Cubs

The wait is over: Kris Bryant arrives at Wrigley Field

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The wait is over: Kris Bryant arrives at Wrigley Field

The wait is over.

Kris Bryant is a Chicago Cub.

The day was coming, that was common knowledge. But now that it’s here, it’s all sinking in for everyone who was waiting — for Bryant, for the Cubs, for Cubs fans — and the excitement is at an all-time high.

That’s not just for the billboard erectors across from Wrigley Field or the legion of fans hailing Bryant as the franchise’s savior, perhaps already planning for the day a No. 17 flag waves from one of the foul poles. The excitement is at an all-time high for Bryant, too.

He’s in the major leagues. Call it a dream come true.

“The time of my life, really. I can’t really put into words how good of a feeling this is to work for this your whole life and finally get that chance,” Bryant said in front of a horde of media members Friday. “But I think the journey’s just starting. This isn’t where I want to end. I want to win a lot of games and win for the Cubs, and I think this is a good starting point.”

[MORE CUBS: Worth the wait: Cubs promote Kris Bryant for Wrigley Field debut]

Bryant’s running on pure adrenaline right now. He only got three hours of sleep following Triple-A Iowa's game Thursday night — in which, of course, Bryant homered — the news he was going to the bigs and the afternoon start against the San Diego Padres on the North Side.

After Iowa manager Marty Pevey slipped the big news into a conversation about the height of foul poles in the minors, Bryant called his parents.

“That was a day I was looking forward to,” Bryant said. “Called my mom first, actually, because my dad was doing hitting lessons. She was more shocked. We really didn’t know when it would happen. I’m sure when they got the time to reflect on it, there was probably tears of joy. I know my dad was crying, I’ve never seen my dad cry before. It’s something that we’ve been working for my whole life, 17 years, and the day is here and I’m really just trying to enjoy the moment. Whether it’s a good game, bad game, whatever happens out there, I’m here to enjoy this day and enjoy it with my family.

“If you can imagine your dreams coming true all in one moment, and you get to tell the people that are closest to you, that’s a pretty special feeling, and I wish everyone could experience that.”

[MORE CUBS: Did you know there is a Kris Bryant song?]

With Bryant’s arrival in Chicago, the hype gets cranked up to 11. For a guy who, as Cubs president Theo Epstein described it, dominated at every level he’s played at, the expectations are enormous among Cubs fans.

But Bryant’s not really paying attention to that. His status as savior isn’t something he’s worried about. The fact he’s able to do that is quite impressive, and he talked about blocking out the distractions — and there will be many.

“For me, it’s kind of realizing why I play this game. It’s not because of the money or any of the fame. It’s because it’s fun and it’s because it’s a dream of mine. It’s what I’ve wanted to do my whole life,” Bryant said. “I think when you have the right perspective in this game and in life, then things usually turn out the way you want it to. That’s the way I’ve been playing my whole career, and I think that’s the way I’ll continue to play.”

Epstein and Cubs manager Joe Maddon share Bryant’s take-it-easy approach, not getting caught up in the expectations everyone’s placing on this 23-year-old kid from Las Vegas.

[SHOP: Get your Kris Bryant jersey right here]

But can he really block it all out? We’ll find out soon enough. But from what he said Friday, it sounds like he's already an expert in handling major-league hype, even if he hasn’t seen a major-league pitch.

“There’s no pressure in this game. You let pressure creep in, you’re not having fun. And I play this game because it’s fun,” Bryant said. “Who knows what the future holds for me? I just know I’m going to go out there and play as hard as I can and work to get better every day. I’ve been doing that my whole life and things have turned out the way I want it to in this game. But when you start putting expectations that are kind of way out there, you kind of lose sight of what’s really important in this game. I think I’m grounded enough to realize what I need to do, and that’s go play hard. That’s what Joe told me today. He said, ‘Forget about expectations. All I want you to do is go out there, show up on time, play hard and that’s all I can ask from you.’”

So as Wrigleyville becomes enveloped in Bryant buzz, realize this: the Cubs are 5-3, a first-place team after just a fraction of the schedule, but a first-place team nonetheless. And now here comes the No. 1 prospect in baseball. The bleachers might still feature more hardhats than ball caps. The bathroom situation might still be less than ideal.

But Kris Bryant is in the house. And that means, for the moment, everything’s coming up Cubs.

“As a baseball player, that’s what you want: to play for an organization that wants to win,” Bryant said. “Everything seems to be pointing in the right direction, and I couldn’t be more excited to step into a team that’s — I think we’re in first place now. That’s pretty cool. That’s what you want to do. You play this game to win, beat the opponent and hopefully win a World Series. I’m here to do everything I can to help the Cubs do that.”

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.