Cubs

Setting the 'Panic City' scene for Cubs vs. Mets: Is this it for the defending NL champs?

Setting the 'Panic City' scene for Cubs vs. Mets: Is this it for the defending NL champs?

The tabloids are already asking the questions, even before the Fourth of July traffic starts, two weeks out from the All-Star Game. It’s on the New York Post’s website: “Is there anything else that can go wrong for the Mets?” And there’s this Daily News headline: “Will this week be the downfall of the 2016 Mets?”

Mets general manager Sandy Alderson delivered his “Panic City” line to the New York media last summer, right around the time Cubs manager Joe Maddon green-lit “Simon the Magician” for a performance inside Citi Field’s visiting clubhouse.

At the time, this looked like a potential National League Championship Series matchup, a made-for-TV, big-market battle between power pitchers and power hitters…maybe in 2017.

On July 2 last year, the Cubs finished off a three-game sweep in New York, giving them a 7-0 regular-season record against the Mets, who dropped to 40-40 before heading out to the West Coast to face Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke at Dodger Stadium and the defending World Series champs in San Francisco.   

The Cubs responded to getting swept by the Mets in the NLCS with a spending spree in free agency that approached $290 million, fueling World Series-or-bust, Embrace-The-Target expectations, moving to 25 games over .500 with a 9-2 win over the Cincinnati Reds on Wednesday at Great American Ball Park.

The Cubs (51-26) and Mets (40-37) will now play seven times between Thursday night in Queens and July 20 at Wrigley Field, which should give us a better idea of whether or not Alderson can pull another rabbit out of his hat at the trade deadline, if Maddon should be pressing the panic button on his bullpen phone and how realistic an October rematch might be. Setting the scene for this four-game series at Citi Field:

• The “Panic City” state of mind returned with this week’s revelations that Steven Matz and Noah Syndergaard have been pitching through bone spurs in their elbows, showing how fragile New York’s championship hopes might be. This is why the Cubs have been so focused on building with young hitters, the idea that it’s too unpredictable to plan around elbows and shoulders and when pitchers might feel healthy.

The presence of Cubs coaches Chris Bosio, Mike Borzello and Lester Strode has almost created a cavalier attitude toward pitching and an extremely optimistic view of change-of-scenery guys and bounce-back candidates. And the Cubs understood Jon Lester had a bone chip in his left elbow when they signed him to a six-year, $155 million megadeal after the 2014 season.

But the Cubs have prioritized spending so much capital on their lineup – first-round picks, trade chips, free-agency dollars – because Theo Epstein’s regime sees hitters as more robust investments.

• The Mets saw what Ben Zobrist did for the Kansas City Royals in the World Series last October, toured him around the affluent suburbs in Westchester County and Connecticut during the offseason and even offered him a four-year contract that came with more guaranteed money ($60 million) than the deal the Cubs put together ($56 million).

Zobrist has cooled off in June (.672 OPS) after a red-hot May (1.137 OPS), but is in position to be the NL’s starting All-Star second baseman. The Mets quickly shifted gears at the winter meetings, trading a spare pitcher (Jon Niese) to the Pittsburgh Pirates for Neil Walker, who’s already hit 14 homers in his final season before free agency. The balance of power in the NL East, however, might have shifted when Daniel Murphy (.349 average, .964 OPS) – the Mr. October who crushed the Cubs in the playoffs – signed a three-year, $37.5 million deal with the Washington Nationals (who just swept a three-game series against the Mets).

• A full season of Yoenis Cespedes (18 homers, 45 RBI through 70 games this year) hasn’t dramatically changed New York’s offensive profile. The Mets entered Wednesday ranking 13th out of the NL’s 15 teams in runs scored (274, or 129 less than the Cubs). Corner infielders David Wright (neck surgery) and Lucas Duda (stress fracture in his lower back) are on the disabled list while catcher Travis d’Arnaud missed almost two months with a strained rotator cuff.

• The owners of professional sports franchises and the executives running those teams always talk about doing things the right way – and then act out of self-interest. It will be that way if the New York Yankees actually sell and the Cubs put a second-chance spin on closer Aroldis Chapman, who began this season serving a 30-game suspension for violating Major League Baseball’s new domestic violence policy.

The Mets already felt desperate enough to bring back Jose Reyes on a minor-league deal after he was arrested on domestic violence charges, served a 52-game suspension and got released by the Colorado Rockies. Reyes – a homegrown Met who turned 33 this month and is five years removed from his last All-Star selection – could join the team this weekend in New York.

• As a polished, left-handed college hitter, Michael Conforto certainly fit the profile as the Cubs weighed their options with the fourth overall pick in the 2014 draft. But the Cubs wanted Kyle Schwarber, with Epstein in particular developing a man crush on the Indiana University catcher/outfielder. The Mets grabbed Conforto with the No. 10 pick and watched the fast-track outfielder from Oregon State University become a catalyst for last year’s World Series surge. 

Well, the Mets just demoted Conforto to Triple-A Las Vegas over the weekend, another reminder to appreciate how many young players the Cubs have graduated to the big-league level, without taking it for granted (see Schwarber’s recovery from season-ending knee surgery).

“This year, I think we have a little more confidence, a little more swagger,” said Kris Bryant, the Rookie of the Year/All-Star third baseman who has lived up to the hype. “But the Mets are going to be a really good team for a long time, especially with that staff.”

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.