What’s next for Cubs after missing on Zobrist and Papelbon?


What’s next for Cubs after missing on Zobrist and Papelbon?

The Cubs don’t have the same win-now window as the Kansas City Royals, or the high-end pitching prospect the Oakland A’s wanted for essentially two months of Ben Zobrist, an ideal fill-in-the-blanks player.   

The Cubs didn’t have the financial muscle to outbid the Washington Nationals and end Jonathan Papelbon’s misery with the Philadelphia Phillies, another aggressive move that would have strengthened their bullpen with an elite/eccentric closer.

The Cubs pursued Zobrist and Papelbon but didn’t make a splash on Tuesday, waiting for the right deal as big names kept coming off the board. Theo Epstein’s baseball operations department now has less than $5 million to play with – and less than 72 hours until Friday’s non-waiver trade deadline.

Being realistic, it wouldn’t be a surprise if the Cubs only upgrade in one of their three main areas of need, grabbing a starter, a reliever or a veteran left-handed hitter.

[MORE CUBS: Cubs bullpen will take another hit if Neil Ramirez goes down]

Someday, the Cubs hope to be in the same position as the Royals, adding a Johnny Cueto and a Zobrist to make it back to the World Series and win it all. The Cubs just don’t have that sense of urgency, or the fully developed lineup, or a blue-chip pitching prospect to match Sean Manaea, the headliner in the Zobrist deal.

Remember, the Cubs had considered Manaea for the No. 2 overall pick in the 2013 draft before his junior season at Indiana State University. Kris Bryant went out and had a monster year at the University of San Diego, while injury concerns dropped Manaea to the Royals at No. 34.

It didn’t cost the Nationals as much in terms of talent to get Papelbon, the homegrown Boston Red Sox closer when future Cubs executives Epstein, Jed Hoyer and Jason McLeod won their 2007 World Series rings.

The Nationals gave up Nick Pivetta – a fourth-round pick from the 2013 draft who had been pitching at their Double-A affiliate – and used their deep pockets to spring Papelbon from the worst team in baseball.

Papelbon agreed to rework his 2016 option, getting it guaranteed at $11 million instead of $13 million, according to The Washington Post, with $3 million deferred to 2017 and the Phillies kicking in $4.5 million to cover the rest of his 2015 salary.

Jon Lester had promised his buddy from Boston (342 career saves) would be on good behavior and fit right into the clubhouse – besides giving Cubs manager Joe Maddon a no-doubt answer for the ninth inning.

[NBC SPORTS SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

The Cubs like to go with that they know and had tried to trade for Zobrist over the winter, but couldn’t make a deal with the Tampa Bay Rays. Zobrist is one of Maddon’s all-time favorite players – at least now the super-utility guy can’t be tagged with a qualifying offer and the attached draft-pick compensation. 

For now, there is a do-it-yourself feeling around the Cubs. 

“I’m always good with that,” Maddon said. “If you look at our group right now, the big thing there is to get more out of what we have. And there is more. If we had been offensively at the top of our game to this point – and be in this particular position, which is a good position – I’d be a little bit more concerned. There’s a lot left in the tank offensively for us over the next two months.”

Maddon, of course, put a positive spin on it, pointing to Miguel Montero, Javier Baez and Tommy La Stella getting healthy, hoping they can add another dimension to the team.  

“There’s a lot of in-house acquisitions to be made, too,” Maddon said. “A lot of times the answers do lie within. You just got to get more out of the group that is here.”

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.