Cubs

With or without Epstein, Cubs will follow Red Sox

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With or without Epstein, Cubs will follow Red Sox

The Cubs were back at Fenway Park for the first time in almost 93 years, since Babe Ruth and the Red Sox were winning the 1918 World Series. No one wanted to miss out on this scene.

Ownership, team executives and staffers traveled to Boston to see the franchise they hope will become a mirror image. Even players posed for pictures with the Green Monster in the background and squeezed through the narrow opening to get behind the left-field scoreboard.

As much as the Cubs want to model themselves after the Red Sox, these two teams appeared to be heading in completely opposite directions on May 20. Now The Boston Globe is reporting that the Cubs have asked for permission to speak with Theo Epstein.

Terry Francona, who had managed the Red Sox to two World Series titles, filled out the lineup card that day. What were the odds that he would be unemployed before first-year manager Mike Quade? About the same as a home-run ball landing in the Green Monster seats right by Cubs president Crane Kenney?

This was 26 days before Tom Ricketts would express 100 percent confidence in Jim Hendry, nine weeks before the chairman would fire his general manager and three months before they would reveal the decision publicly.

There are so many variables to this search process. The Rays saw their miracle season end on Tuesday, perhaps clearing the way for the Cubs to also ask for permission to speak with Tampa Bay executive Andrew Friedman.

But the Cubs and Red Sox are now both trying to come up with answers for disappointing seasons. You can try to find reassurance in the numbers, but emotions and egos always get in the way. This is an unpredictable, volatile business.

What are the odds that Epstein would leave his hometown? The fact that people are even asking that question probably says something. Whether or not the Red Sox general manager actually quits his dream job, the Cubs will be seriously looking at this model.

That could mean asking about assistant general manager Ben Cherington, whos listed directly below Epstein on the organizations masthead. Cherington, who graduated from Amherst College, has been with the Red Sox since 1999 and is seen as another young rising star in the industry, deserving of the chance to run his own team (maybe even in Boston).

Either executive would fit the criteria Ricketts outlined when he announced Hendrys firing. The next general manager would be committed to player development, fluent in statistical analysis and from a winning culture.

On that clear, cool night in Boston, the Red Sox gave the ball to Jon Lester, an All-Star whos only 27 and has already won the clincher in a World Series. They had an elite closer in Jonathan Papelbon, another homegrown pitcher who saved that game in 2007.

Their lineup began with Jacoby Ellsbury, a 2005 first-round choice who played with Cubs second baseman Darwin Barney at Oregon State University. Then there was Dustin Pedroia, a 2004 second-round choice out of Arizona State University who would emerge as the American Leagues MVP four years later.

The anchor was Adrian Gonzalez, the kind of left-handed run producer the Cubs have long coveted. The Red Sox were able to pull off that blockbuster deal with the San Diego Padres last winter because they had created enough assets in their farm system.

Nearly 10 years ago, the Red Sox brought sabermetrics pioneer Bill James into their front office as a senior advisor. A recent Sports Illustrated cover story on Moneyball showed how the Red Sox have bridged old-school scouting and the new wave of numbers.

The Red Sox value traditional projections based off what their scouts see and hear, as well as information systems, and thats how Ricketts envisions his baseball operations department running.

As Cubs employees settled into their seats that night at Fenway Park, they watched a team that would completely collapse by the end of September. Who knew it would be the Red Sox?

There was a moody starting pitcher who made 18 million the year before and would sabotage this season. There was the Japanese star who never lived up to the hype. There was a 142 million leftfielder who will always be judged harshly because of his huge contract.

That would be John Lackey, Daisuke Matsuzaka and Carl Crawford. Those descriptions, almost word-for-word, sound eerily similar to Carlos Zambrano, Kosuke Fukudome and Alfonso Soriano.

So even the geniuses get it wrong in the free-agent market, and its fair to wonder how someone like Friedman would react outside a small market, if he really would do more with more.

To grow revenue and give themselves a better chance to compete the Cubs have extensively studied the Red Sox business plan.

Theyve noticed the power of a regional sports network (NESN). Theyve broadened their entertainment portfolio with non-baseball events, the way the Red Sox have hosted Bruce Springsteen, the Rolling Stones and the NHLs winter showcase.

Theyve consulted with the architect (Janet Marie Smith) who oversaw the transformation of Fenway Park. Theyve wanted to shut down Sheffield Avenue and create their own version of Yawkey Way.

Theyre hoping a new administration at City Hall will be as receptive to their renovation plans as the city of Boston was to the Red Sox.

On and off the field, the Red Sox are everything the Cubs are striving to be.

There are plenty of people in the Cubs organization across several different departments who grew up in the Boston area, went to college there or used to work for the Red Sox. They can see the parallels and know the history.

But the biggest advertisements are still the 2004 and 2007 banners hanging outside Fenway Park. Luring the architect of those teams to the North Side would be a huge boost for public relations.

With or without Epstein, you already know what the Cubs are going to build their 2012 tickets plans around. The Red Sox are scheduled to come to Wrigley Field on June 15-17. Wonder who will be in the general managers suite that weekend.

Patrick Mooney is CSNChicago.com's Cubs beat writer. Follow Patrick on Twitter @CSNMooney for 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.