Turning point for The Plan: Cubs get October close-up at Wrigley


Turning point for The Plan: Cubs get October close-up at Wrigley

Internally, the Cubs ran all the numbers and projected between 84 and 86 wins this year. A critical mass of young talent created a bigger variance than normal in those preseason simulations. But the organization gladly would have signed up for meaningful September games when pitchers and catchers reported. No questions asked.

Near the end of spring training, president of baseball operations Theo Epstein stood in the middle of the team’s Arizona complex, turning his head between fields, watching no-name prospects and listening to a question about how he would have to take ownership of this team — and take heat on the major-league level — in Year 4.

“This isn’t going to be our best team,” Epstein said, explaining the balance between the present and the future.

[MORE: Cubs counting on Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant to start producing in playoffs]

Fast forward to a beautiful Sunday afternoon at Wrigley Field, the Bears game showing on the 3,990-square-foot video board in left while Addison Russell and Kyle Schwarber played catch.

Joe Maddon — the free-wheeling manager whose RV “The Cousin Eddie” had been parked at a satellite lot north of the stadium — gleefully called the workout “eyewash.”

The Cubs had already enjoyed “Breakfast on Wrigley,” a multi-table buffet set up on the dirt track behind home plate offering eggs, bacon, waffles, doughnuts, juice and coffee.

A stack of Korbel boxes sat on the concourse that leads out onto Waveland Avenue, in case the Cubs or St. Louis Cardinals end this epic National League division series on Tuesday after four games.

As good as it gets? Not necessarily, but the anticipation leading into this felt like something that could never be duplicated again.

Jake Arrieta having perhaps the greatest second half of anyone who’s ever thrown a baseball. The Cubs hosting their first playoff game in seven years and in position to clinch their first postseason series ever at Clark and Addison.

This is supposed to be the opening of the window to contend, but the Cubs are only guaranteed two more playoff games.

“Honestly, any thoughts beyond 2015 have kind of been pushed out of my mind until we’re done playing,” Epstein said. “This team has earned everyone’s full engagement, full attention, full commitment. I think we’re good enough to play all the way through October and into November.”

[MORE: Jake Arrieta emerges as October star and gets locked in for Cubs-Cardinals]

That’s why the Cubs invited all their full-time staffers in scouting and player development — the behind-the-scenes guys who did the grunt work tracking and coaching up prospects like Russell, Schwarber, Kris Bryant and Jorge Soler — to Chicago for this.

The Cubs expected a group of more than 250 people (including spouses) to gather for a dinner on Sunday and then attend Game 3 on Monday against the hated Cardinals.

“They’ll get to watch the fruits of their labor,” Epstein said.

Team Play Stupid obliterated expectations, winning 97 games and a wild-card showdown against the Pittsburgh Pirates at PNC Park, which set up the first playoff matchup between two iconic franchises that have been competing against one another since 1892.

“It’s already crazy when Jake pitches,” said Anthony Rizzo, the All-Star first baseman who brought so much credibility to the rebuilding project. “I can’t imagine it (with) the rivalry. There’s going to be a lot of Cardinals fans there. There’s going to be a lot of Cubs fans there. It’s going to be a great time. It’s going to be must-watch television.”

Maddon walked into the makeshift media room — basically a storage room underneath the stands that had been cleared out and set up with folding chairs and tables — and took his position on stage in front of the cameras. A reporter asked if the Cubs have become “America’s Team.”

“I never even thought about that,” Maddon said. “We’re on TV a lot. It’s (easy) to see us. I just like the way we’re playing. If people are interested or really getting involved with us…a lot of it has to do with our young players.

“We have a lot of charismatic young players that are attempting to play the game properly. I don’t think you’ve heard one excuse from any of them. They’re very accountable.

“And then, of course, the candle on the cake right now is the season Jake has put together. I think he draws a lot of attention towards us.

“It’s a combination of the youth and maybe one spectacular season out of a pitcher that’s really put the spotlight here. And beyond that, the city itself.”

[NBC SHOP: Buy Cubs playoff gear]

Those young players will get older, more expensive and injured. The egos will get bigger. Maddon’s act could eventually become stale. The clubhouse chemistry created through the machine-generated fog of postgame dance parties might not stay the same.

Dexter Fowler — the you-go-we-go leadoff guy — is about to become a free agent. Arrieta, a Scott Boras client, remains under club control for only two more seasons. The Cubs stayed exceptionally healthy this year and got lucky enough to win 34 one-run games and 13 in extra innings.

Cubs fans and the Chicago media can’t stay giddy forever. Pretty soon, Epstein’s front office, Maddon’s coaching staff and Rizzo’s boys will be at a point in the rebuild where 84 wins could feel like total failure.

So Epstein is trying to enjoy the moment and focus everything on how to beat the Cardinals on Monday at Wrigley Field.

“That’s really what’s on our mind,” Epstein said. “It’s a good feeling to know that we’re positioned with a lot of hard work, some good breaks, some good decisions to make sure that we’re a regular participant in October. But we might never be as well-situated as we are right now. Who knows?

“This is where it’s at.”

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.