Cubs

Why Cubs can see Andrew Miller as great fit and long shot at the same time

Why Cubs can see Andrew Miller as great fit and long shot at the same time

Andrew Miller tries to ignore the trade rumors surrounding the New York Yankees, the identity crisis for a win-at-all-costs franchise trying to get younger and more athletic and prepare for the future without a total teardown.

But if the Yankees look in the mirror and ultimately decide to sell just before the Aug. 1 trade deadline, the Cubs will be in those conversations, because a team with seven All Stars could use another for October.

“We’re here to win,” Miller said this week at U.S. Cellular Field during the Yankees-White Sox series. “We’re here to compete every year. And that’s from the top down, whether you hear it from (general manager Brian) Cashman or (manager Joe) Girardi or the players.

“That was a big selling point about me coming here — and the goal is to win here. That’s what I want to be a part of.”

The Cubs checked in with Miller’s camp during his free-agent process after the 2014 season but didn’t feel like getting into a bidding war to add a setup guy to an 89-loss team made that much sense.

If Miller on a four-year, $36 million contract looked like a luxury item then, he would be a perfect fit now, giving another late-inning weapon to Joe Maddon, arguably the game’s best bullpen manager. Watching Trevor Cahill serve up the go-ahead, three-run homer to Tucker Barnhart in the seventh inning of Wednesday afternoon’s 5-3 loss to the Cincinnati Reds only reinforced that view at Wrigley Field.

Theo Epstein’s front office could justify the cost by looking at it as an investment in 2016 and beyond, acquiring an All-Star reliever who can close now and potentially impact three pennant races on the North Side.

“I love Andrew,” said pitcher Jon Lester, who played with Miller on the 2013 Boston Red Sox team that won the World Series. “I definitely would vouch for Andrew. Obviously, his stuff and stats speak for itself.

“And it would be nice to get him out of the Yankees organization and somewhere he could grow his beard and long hair back and we could call him ‘Jesus’ (Spanish pronunciation) again.”

Lester lobbied for Epstein to acquire Jonathan Papelbon last summer, saying a strong clubhouse culture could handle the enigmatic closer who got traded from the Philadelphia Phillies to the Washington Nationals and wound up choking Bryce Harper in the dugout.

Epstein’s Cubs keep going back to their Red Sox connections, but in signing a minor-league deal and reviving his career at Fenway Park, Miller formed more of a bond with Ben Cherington, the Boston personnel executive who eventually got hired and essentially fired as general manager.

For a Cubs team with a glaring bullpen need, Miller, 31, checks the boxes as a left-hander who can get all types of hitters out with velocity (94.1-mph average fastball) and swing-and-miss stuff (66 strikeouts through 36-plus innings this season).

Miller has size (6-foot-7), first-round pedigree (sixth overall out of the University of North Carolina in 2006), playoff experience, a strong clubhouse reputation and what’s turned out to be a reasonable contract.

“Great teammate,” said catcher David Ross, who played with Miller in Boston. “He’s had struggles. He’s had success. He’s won a World Series. So he knows about winning, he knows about losing. When you have guys who have gone through the spectrum like that in their careers, you just gain perspective. So you can relate to a lot of different guys at different times during the season.

“He’s a winner. He’s got nasty stuff. He throws mid-to-upper 90s with a filthy, filthy slider. Righties and lefties — it doesn’t matter. (Whatever) the matchup, he can get through the inning.

“He doesn’t have an ego. I’ve read his quotes in New York where it’s: ‘I don’t care if I’m closing.’ And that fits right into this team. We’re here as a 25-man group that is after one goal. And he understands that.”

As someone who got traded out of his Boston comfort zone to the Oakland A’s at the 2014 deadline, Lester recognizes the many dimensions to those deals, as well as the unique chemistry in Wrigleyville.

“At the same time, you’re talking about now we got to move some pieces around in that bullpen,” Lester said. “You get a guy like Andrew Miller, now you’re subtracting somehow, and that’s always tough when you’ve been grinding with guys (the whole year).

“(But) I know Andrew, and I think his personality would fit in just fine here. He wouldn’t have an issue with the transition — (and) that is a tough transition.

“I always go back to Joe. Joe does such a good job with situations. Whatever the situation may be, he does such a good job with making guys feel comfortable. So if we did get a guy like that, I think you would definitely get the best out of him.”

Lester — who believed in The Plan enough to join a last-place team after the 2014 season and signed a six-year, $155 million megadeal with the understanding that he would be in the loop — doesn’t know if Epstein’s group will think big again at the trade deadline.

“A lot can happen,” Lester said. “Hopefully, nobody goes down and we don’t have a dire need. Any time you’re talking about an addition, you’re going to have a subtraction. That’s always a tough thing. (But) I’d like to say: ‘Yeah, it would be awesome to get some big-name stud in here.’”

The Yankees woke up on Wednesday as a 41-42 team, stuck in fourth place in the American League East, but only four games out of a wild-card spot. Whether or not the Cubs are willing to pay the price for a brand-name reliever — or hoping to get lucky again with under-the-radar additions — it still starts with the Yankees either giving up on 2016 or going for it.

“That’s what the Yankees do,” Miller said. “Their track record shows that’s what we do. They haven’t had a losing record since ’92.

“The expectation is that we’re going to be in the thick of it. And I think the 25 guys in here think that we’re capable of winning enough games to be in it.”

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.