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Why Cubs spent big this winter (and won't be major players next offseason)

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Why Cubs spent big this winter (and won't be major players next offseason)

The Cubs are always trying to stay ahead of the curve, picturing the lineup five years out, recalibrating their financial position and preparing for worst-case scenarios.

When Jon Lester made his recruiting trip to Wrigleyville in November 2014, the Cubs showed the All-Star lefty their projected defensive alignment across the diamond for 2016 — with Gold Glove outfielder Jason Heyward playing center.

Heyward would eventually sign the biggest contract in franchise history, an eight-year, $184 million commitment to a player who won’t turn 27 until August. Between that megadeal — and the guarantees to super-utility guy Ben Zobrist, veteran starter John Lackey and swingman Trevor Cahill — the Cubs lead the majors with more than $276 million spent on free agents this offseason, according to ESPN’s tracker.

The Cubs needed all the stars to align for the Plan-A offseason. President of baseball operations Theo Epstein ruled out the idea of signing two $100 million players back in November — and made it sound like that kind of offseason binge would have to wait for the new TV money to kick in first.

[MORE CUBS: Jason Heyward on 2016 Cubs: Everybody is hungry]

But this team earned the reinvestment after winning 97 games and two playoff rounds and turning Wrigley Field into a destination again. Chairman Tom Ricketts and president of business operations Crane Kenney worked with the baseball side to get creative. Plus some of the market forces that left Yoenis Cespedes unsigned in late January — and pushed the Cuban outfielder back to the New York Mets over the weekend — also drove the Cubs to think big this winter.

Cespedes, who transformed New York’s lineup after a July 31 trade from the Detroit Tigers last summer, reportedly agreed to a three-year, $75 million deal that includes an opt-out after this season, allowing him to become a headliner in a weak class of free agents.

“Next winter doesn’t look that great,” Epstein said. “(That’s) one of the reasons (why) we were aggressive this winter with bringing in the free agents that we did.”

Stephen Strasburg might never live up to the unrealistic hype with the Washington Nationals — and he’s already had Tommy John surgery — but he will be a 28-year-old free agent next winter with an All-Star/No. 1-overall-pick pedigree.

When healthy, Carlos Gomez has played Gold Glove defense in center field, stolen 40 bases and blasted 24 home runs, all in the same 2013 season. He just turned 30 and will get paid with a good walk year for the Houston Astros.

Outside of those types of premium players, “there really aren’t many talented free agents out there,” Epstein said during a recent Cubs Convention panel.

“It’s really dry, and there’s going to be a lot of demand,” Epstein said. “So as we looked at it, we realized we almost needed to do two offseasons worth of shopping in one offseason. Ownership and our business side were fantastic to work with, trying to figure out how we could strategize and structure some things financially to be aggressive now.

“I think it put us in a really good position for the next couple years. Maybe next offseason will be more active in the trade market than we are in free agency (or we do) some lower-profile free-agent signings.”

[SHOP CUBS: Get your Cubs gear right here]

Remember, payroll is always relative to where the Cubs were when the Ricketts family took over the team (around $145 million on Opening Day 2010) and the rest of a booming industry (even the Kansas City Royals will be in the range of $130 million when they defend their World Series crown).

It’s also getting harder to see where the Cubs can realistically add another core player to their everyday lineup with first baseman Anthony Rizzo (26), shortstop Addison Russell (22), third baseman Kris Bryant (24) and outfielders Jorge Soler (24 in February) and Kyle Schwarber (23 in March) already locked into place.

At the same time, the Cubs can see a two-year window to win a World Series before Cy Young Award winner Jake Arrieta becomes a free agent, Lackey probably retires and Lester starts to decline in his mid-30s. Right when all those young players will start to get expensive through the arbitration system, winning closes off access to top-of-the-draft talent and the cable bubble might burst.

Big picture: The Cubs don’t know what their next play will be in a rapidly changing media world. The franchise owns an equity stake in Comcast SportsNet Chicago, which holds exclusive cable rights through the 2019 season.

Looking for leverage, Kenney says the Cubs are “100 percent” focused on launching their own network and points to another industry-in-transition deal, how CBS Radio Chicago wouldn’t have been considered the frontrunner until swooping in with a game-changing offer that ended a long partnership with WGN-AM 720.

On some level, this is also a sign of weakness. Beyond the financial uncertainty, the Cubs “won the offseason” because the farm system doesn’t have any pitching prospects close to being part of a playoff-caliber rotation, and their young lineup got exposed by the Mets during a National League Championship Series sweep.

Against that backdrop, the Cubs took their shot this winter. And they better be right, because they might not get another chance to dramatically reshape the team next offseason.

“We’ll know we got to our goal as an organization when we’re not relying on free agency regularly,” Epstein said, “because we have almost everything covered from our farm system and internally. That may be a hard goal to accomplish. Free agency is going to help us get where we’re going. But it’s not something that we want to rely on every offseason.”

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.