Theo Epstein ready to make the big deal when Cubs need pitching


Theo Epstein ready to make the big deal when Cubs need pitching

What do you get for the roster that already has everything?

The Cubs have too much emotional scar tissue, too many trade chips and enough computer simulations to know that what you see on Opening Night at Angel Stadium of Anaheim won’t be a finished product.

The Cubs will find out the cost of Jake Arrieta throwing almost 250 innings during a Cy Young Award season, with his encore performance beginning Monday in Orange County. The trade-off in getting Jon Lester and John Lackey’s big-game experience is the breakdown risk involved with two 30-something pitchers who have more than 4,500 innings on their odometers combined.

As versatile as that bullpen looks in early April, remember that essentially all relievers are failed starters on some level. Plus, spending so much capital on hitters during the rebuilding years helps explain why a farm system doesn’t have any obvious candidates to step into a playoff-caliber rotation right now.

[MORE: What Cubs learned from playoff loss to Mets]

President of baseball operations Theo Epstein should be right in the middle of the action at the trade deadline, which this season falls on Aug. 1, meaning 24 more potential hours to see if the San Diego Padres pick a lane with Tyson Ross (who’s positioned to become a free agent after the 2017 season).

Maybe the Oakland A’s realize they can’t keep going for it every year and ask for a Sonny Gray offer they can’t refuse. Or the Cleveland Indians get a better idea of where they stand in the American League Central and what happens with Danny Salazar and Carlos Carrasco. Or the Atlanta Braves — already loaded with young pitching and playing for their new ballpark in 2017 — decide to flip Julio Teheran.

“It has to be the right opportunity,” Epstein said near the end of spring training in Arizona. “It’s not going to be a deal where we just sell out for the moment.

“It has to be someone that fits — both for now and probably for the long-term if it’s going to be a bigger deal. But we’re very open to it. We understand we’re a little bit deeper, a little bit better positioned with our position players and with our pitchers.

“It’s certainly something that we talk about every day.”

[MORE: How Cubs finally landed Ben Zobrist as a piece to their World Series puzzle]

Epstein already built the uber-team that is now seen as the cautionary tale for offseason winners. The 2011 Red Sox experienced an epic collapse that led to sweeping changes at Fenway Park and would be memorialized with four words from a Boston Globe clubhouse autopsy (fried chicken and beer).

Epstein jumped for the chance to make history at Wrigley Field and run a department the way he wanted, without day-to-day interference or second-guessing from above. By Year 5, The Cubs Way has become the biggest story in baseball, a blueprint for copycat teams in tank mode and a trendy pick to win the World Series.

But even as the Cubs pushed their major-league payroll into the franchise-record range of $150 million, Epstein kept sticking to a logical plan — and not worrying about making a splash — and thinking about what could go wrong.

“We built in a little bit of room for in-season,” Epstein said. “We built in some (budget) flexibility, but I wouldn’t expect a very aggressive winter next year. I think we’ve been open about the fact that we really did two offseasons worth of spending and acquisitions in one winter, knowing that we like the players available this winter more than next winter.”

Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer traveled to Nashville, Tenn., this offseason to meet with David Price and agent Bo McKinnis at The Southern, the restaurant where the Cy Young Award winner wanted to hear free-agent pitches.

The Cubs were blown away by Boston’s offer — a seven-year, $217 million guarantee — and then pivoted by spending more money on free agents than anyone else in baseball this offseason.

The Cubs poured almost $290 million into a 97-win team, taking Lackey and Gold Glove outfielder Jason Heyward away from the St. Louis Cardinals and adding All-Star super-utility guy Ben Zobrist to play second base and deliver the clutch hitting that helped the Kansas City Royals win the World Series last year.

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The farm system probably isn’t as good as ESPN thinks (fourth-best in baseball) — or as bad as the Baseball America rankings (No. 20 overall) — but there could be a generation of players blocked by Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant, Addison Russell, Kyle Schwarber and Heyward.

The Cubs have top international players (Gleyber Torres, Eloy Jimenez), first-round pick outfielders (Albert Almora, Billy McKinney, Ian Happ) and an Arizona Fall League All-Star (Jeimer Candelario) — not to mention Jorge Soler and Javier Baez, two players involved in trade talks leading up to last summer’s deadline.

“That time may or may not come,” Epstein said. “We haven’t made a big trade for a pitcher yet, (which) we’ve figured to make at some point. Whether it happens or not, I don’t know. But I think we feel well-prepared to make that kind of a move with some of the depth that we’ve built up — not only in our farm system — but our big-league team.”

Translation: The young unproven GM who once traded Nomar Garciaparra out of Boston — to help put the 2004 Red Sox over the top — won’t be afraid to make another blockbuster deal if it means a better chance of ending the 1908 drought.

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?


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.