Cubs

Posnanski: This is the year the Cubs could go all the way

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Posnanski: This is the year the Cubs could go all the way

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Through the years, there have been numerous fascinating ways to deal with the Cubs Thing. Denial has been the big one. That’s the first stage of grief, right? Cubs Thing? What Cubs Thing? Countless managers and general managers and players and fans have treated it like a monster in the closet, ignored it, denied that there is anything to talk about here. Yes, the Cubs have not won a World Series in 108 years. True, they have not even been to a World Series in 70 years. Well, it’s chance. It’s incompetence. It’s a few ill-timed blunders.

But, they will assure you, there is no Cubs Thing.

What’s next on the five stages of grief? Oh yeah: Anger. Playing the role of anger will be former Cubs manager Lee Elia. When his Cubs started 5-14 in 1983, he gave a thoughtful oration on the Cubs Thing and the role of fans:

“F*** those f***in’ fans who come out here and say they’re Cub fans that are supposed to be behind you, rippin’ every f***in’ thing you do. I’ll tell you one f***in’ thing, I hope we get f***in’ hotter than s***, just to stuff it up them 3,000 f***in’ people that show up every f***in’ day, because if they’re the real Chicago f***in’ fans, they can kiss my f***in’ ass right downtown and … Print it! … Eighty-five percent of the f***in’ world is working. The other fifteen percent come out here.”

Elia was canned a few months after that.

Then comes the bargaining stage. The Cubs will promise to change. In comes a new general manager. In comes a big-time free agent. In comes a new philosophy. Look: The Cubs have had an astonishing ELEVEN Hall of Famers who played 250 or more games since 1946 — only the New York Yankees have had more. With so many good players, with such a huge fan base, with a great television deal, the Cubs HAVE to win at some point, right?

[MORE - Why Cubs bet $155 million on Jon Lester's left elbow]

After bargaining comes depression — this shows up in the form of Cubs jokes. There’s such a thin line between comedy and tragedy:

“People always come up and ask me if the Cubs are going to win in their lifetime,” says Steve Stone, a former Cubs pitcher and broadcaster. “And I always give them the same answer: ‘How long are you planning on living?’”

“Mamas don’t let your babies grow up to be Cubs fans,” George Will wrote.

“Any team can have a bad century,” former Cubs manager Tom Trebelhorn said.

“We came out of the dugout for opening day,” Cubs pitcher Moe Drabowsky remembered, and this was way back in the 1950s. “And we saw a fan holding a sign: ‘Wait ‘Til Next Year.'”

And at the end of all of these stages, of course, there’s acceptance. The best example of this might be the 1977 play “Bleacher Bums,” co-written by actor and lifelong Cubs fan Joe Mantegna. It is about a bunch of Cubs fans in the Wrigley Field bleachers talking about their lives and lamenting the Cubs’ losing. Again, they wrote that in 1977. It still plays.

“Reporters would ask me, ‘What’s going to happen when the Cubs win? How will the play work then?'” Mantegna says. “I told then, ‘Um, yeah, you know what? We’ll cross that bridge when we get to it.'”

So, what stage is next? The Cubs are about to enter — let’s just say it — their most promising season since Franklin D. Roosevelt was in office. This is the year. This HAS to be the year. The Cubs are coming off a spectacular 97-win season that featured a fascinating array of kids — Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber, Addison Russell and so on — who should only get better. It also featured Jake Arrieta, who after June 21 pitched about as well as any pitcher in the history of baseball (basic numbers: 16-1, 0.86 ERA and the league hit .150 with two home runs).

Check out the rest of Posnanski's article at NBC's SportsWorld.

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.