Cubs

Sickening feeling for Cubs after Kyle Schwarber's season ends with torn ACL, LCL

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Sickening feeling for Cubs after Kyle Schwarber's season ends with torn ACL, LCL

PHOENIX — The Cubs will have to push through 159 games — and survive and advance through what they hope will be a long playoff run — without Kyle Schwarber.

An MRI at a local hospital on Friday revealed a torn ACL and LCL in Schwarber’s left knee, as well as a severely sprained ankle, an awful season-ending combination of injuries for such a dynamic player.

That confirmed the worst-case fears after Schwarber crashed into Dexter Fowler while chasing a ball driven into the left-center field gap during Thursday’s costly 14-6 win over the Arizona Diamondbacks at Chase Field.

“Everyone who knows Kyle was sick watching that play,” team president Theo Epstein said. “Just devastated for him because he’s worked so hard. He’s such a great person. He’s such a great teammate. He’s such an important part of our identity and the organization that you hate to see anything bad happen to him.

“Let alone devastating news like this and not being able to play baseball for the rest of the season. My heart went out to him. All of our hearts went out to him.”

Epstein clearly has an emotional attachment to Schwarber, betting the fourth overall pick in the 2014 draft on the Indiana University catcher/outfielder at a time when the industry consensus projected him much lower in the first round as a possible designated hitter for an American League team.

The Cubs took off last year once Schwarber rocketed through the farm system, changing the complexion of the clubhouse and the lineup with his energy and left-handed power. He generated 16 home runs and an .842 OPS in less than 300 plate appearances, fueling the second half of a 97-win campaign and then delivering with five more homers in the playoffs.

[MORE CUBS: Cubs win clouded by uncertainty over Kyle Schwarber's injury]

“We have to follow his example,” Epstein said. “In the wake of this injury — this horrible personal news — he’s putting the team first and talking about winning and talking about staying connected to the team.

“Twenty-four hours ago, I thought we were really well positioned to win, in large part, because of Kyle’s presence on the team. And now we’re really well positioned to win for Kyle.”

The initial expectation is Schwarber will have knee surgery within the next three weeks, or as soon as the swelling and stiffness subsides. Even before this traumatic event, the Cubs hadn’t decided on his long-term future — catcher or outfielder — and it’s too soon to know if he will ever be back behind the plate again.

“It all depends,” Epstein said. “If everything goes the way we want it to go with the surgery and the rehab — and he comes out the other side with a full range of motion — there’s a chance it won’t impact him at all going forward once he’s back on the field. He (might have) the exact same physical abilities.

“But, obviously, I think what we’ll do is an assessment once he’s through the surgery, through the rehab and we’ll weigh the situation at that time. If there are additional risk factors with catching at that point, then we will reassess. But that’s not definitely the case. And it’s certainly too early to say that and probably not an appropriate time to speculate on it.

“The hope would be a very successful surgery, a very successful rehab, with the most important factor being the patient’s work ethic and determination — and Kyle is on the top of the charts as far as that goes. That will serve him well through the rehab process, and then he comes back as good as new.”

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When? As much as people around the team respect Schwarber’s hard-charging style — he had been a second-team All-Ohio linebacker in high school and got recruited to play Division-I football — the Cubs won’t know for a long time. The hope would be the 2017 Opening Day lineup.

“It’s too early to tell,” Epstein said. “We have to get through the surgery and get a better feel for the length of the rehab. But one thing that was communicated clearly is when multiple ligaments like this are involved ... it’s significantly longer than the six months that you can sometimes come back from (with an) ACL (injury).

“You can’t put an exact timetable on it, and we’ll know more later. But is, say, 10 months something that could be more realistic and would put him in a position to be on the field at the start of spring training next year?

“Well, at this way-too-preliminary date, that’s something that you could maybe speculate about. But we’ll know so much more going forward.

“We have all the faith in the world in Kyle to come through 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.