Why Cubs won’t match Willson Contreras up with Jon Lester yet

Why Cubs won’t match Willson Contreras up with Jon Lester yet

The Cubs aren’t going to get in Jon Lester’s head – and stick him with a rookie catcher – when their $155 million asset is pitching like this.

Lester’s comfort level during Year 2 of that megadeal – and the established sense of routine that’s helped him win two World Series rings and put him in position for a fourth All-Star selection – will trump the possibilities the Cubs envision for Willson Contreras.

Lester is 9-3 with a 2.06 ERA and 92 strikeouts through 91-plus innings this season while working with personal catcher David Ross, who knows which buttons to push and how to minimize some of the lefty’s throwing issues.

“You watch the game and you watch the communication between those two guys,” manager Joe Maddon said before Tuesday’s 4-3 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals at Wrigley Field. “David knows exactly what to say to him and when. You can’t underestimate all the little nuance that goes on between the mound and the plate. David’s playing at a very high level right now, so I would not mess with that.”

Ever? “Grandpa Rossy” is supposed to be on his farewell tour, Contreras is viewed as the catcher of the future and Lester is signed through at least 2020.

“I’m not saying never,” Maddon said. “I’m just saying for right now. Obviously, if something were to happen to David – which I would hate to see happen – you might have to make some alterations. But for right now, I’m fine with that.

“And the thing about Willson – understand he’s looking really good right now. He’s young, he’s learning. You keep him fresh mentally and physically, he’s going to look like that all year. You don’t want to put too much on his plate right now.

“I’ve been through that before (with) the new kid on the block. Everybody wants the new flavor. And all of a sudden, the flavor can lose some of its edge if you expose it too often.

“Just let him play. Let him be Willson. Let him be 24 years old. Let him be a new player in the big leagues and let him grow into this whole thing. He’s going to be here for many years. He’s going to be really good.

“But I like the potential for him to break in this way, with two really outstanding veteran catchers around him. Any young catcher would benefit from that.”

Back in spring training, Miguel Montero understood Contreras would be coming for his job and promised to help with the transition. Montero is owed $14 million next season and will turn 34 during the final year of that contract.

The Cubs are far more focused on Contreras managing personalities, absorbing game plans and making adjustments behind the plate than worrying about how he performs offensively. Not after watching him win a Southern League batting title last year at Double-A Tennessee and then put up a 1.030 OPS during his first 54 games this year with Triple-A Iowa.

But at some point – either through injury, Ross retiring and/or the inevitable churn within perennial contenders – Contreras will have to catch Lester.

“My impression of Willson already is: You give him a plan to work with, he will devour that plan and take it out on the field,” Maddon said. “He is insatiable when it comes to the need (and want for) information. He looks you straight up, straight in the eye.

“(Catching/strategy coach Mike) Borzello is perfect for him also. ‘Borz’ loves spewing it out – and this kid loves listening. It’s a great match. Like I said, Willson right now is in the perfect situation to learn from two outstanding veteran catchers (and our coaching staff). It’s optimal for a young catcher.”

When the Cubs wanted to continue with the Kyle Schwarber catching experiment – before the season-ending outfield collision in early April and reconstructive knee surgery – they knew Jason Hammel had the right personality to go along with it.

The Cardinals jumped Hammel for four runs within the first three innings on Tuesday night, and the Cubs won’t be in a rush to pair up Contreras with Cy Young Award winner Jake Arrieta. (Montero will get that assignment on Wednesday afternoon, weather permitting.) But Contreras can also compensate for his defensive inexperience with a game-changing arm and middle-of-the-order presence (1-for-3 with a walk and a run scored).

“We’re building better rhythm as we go,” said Hammel (7-3, 2.55 ERA). “He’s still learning the pitching staff. It’s hard to learn a new guy every time out there.

“I felt like sometimes the ball was coming back harder to me than I was throwing it to him. The kid’s got a cannon.”

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.