Cubs

Theo Epstein is the man of the moment

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Theo Epstein is the man of the moment

READ: Cubs won't give up top players for Epstein
READ: Is Epstein ready for Chicago?
READ: Red Sox can't keep Epstein around forever
Buckley: Epstein not tied to Boston
WATCH: Epstein talk on CTL

A person who works for Tom Ricketts observed that the Cubs chairman would make a good scout. This was said with a certain amount of admiration as Ricketts conducts his clandestine search for a new general manager.

Ricketts would rather not be seen or heard until the new hire is introduced at a stadium club news conference. He believes his family will own the team for generations. He knows this decision will shape the franchise for years, if not decades, to come.

So thats why Cubs employees have been told to be patient, why theyre prepared to hold organizational meetings in the middle of November, if thats what it takes. Theyve been trying to dial down the sense of urgency.

But all this is being done in the world of Twitter and the 247 news cycle, which usually doesnt have time for the long-range view. The Boston Herald, citing two unnamed baseball sources, reported Tuesday that Theo Epstein is on the verge of joining the Cubs.

Spokesmen for Ricketts and the Cubs declined to comment on a report that outlined two potential roadblocks in the negotiations: Red Sox ownership has hopes Epstein could remain with the team; and their demands for compensation would be high.

One industry source doubted that the Cubs would be willing to give up a major-league player like Matt Garza or Starlin Castro, which could set back their rebuilding plan for years. Another team official laughed at the idea.

Common sense has to kick in a little bit, the source said.

The 37-year-old Epstein would make perfect sense from a Cubs perspective, though there were caution flags that made it sound like there wasnt a done deal on Tuesday night.

The expectation is that Epstein could get a new title think president of baseball operations and report directly to ownership. Team president Crane Kenney who enjoys the support of Ricketts and has kept a lower profile in the media and the clubhouse in recent years could remain in charge of the business side in a realigned front office.

As the architect of two World Series winners including the team that reversed the curse in 2004 Epstein would bring instant credibility and signal hope to a fan base that is restless for change.

Epstein would have detailed knowledge of the Fenway Park blueprint that Cubs executives have been studying for years as they try to renovate Wrigley Field and generate more revenue.

Epstein would bridge the ideas of statistical analysis and traditional scouting something Ricketts explicitly wants as he assembles a team. He also has a reputation as a good guy to work for among the scouts in the field, meaning that he could keep intact parts of the current player-development system that Ricketts doesnt want to see torn down.

Epstein understands big-market pressure and the public aspects of the job after dealing with the Boston press corps for nine seasons. That its even reached this point without a contract extension for Epstein or anyone in either organization really shooting down the speculation is remarkable.

Ricketts pulled off the ultimate misdirection play when he fired Jim Hendry on July 22. Together they buried the secret and kept him on the job for almost another month. At that point, the Red Sox were in first place and would win 20 of their 26 games that month.

During that time, Hendry guided the Cubs through the trade deadline, closed on a draft class that cost close to 12 million and suspended Carlos Zambrano. Everyone from players to staffers to reporters was stunned by the timing of the announcement on Aug. 19.

By that night, the Red Sox were 28 games over .500, and 8.5 ahead of the Tampa Bay Rays. They were a 160 million machine programmed for the playoffs.

From the outside, it seemed like an extreme long shot that Epstein would want to leave his hometown team. He still has a year left on his contract and grew up not far from Fenway Park. But a stunning September collapse seemed to change the calculus.

After the final game of the season in San Diego, the Cubs stood around the visiting clubhouse inside PETCO Park, drinking beers and watching the side-by-side televisions.

The players became fans and didnt want to leave for the bus to the airport just yet. They cheered and yelled at the screens as the Red Sox faded away into third place while the Rays celebrated their mad dash into the postseason.

There are no teams from Boston, New York or California left in the playoffs to drive ratings. But this is a huge story that will generate buzz for the game, one man deciding between two historic franchises. Ricketts seems content to leave everyone guessing.

It needs to be a very private process, Ricketts said the day he announced Hendrys firing. Just to get out in front of it a little bit, we wont be commenting on any rumors of any conversations with any individuals at any time, nor will we be giving any updates or checking in.

At that moment, a good bet would be Ricketts trying to find a rising executive, the next Theo Epstein. Now, it sounds possible that he could be standing at the podium, with flashbulbs popping, next to the real Theo Epstein.

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.