Cubs

Ricketts on pursuit of Theo, Kenney's future and more

558902.jpg

Ricketts on pursuit of Theo, Kenney's future and more

With Theo Epstein and Co. firmly ensconced in the Cubs offices at Wrigley Field, Tuesday was time for Cubs Chairman Tom Ricketts to finally discuss the process that he followed in wooing Epstein away from his hometown Boston Red Sox. Ricketts shed some light on the hiring and what it took to convince him to take on the ultimate sports challenge in trying to win a World Series with the Cubs.

I sat down with the chairman for a one-on-one interview for an "Inside Look" epsiode that will air in a couple weeks on Comcast SportsNet.

Ricketts touched on a multitude of topics, including the future of Crane Kenney, the Cubs' president of business operations who has come under fire from some members of the media as well as the Cubs' rabid fan base who have linked him to the failures of the past regime. However, Ricketts pledged tremendous support for Kenney and even went as far as announcing that he is working on a contract extension for him.

Day one, square one when we bought the team, everyone that was already here started fresh," Ricketts said. "What Ive seen firsthand is execution. The baseball side and the business side are two sides of the same coin. We have to be working together to push the team forward to be the best we can be on the field.

"Im talking with Crane on extending his contract. Were going to have him as part of this organization for a long time, locking down all the business side. Crane has done a great job of executing on the business side. There has been some stuff in the media (about Kenney) and that doesnt apply to me. I dont listen to that. Hes doing his job and hes doing his job well and Cubs fans need to know that.

While the Cubs ownership group understands the need to build through player development, Ricketts expects his major league team to be vastly improved in 2012 despite a rough 2011 season that saw the Cubs finish 71-91 and 25 games behind the division-winning Milwaukee Brewers.

"We don't talk about rebuilding," Ricketts said. "We are coming to win every year. However, we will not look at 2012 at the expense of our long term future."

With large contracts on the books for Carlos Zambrano (one year left at 18.875 million) and Alfonso Soriano (three years left at 18 million per season) many around the baseball world have assumed the Cubs are stuck with both players but Ricketts made it clear that if Epstein decides that he needs to eat both deals and move forward, then he has the authority from ownership to do just that.

"Theo and his team have complete and total authority on all baseball decisions," the chairman said. "You as the owner cannot insert yourself into the process. If you do, then you have no level of accountability in the organization."

Ricketts had been under fire from the media and an increasingly apathetic fan base as the 2011 season spiraled out of control and saw the Cubs far out of the race in early July. It was at that point that he had a meeting with then-GM Jim Hendry and both men decided it would be best for the Cubs and Hendry to part ways.

"We think we gave Jim a fair shot, but when it looked like it wasnt going to be where we needed it to be, we had a great conversation and just decided to part ways, and that got the process started," Ricketts said. "The period between when Jim left and Theo came in was a little awkward because you couldnt really tell people what you were doing. But there was never a moment where I didnt really feel we had it under control."

Ricketts spoke with approximately 20 people within the baseball world and got varying opinions on how to rebuild his baseball organization. But he posed one question to everyone he spoke with and their answers were key in how he proceeded to find Hendrys successor. The question was in a perfect world, who do you think is the right guy for this team?"

We went through all that process and, obviously, Theo came right to the top," he said.

With Epstein and his team now on board, the next big project on Ricketts' plate is the renovation of Wrigley Field and that process will have to be a team effort between the Cubs and the City of Chicago, according to the chairman.

"Where were at right now is we really just have to keep the dialogue going with our elected officials on what we can all work on together, because for the amount of money were talking about to really get Wrigley up to where it should be, its going to have to be a team effort," he said.

"Its going to have to be a contribution from us, a contribution from the different levels of government, a few other pockets if possible, to really package up something that works for everyone."

Ricketts has heard the suggestions of knocking down Wrigley Field from foul pole to foul pole and rebuilding the ancient grandstand from scratch replete with all of the modern amenities. However, he does not favor that model and believes that his intensely loyal fan base does not either.

"I dont think people want a replica of Wrigley Field; they want Wrigley Field," Ricketts said. "And I think that fans, when they get here and get to their seats and look out on the field, theyre where they want to be. This is the best place to watch a game and the energy and the field, the charm are all there."

On the topic of how the new collective bargaining agreement will change how the Cubs do business because of the restrictions on spending in the amateur draft and in international free agency, Ricketts is confident that his new baseball operations team will maximize the value of their draft picks and will spend their available dollars wisely.

"What the league has done is theyve taken that play out of the playbook, where you spend a lot on the amateur players to build up the system which we probably would have done, much like we did in June," he said. "We probably would have kept that going and spent more on amateur players than well be allowed to spend in the current CBA. Its a fact of life; were just going to have to adjust the strategy around the new rules. And ultimately, I think well be fine.

"We have the best fans. They need to see a plan and with Theo, Jed and their team, they have a plan and fans can be confident about the future"

See more of Tom Ricketts on Chicago Baseball Hot Stove, CTL and SportsNet Central.

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?

chavez_kamka_story.jpg
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.