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What Ben Zobrist's World Series experience in Kansas City means for Cubs now

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What Ben Zobrist's World Series experience in Kansas City means for Cubs now

ANAHEIM, Calif. – Ben Zobrist hung out in Disneyland territory, waiting to make his Cubs debut, while the Kansas City Royals raised their World Series flag on Sunday night at Kauffman Stadium.  

Zobrist won’t be there on Tuesday when the Royals get their championship rings before another World Series rematch with the New York Mets. Kansas City general manager Dayton Moore told Zobrist that he would personally deliver it when their schedules match up at some point this season.

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

But Zobrist can still picture the sea of blue at Union Station – how Kansas City Mayor Sly James estimated 800,000 fans turned out for that downtown parade last November – and envision what the scene would be like in Chicago.

“That’s the thing that blows your mind,” Zobrist said. “This being not just the town of Kansas City, but people from all around flooded to double the size of the city, basically, in that parade.

“People were hanging out the windows of downtown buildings just waving and going crazy because we were able to bring that to that city. It’s overwhelming. You realize kind of the scope.”

The Cubs wanted Zobrist’s big-picture perspective and all-around game after playing nine years for Joe Maddon’s Tampa Bay Rays. The Cubs needed that veteran experience (37 postseason games) and the clutch hitting that helped elevate the Royals during that playoff run (.880 OPS) and neutralize the power pitching that dominated during New York’s National League Championship Series sweep.

The journey begins again on Monday night at Angel Stadium of Anaheim, with the national media hyping this team and Cubs fans having a legitimate belief that: This. Is. The. Year.

“It’s an entertainment thing,” Zobrist said, “but there’s a scope to it where it really gives people a sense of unity and pride and city excitement.

“It’s really something we get a chance to do that we don’t want to take for granted – and make sure that we know that this means a lot to people. Obviously, it means a lot to us, because it’s our (living).

“But to other people, it does mean a lot, and that should drive us to really give everything we’ve got. And make sure that at the end of the day, we know we’re just not playing for ourselves or our families. We’re playing for this city.” 

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That’s why Zobrist, who grew up in downstate Illinois, turned down four-year, $60 million offers from the Mets and San Francisco Giants. Zobrist took the four-year, $56 million contract so he could play for Maddon at Wrigley Field when the Washington Nationals proposed similar money in a three-year deal. 

The Cubs can’t sell 1908 forever, but it’s a great recruiting pitch to free agents now. After being a rental player for Kansas City, Zobrist wants to start a collection of World Series rings.

“It just makes me that much more thirsty for going back for more,” Zobrist said. “There are other guys in this clubhouse that have done it, too. But no one’s done it in Chicago. That’s what makes this team hungry for a championship.”

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.