Cubs

Ready or not, Cubs will find out if bullpen is built for October

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Ready or not, Cubs will find out if bullpen is built for October

PHILADELPHIA – The Kansas City Royals unveiled a playoff blueprint last year, essentially making it a six-inning game and riding their bullpen to a Game 7 loss in the World Series.

The Cubs have enough issues with their relievers that manager Joe Maddon listened to at least 10 questions about the bullpen during a pregame media session that lasted almost 13 minutes.

“You’re not going to win everything without a real consistent and strong bullpen,” Maddon said Sunday, sitting in Citizens Bank Park’s visiting dugout. “Physically, we have the ability to nail those innings down. Now we haven’t arrived at the Royals’ abilities or consistency yet. But I think physically we’re there.”

Mentally? The Cubs watched it all unravel the night before in a 7-5 walk-off loss to the Philadelphia Phillies, exposing what could be their biggest concern in October.

All-Star first baseman Anthony Rizzo committed the fielding error that led to the five unearned runs charged against Justin Grimm in the seventh inning. With two outs in the ninth, pinch-hitter Cody Asche crushed Hector Rondon’s 95-mph fastball and it bounced off the right-field foul pole for the game-winning, two-run homer.

[MORE: Kyle Schwarber, Willson Contreras and where Cubs go from here]

No one really notices these guys when they do their job. But Maddon called the right-handed Grimm “the best lefty in the National League” because of his “absurd” numbers against left-handed hitters (23 strikeouts vs. seven walks in 53 at-bats and a .453 OPS). And Rondon has gone 28-for-32 in save chances, putting up a 0.81 ERA since May 25.

“It’s just getting them to get their confidence,” Maddon said. “Listen, most all of them are having really good years and physically – like you saw last night – Grimmer’s throwing 98 miles an hour.

“So we just got to get their confidence right. I try to avoid overusing them. (But) I think they’re all in pretty good order right now.”

Maddon is hoping Fernando Rodney will look more like the guy who led the majors with 48 saves last season – and not the one who got designated for assignment by the Seattle Mariners last month with a 5.68 ERA.

Pedro Strop (26 holds) is a good setup guy, but do you trust him against the St. Louis Cardinals? Strop has faced 32 St. Louis hitters this season, giving up nine runs on nine hits and six walks in nine rivalry games (0-2, 15.19 ERA).

Tommy Hunter (5.84 ERA) hasn’t been the stabilizing force the Cubs hoped for when they acquired him from the Baltimore Orioles at the July 31 trade deadline.

[RELATED: Kris Bryant keeps delivering in the clutch for Cubs]

Jason Motte hasn’t pitched since Aug. 23 and the Cubs can’t count on the veteran reliever – who closed out the 2011 World Series for the Cardinals – coming back from a strained right shoulder this year.

“I don’t think so,” Maddon said. “It’s slipping away from us a little bit right now.”

If Neil Ramirez hasn’t been able to rediscover what made him such a dominant setup guy in 2014 by now, it’s probably not going to happen in the middle of September.

Carl Edwards Jr. is an intriguing prospect with good stuff (369 career strikeouts in 292-plus innings in the minors). But his command issues at Triple-A Iowa (24 walks in 31-plus innings) make it difficult to throw him into high-leverage situations.

“You will see more of him,” Maddon said. “I want to see more of him. It just hasn’t presented (itself) right now.”

[NBC SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

The Cubs have used 22 different relievers this season (including David Ross and Chris Denorfia in mop-up duty) and posted a 3.60 ERA while working with a rotation that at times has struggled to account for innings beyond Jon Lester and Jake Arrieta.

This is a difficult balancing act with the most inherently volatile part of the team. There is no magic bullet. At this point, Maddon said, “You pretty much know who your guys are.”

A manager who has pushed the right buttons all season won’t hit the panic button now.

“You’re going to stay with that particular group,” Maddon said. “If there’s (an) outlier you want to throw in there, you might do something like that. But for the most part, it’ll be pretty much what you had seen all year.

“I just want to make sure that their confidence is in order going forward. That’s it.”

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.