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Whether or not David Price is right, Cubs need more pitching

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Whether or not David Price is right, Cubs need more pitching

David Price doesn’t have to be sold on the idea of Chicago. The biggest free agent on the market this winter is intrigued by the chance to make history and be part of the Cubs team that finally wins the World Series after more than a century of losing.

Price won’t have to take the same leap of faith Jon Lester made last December when he signed up with a last-place team for six years and $155 million.

The Cubs won 97 games during the regular season, beat the Pittsburgh Pirates in an emotional wild-card game and eliminated the hated St. Louis Cardinals in the divisional round before slamming into the New York Mets and getting swept out of the National League Championship Series.

To go on a longer run in October, president of baseball operations Theo Epstein understands the Cubs will need to add at least one frontline starting pitcher to the 2016 team.

But simply signing Price at any cost won’t be a slam-dunk decision for a franchise with a checks-and-balances system, some financial restrictions and a stockpile of position players to trade from this winter.

“I’m not sure what direction we’re going to go,” Epstein said during Thursday’s year-end news conference at Wrigley Field. “Free-agent pitching is a necessary evil at times. And it’s only evil because it’s inherently risky. But it’s necessary because you can make such an impact with your starting staff right away by fishing in those waters.

“We did it last year. We’re glad we did. We’ll certainly take a hard look at all the free-agent starters this year. We’ll just have to balance our short-term interests, our long-term interests, our financial picture, our roster and payroll strategy going forward.

“I’m not going to rule anything out or rule anything in, except to say that whether it’s through trade or free agency, we’d like to add at least one quality starting pitcher this winter.”

[MORE CUBS: Cubs will explore long-term deal for Jake Arrieta]

The Cubs could try to rekindle trade talks from the July 31 deadline with the San Diego Padres (Tyson Ross) and Cleveland Indians (Carlos Carrasco) and move a talented middle infielder like Starlin Castro or Javier Baez to reinforce the rotation.

Maybe Jeff Samardzija wants to come home and work with pitching coach Chris Bosio after such a disappointing season with the White Sox. And since the Cubs love their old Boston Red Sox so much, how about John Lackey switching sides in the rivalry with St. Louis?

The Cubs also know this class of free-agent pitchers is so much deeper than just Price. Jordan Zimmermann — a two-time All-Star with the Washington Nationals who grew up in Wisconsin and has strong Midwest roots — will be a person of interest.

The Cubs aren’t a superpower yet and probably can’t compete financially if the Los Angeles Dodgers decide they want Price and blow past $200 million.

Remember, the Cubs needed the Masahiro Tanaka savings to help finance Lester’s megadeal, rolling over $20 million into this year’s payroll, which left them with middle-of-the-pack spending power, or roughly $120 million.

“We have not sat down as a group and finalized our budget or what this all means,” Epstein said. “But what the team accomplished this year should help. We all have an aggressive mindset. And we’re even hungrier now after getting close — but not getting all the way there.”

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Price — who will start a must-win Game 6 against the Kansas City Royals on Friday in the American League Championship Series — cannot be tagged with a qualifying offer after a midseason trade from the Detroit Tigers to the Toronto Blue Jays.

Price loves Joe Maddon, who managed him while he won a Cy Young Award with the Tampa Bay Rays in 2012. Derek Johnson — the minor-league coordinator who once helped recruit Price to Vanderbilt University — is leaving the Cubs organization to become the pitching coach for the Milwaukee Brewers.

Relationships and connections help, but these deals usually come down to years and dollars. The Cubs saw surging TV ratings, almost three million in attendance, four home playoff games and new revenue streams at the under-renovations Wrigley Field.

“We’ve talked about how we hope to someday become must-see TV and a really entertaining product,” Epstein said. “I don’t want to sort of get ahead of ourselves, but I think there’s a lot of interest in seeing this team play, whether it’s at Wrigley Field or on TV.

“That can only help with the TV deal down the line. But we just don’t know exactly what those numbers are yet. We hope to get a better idea as we all sit down together as an organization.

“Obviously, the 2016 payroll is not going to be as big as the 2020 payroll as we look at it because of the TV deal and everything else.

“Whether it’s (chairman Tom Ricketts) and the business-side guys — or us in the front office — we want to do everything that we can to improve the club.”

So even after an unbelievable season that surpassed everyone’s expectations, the Cubs are still in a sense right back where they started, making a No. 1 starter the No. 1 priority and trying to find the missing pieces to a World Series team that would live forever in Chicago.

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.