Cubs

Why Cubs believe winning the offseason won't be a curse

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Why Cubs believe winning the offseason won't be a curse

Theo Epstein hasn’t been on an offseason roll like this since ... the Boston Red Sox traded Anthony Rizzo to the San Diego Padres in the Adrian Gonzalez deal and signed Carl Crawford to a $142 million contract?

“Expectations got so high,” Epstein remembered. “People were speculating: ‘Is this the greatest team of all-time? A super-team? An uber-team?’”

The 2011 Red Sox started out 0-6 and 2-10, finished August in first place in the American League East and then lost 20 games in September, missing the playoffs in a spectacular collapse that led to manager Terry Francona being forced out and The Boston Globe publishing the fried-chicken-and-beer story.

Tired of the power struggles at Fenway Park and looking for a new challenge, Epstein bolted to Chicago that October for a president’s title with the Cubs and a direct report to ownership.

“It is an unbelievable dynamic the last few years,” Epstein said, “how the winners of the offseason tend to be miserable the following September.”

[MORE CUBS: How Cubs wound up spending big on Jason Heyward]

Epstein said that during the general managers meetings in the middle of November, when the idea of spending $272 million on bulldog pitcher John Lackey, super-utility guy Ben Zobrist and Gold Glove outfielder Jason Heyward sounded completely unrealistic given the franchise’s financial limitations.

But Epstein’s front office lobbied chairman Tom Ricketts and Crane Kenney’s business operations department, and the Cubs got creative, pulling off some accounting tricks and reinvesting money generated during a surprising trip to the National League Championship Series. A franchise that usually seems so focused on the future and risk management thought big and acted decisively, trying to win a World Series.

After Heyward agreed to an eight-year, $184 million contract and started trending on Twitter on Friday, Jason Hammel set the bar for the 2016 Cubs at “#162-0.” So there would be no confusion, the veteran pitcher clarified his tweet three minutes later: “Strike that. Reverse it. Let’s make that 173-0.”

After being the fun-loving, out-of-nowhere team that won 97 games last season, the Cubs will now be the hunted.

“The target’s going to be bigger, and I want us to embrace the target,” manager Joe Maddon said during the winter meetings. “The pressure is going to be possibly greater, and I want us to embrace the pressure.

“The bigger target, the greater pressure, I think, equals a grander chance for success. So I’m all about that, and I definitely will bring that to our guys’ attention.

“(With) the accountability of our young players — combined with our veterans — I really believe we could avoid those kind of pitfalls.”

[MORE CUBS: What the Jason Heyward deal means for Jorge Soler and Javier Baez]

Who knows if this means more or less zoo animals, but the Cubs do have the perfect manager to distract the media, keep the clubhouse loose and make rapid-fire decisions in the dugout.

At least the Cubs haven’t been thrown together like Ozzie Guillen’s reality-show Miami Marlins. The Cubs have their thin-skin moments and certainly try to shape public opinions, but they really don’t care what you think about this trade or that contract or make baseball decisions based on TV ratings or the next morning’s headlines.

The Cubs also have a foundation that appears to be stronger than the White Sox and Padres teams that won last year’s winter meetings — and wound up finishing 37 games out of first place combined.

Lackey probably won’t be amused by the Chicago media or have patience for nonsense questions. It was also interesting to see the mixed reactions to the Lackey signing on Twitter from Cubs fans ready to rubber-stamp any Theo move.

But Maddon worked as Mike Scioscia’s Anaheim Angels bench coach when Lackey beat the San Francisco Giants in Game 7 of the 2002 World Series. Epstein already drew up a five-year, $82.5 million contract with Lackey in Boston, where he reshaped his image after the fried-chicken-and-beer stuff and Tommy John surgery by helping the Red Sox win the 2013 World Series.

Maddon and Epstein insist Lackey brings an edge to the clubhouse, takes charge of the rotation in between starts and pushes teammates to get better.

Zobrist is one of Maddon’s favorite players ever after spending nine seasons together with the Tampa Bay Rays and transforming a last-place team into a World Series contender.

Heyward is getting paid like a superstar now, but the Cubs really just need him to be a supporting player who does the little things, grinding out at-bats, getting on base, going first-to-third and performing at a Gold-Glove level.

The idea of “don’t try to be something you’re not” probably appealed to Heyward after being surrounded by so much hype with the Atlanta Braves. This lineup already has 40-homer threats in Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber.

[SHOP CUBS: Get your Cubs gear right here]

This didn’t create a splash, but the Cubs are feeling optimistic about Adam Warren — the swingman acquired from the New York Yankees in the Starlin Castro trade — and insurance policies like Trevor Cahill, Clayton Richard and Travis Wood. Because, as Epstein said: “We’ve been walking a tightrope with our lack of starting-pitching depth.”

The Cubs still haven’t really mortgaged their farm system yet, meaning there should be plenty of trade chips available to get whatever they need leading up to the July 31 deadline.

“Organizations that are the healthiest,” Epstein said, “(with) the most talent coming through the pipeline, the fewest holes, the most areas of surplus and depth, tend to have the least active offseasons. And those organizations tend to win.

“It means they’re doing something right. It means they have ways to address their needs internally. It means they have a lot of talent spread out in different areas of the organization. The teams that sometimes quote-unquote ‘win the offseason’ do so in response to a glaring need to infuse talent in a number of different areas.

“A healthy organization is not made by virtue of one busy offseason. It’s really years and years and years of planning, hiring scouts and development people and putting processes into play and seeing that approach manifest over time.”

Whether or not the Cubs are paper tigers, the only guarantee is they will be the biggest story in the baseball world in 2016.

Remember that guy? Former Cubs shortstop Ricky Gutiérrez

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AP

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.