What's next for Cubs after Jason Heyward signing?


What's next for Cubs after Jason Heyward signing?

Everybody wants to know what's next for the Cubs.

It's only natural given how active and aggressive Theo Epstein's front office has been this winter, following up on a 97-win season and trip to the National League Championship Series by keeping their foot firmly on the gas.

But no more moves are guaranteed. The Cubs could easily head to spring training with this current roster and expect to contend.

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Before the Jason Heyward signing Friday, the Cubs still needed a centerfielder, but they feel confident with their new 26-year-old prize manning the gaps at Wrigley Field for the 2016 season.

After committing $272 million to a trio of free agents (Heyward, John Lackey and Ben Zobrist), plus Trevor Cahill's $4.25 million deal for one year, the Cubs have already gone over their initial payroll estimates for 2016.

Epstein addressed the media after Heyward's introductory press conference at Spiaggia's in Chicago Tuesday and admitted there might not be any more moves coming for the Cubs while also commending chairman Tom Ricketts and the business side for finding a way to free up some money to stay aggressive this winter.

"There's always a chance, but we've committed a lot of resources this offseason, mainly money," Epstein said. "... It's easy sometimes to sit back on the heels of a surprising 97-win season and be content with what you have and try to go out and do it again and contend again.

"But there was a real effort to go from good to great this winter and to capitalize on a moment in time when we have a lot of young, cost-controlled position players and Jon Lester and Jake Arrieta in their primes.

"The business side really stepped up, trying to find some creative ways to push some of the postseason money onto this year's budget. We came up with some creative contract structures to allow us to add now, but this is the right time, strategically, with next year's free agent market not being quite as deep as this year's."

The Cubs essentially viewed Heyward as the right guy at the right time, deciding to go all-in now rather than play the long game. It also helps that they were able to defer a large chunk of Heyward's salary and signing bonus until the Cubs can cash in on a new TV deal following the 2019 season.

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2015 was a surprising season for the Cubs, but getting swept out of the NLCS by the New York Mets also exposed weaknesses within the young roster - namely outfield defense, situational hitting and pitching depth.

The Cubs addressed all of those issues, as Heyward helps solve the outfield defense issue (whether he plays center or right) and he and Zobrist add contact, situational hitting and a patient approach to help lengthen the lineup.

In order to sign Zobrist, Epstein's front office had to make a "bank shot" move to trade Starlin Castro to the New York Yankees, but they received 28-year-old pitcher Adam Warren in return. Warren and Cahill provide rotational depth while also serving as proven arms out of the bullpen.

Lackey also adds a veteran presence that can take the ball every fifth day and the Cubs feel they were able to jump the market on signing the former St. Louis Cardinals ace before the price of pitching soared around the game.

The Cubs have done all this without dealing away any of their prospects or core players (apart from Castro) and they still hold all their trade chips if they want to add another young, top-of-the-rotation starter down the road.

[MORE CUBS: Why Jason Heyward chose Cubs over Cardinals]

"That does allow us - whether it's this winter or the trade deadline or next offseason - to be a threat to make significant trades that can help the ballclub going forward," Epstein said. "It doesn't necessarily have to happen in the next couple months.

"We feel great about the team as it constitutes right now. Let's go play. You always learn a lot more by watching your team play. You see how pitchers are going to show up, what you're going to get out of your starting rotation, who's going to stay healthy, how guys adapt to different positions, what holes emerge on your club that you have to fill, who's maturing and taking their game to the next level.

"None of us are smart enough to figure out exactly what our ballclub is going to look like at the end of the season, let alone at the trade deadline. ... I think we're well positioned to adjust."

Epstein admitted that he doesn't feel the Cubs are a finished product, but understands not every team will feel that way in December.

[SHOP CUBS: Get your Cubs gear right here]

He also again cautioned that "winning" the offseason is a dangerous tag to place on a team, even one with an arrow pointing straight up and a window of contention just starting to fully break open.

"There are a lot of things in this organization to be excited about," Epstein said. "At the same time, we haven't accomplished that much yet. We did have a special year in a lot of ways. We finished in third place. We didn't advance to the World Series; we certainly didn't win the World Series.

"Just about all the hard work still remains in front of us. I think it's important that we stay humble and hungry as an organization. I don't worry about our players in that regard at all.

"... Normally, with an offseason like this, you worry about the players being complacent or suffering because of the pressure that's on them. But I don't. I know our guys and how hungry they are and how much they want this. We're just excited to go play and we recognize that we haven't accomplished anything yet."

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.