While waiting for buy-or-sell signals from Yankees, Cubs will get look at Gerardo Concepcion

While waiting for buy-or-sell signals from Yankees, Cubs will get look at Gerardo Concepcion

Yankees general manager Brian Cashman told the New York media on Tuesday that the buy-or-sell decision will be pushed toward the end of July, when owner Hal Steinbrenner will listen to the recommendation and ultimately have the final say.

That’s a backdrop for the pitching-staff shakeup that happened around the same time at Wrigley Field, where the Cubs stashed Clayton Richard (7.30 ERA) on the disabled list with a blister on his left middle finger, optioned Adam Warren to Triple-A Iowa to stretch him out as a starter before the All-Star break and promoted relievers Gerardo Concepcion and Spencer Patton from Des Moines.

While waiting for the market to define itself, this roughly gives the Cubs a 35-game sample size to see what they have before the Aug. 1 trade deadline, when the entire industry will be curious to see how the best team in baseball gears up for October. 

The Cubs will get a fresh look at Concepcion and hope his video-game numbers this year against left-handed hitters – .116 average, .331 OPS, 19 strikeouts in 43 at-bats – will translate from Iowa and Double-A Tennessee. 

But imagine the endgame possibilities for manager Joe Maddon if Theo Epstein’s front office delivered Andrew Miller or Aroldis Chapman this summer. Assuming the Yankees remain a fourth-place team in the American League East, fail to gain traction above .500 and drop out of the wild-card race. 

“I’m always a brutally honest person,” Cashman told reporters at Yankee Stadium, according to the New York Daily News. “If I see things, I’ll always communicate honestly with ownership to the best of our abilities. Again, we’re in June, so right now that’s not the conversation we’re having.

“Everybody wants to (know): ‘Are you buyers, are you sellers?’ If anything right now, we’d be buyers, not sellers, and who’s to say we can’t be both buyers and sellers?

“But obviously the big focus everybody wants to know is: Are we going to be in a position to sell? You’ve heard from ownership – that’s not part of the vocabulary right now. There’s enough schedule left to allow us time to see if this team is closer to what we thought it was capable of.”

Concepcion made his big-league debut during Tuesday’s 4-3 loss to the Cardinals, coming into a one-run game with a runner on first base and two outs to face Brandon Moss (16 homers). Concepcion threw six pitches – four fastballs clocked between 91-92 mph and two curveballs at 75-76 mph – and struck out the left-handed Moss swinging.

Concepcion then handled Kolten Wong, Adam Wainwright and Matt Carpenter during a 1-2-3 seventh inning in front of 41,616, a scenario that would have sounded crazy even last year. 

Concepcion looked like a bust after signing a guaranteed five-year, $6 million major-league contract during spring training in 2012. He had been the Cuban National Series Rookie of the Year in 2011 while pitching for Industriales in Havana, but had trouble staying healthy and developing into the left-handed starter the Cubs envisioned.   

No one else took a chance when the Cubs outrighted Concepcion off their 40-man roster after the 2012 season, or left him exposed in the Rule 5 draft, and his name stopped getting mentioned when team officials tried to talk up the organization’s pitching prospects.

As Epstein’s group took over baseball operations, Concepcion’s rough first year with Class-A Peoria (2-6, 7.39 ERA in 12 starts) contributed to the firing of vice president of player personnel Oneri Fleita, who helped build the Latin American pipeline and network of connections that produced Carlos Marmol, Starlin Castro, Welington Castillo, Jorge Soler and Willson Contreras.

Concepcion came into this season with a 5.57 ERA in 160 career innings in the minor leagues. Between 2012 and 2014, he spent time on the disabled list with a strained right calf, a viral infection, a strained back (twice) and a broken toe on his left foot. 

But Concepcion, 24, finally got healthy, started to trust his softer stuff and pitched with more confidence. He began this season by throwing 17.2 scoreless innings with Tennessee before earning the promotion to Iowa, where he went 1-0 with a 2.60 ERA in 12 appearances.   

“I was frustrated when everything was going wrong,” Concepcion said through interpreter/coach Henry Blanco. “But I stepped back and learned how to do things. And here I am.” 

This certainly isn’t adding Miller or Chapman – it once looked like the Cubs would get zero return on the Concepcion investment – but Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer can’t just wait around for the Yankees to go against their franchise’s DNA and give up on this season.  

“You always have to anticipate something’s going to go awry,” Maddon said. “That is such a hard spot to get people you really like just by snapping your finger. Unless you’re growing somebody like that, unless you know you have it in the system (or) you’re holding him back. 

“That’s kind of a nice thing to have in your back pocket. I’ve been there with the Rays a little bit. We had that kind of luxury. But if you don’t have that extra starter or two – or that real significant guy that’s got a good arm that can pitch out of your bullpen – it’s not easy (to find).”

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.