankees.
—Manny Machado signs with Angels.

Matt Buckman, producer

Non-roster prediction: The Cubs will welcome Sammy Sosa back to Wrigley Field. Sammy turns 50 this winter, and fueled by our wonderful documentary on 1998, the Cubs will finally mend their broken bond with Sammy and bring him back to Wrigley.

Roster prediction: The Cubs will trade Kyle Schwarber for a leadoff hitter. Joe has had to get very creative with the top of his order since Dexter Fowler left. Though the front office has downplayed the importance of a lead-off hitter the last two off-seasons, they will look to add one for 2019 so that Joe doesn’t have to be so creative. They won’t have a place to play Schwarber after they sign Harper so they will swap his power for a new “you go, we go” guy. Look at KC or TB as AL teams that need to add power and also have guys who could potentially lead off for the Cubs. Mallex Smith (TB) or Whit Merrifield (KC) would be interesting options.

No-brainer: The Cubs should absolutely bring back Jesse Chavez in 2019 bullpen

No-brainer: The Cubs should absolutely bring back Jesse Chavez in 2019 bullpen

Should the Cubs bring Jesse Chavez back for the 2019 bullpen?

This question shouldn't have anywhere near the polarizing effect the Daniel Murphy query had earlier this week, and for good reason.

It's hard to find any real downside for the Cubs working Chavez back into the fold next season. 

Sure, he's 35 and he'll turn 36 in August, but Chavez just had far and away the best season of his 11-year career and all signs point to it being legit.

He won't have a 1.15 ERA forever, of course, but he clearly found something with his mechanics that helped lead to the remarkable consistency he showed in a Cubs uniform (4 saves, 4 holds, 1.15 ERA, 0.79 WHIP, 42 Ks in 39 IP). 

The Cubs will be looking to add some reinforcements to their bullpen this winter and Chavez fits the bill in many areas.

When asked about how to address the bullpen this winter, Theo Epstein said his front office will be "looking for guys who can throw strikes and execute a gameplan and take the ball and pitch in big spots."

The Cubs have publicly placed an emphasis on "strike-throwers" out of the bullpen over the last two winters now and that is right up Chavez's alley.

He threw 68.5 percent first-pitch strikes while with the Cubs, which would've ranked near the top of the league in 2018, right up there with aces like Miles Mikolas, Clayton Kershaw, Aaron Nola and Justin Verlander. Among all relievers, Chavez ranked 5th in baseball in first-pitch strike percentage in the second half.

Expanding further (since the first pitch isn't the only one that matters): Chavez threw the fourth-most strikes in baseball among all MLB relievers after the All-Star Break. Since the day Chavez put on a Cubs uniform, Philadelphia's Tommy Hunter (70.5 percent) was the only reliever in baseball (minimum 30 innings) to throw a higher percentage of pitches for strikes than Chavez (69.8 percent).

If you want strikes, there's no better reliever on the market right now than Chavez.

He also shouldn't be all that expensive at age 35, even despite the breakout and high level of importance placed upon relievers these days. A similar deal to the one Brian Duensing got last winter - $7 million over 2 years - seems appropriate and would be a steal if Chavez can continue to find even a modicum of the success he had since putting on a Cubs uniform.

Speaking of the Cubs uniform, Chavez reportedly doesn't want to wear another logo in 2019, saying this after the NL Wild-Card Game:

That was an emotional time, but Chavez repeatedly raved about the Cubs clubhouse and culture throughout his time in Chicago and really appreciated the way his teammates made him feel comfortable from Day 1.

When the Cubs first acquired Chavez in that under-the-radar trade, they touted his versatility which has become a valuable asset, especially in today's game where relievers are often asked to pitch multiple innings. If necessary, he could also represent depth for the starting rotation, having made 70 starts over his MLB career. 

Unless there's a surprising market that develops for Chavez, bringing him back to the North Side of Chicago on a 1- or 2-year deal is a no-brainer.