What does the future hold for Starlin Castro with Cubs?


What does the future hold for Starlin Castro with Cubs?

"The game reveals it for you."

Joe Maddon was discussing the X's and O's of how he can work in defensive replacements with his new offensive-minded starting lineup, but that line can also apply to Starlin Castro's future with the Cubs. The game reveals it for you.

[RELATED - Starlin Castro refuses to put his head down after benching]

Nobody knows what the future holds for the Cubs or Castro, but it will all eventually work itself out. Right now, the team insists the recent benching doesn't change the 25-year-old's status with the franchise.

"No, not at all," Cubs president Theo Epstein said Friday. "He's a big part of what we have going here. A 25-year-old, three-time All-Star who has been the shortstop on a playoff-worthy team (as of right now).

"Certainly, we think he'll play better baseball going forward than he has the last four months and a week."

Despite that impressive resume and a relatively reasonable contract that keeps him under club control through the 2020 season, Castro has found himself in trade rumors, especially before the non-waiver deadline last month.

With Addison Russell's emergence at age 21, Castro needed a solid season to maintain his hold on the shortstop position, but instead carries a .575 OPS, the worst mark among all big-league shortstops.

[RELATED - Starlin Castro the odd man out of Joe Maddon's lineup]

Castro's struggles have left the Cubs baffled.

"Yeah, of course [it's puzzling]," Epstein said. "A 25-year-old, for as talented as he is, usually gets better and puts up good seasons.

"He's shown some streakiness in his career. Even within the course of a good season, he'll have a couple months where he's not performing well and then he'll get really hot. And we've benefitted from that hot streak.

"But it's just a year that he hasn't really gotten comfortable at the plate for whatever reason. I think maybe this will help him - a little bit of time off, a little bit different look out there on the field and maybe Joe can put him in a position to find it and get hot."

The Cubs initially moved Russell to second base before his promotion to the big leagues, but with Castro's struggles, the rookie is back at his natural position, where he's always envisioned himself playing.

"I've been playing [shortstop] ever since I was a little kid and all my dreams are coming true," Russell said. "That's great and all, but I just want to help out the team now that I'm in the big leagues. Wherever they need me, I'm going to try to get the job done."

Castro said nobody from the Cubs has talked to him yet about possibly switching positions, but Maddon said they have started internal discussions about different possibilities.

Right now, the Cubs just want Castro to get back to the player he is capable of being instead of trying to add more to his plate.

"Maybe a little break, a little rebooting can help," Maddon said. "I really like this kid a lot and I want to see it work out for him and for us."

Epstein thinks moving Coghlan to the infield could be a blessing in disguise for the Cubs, freeing Maddon up to give the rookies a day off here or there and keep them fresh for the stretch run.

[NBC SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

"It's going to finally allow Joe to get a little bit more rest for the [Kris] Bryants and Russells of the world, guys who have never played a six-month season before," Epstein said.

"And then for Starlin, too. It's going to give him days off that will hopefully allow him to find it."

Castro said he is trying not to focus on the future and stay positive, but also admitted he wouldn't mind having a conversation with Epstein's front office if there was the possibility of a position or role change.

"Yeah, if I have a chance to talk to them, I will," Castro said. "Whatever they can do, they know why they do it and they know what is best for me and the other players.

"Whatever decision they make, I'm in."

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.