Why Jon Lester lobbied for Jonathan Papelbon and believes Cubs will be trade-deadline winners

Why Jon Lester lobbied for Jonathan Papelbon and believes Cubs will be trade-deadline winners

WASHINGTON – Before Jonathan Papelbon choked Bryce Harper in the dugout – becoming a billboard for the dysfunctional Washington Nationals last September – Jon Lester lobbied for the Cubs to acquire the All-Star closer/WWE-style villain at the trade deadline.

If all that bad blood is in the past, Washington is now dealing with a new crisis, putting Papelbon on the disabled list with an intercostal strain before Tuesday’s game against the Cubs at Nationals Park.

With the Philadelphia Phillies looking to unload a toxic asset last summer, president of baseball operations Theo Epstein asked Lester for his thoughts on Papelbon, how that might work for manager Joe Maddon and what the response would be in the clubhouse.

Once again, the Cubs were going back to their Boston Red Sox connections. Lester and Papelbon had been key pieces to the 2007 World Series team that put a second championship on Epstein’s potential Hall of Fame resume.

What this means now for the best team in baseball: The Cubs believe they have created a strong culture that can absorb players with baggage and smooth over awkward situations and ego clashes. Epstein’s front office will canvass a cross-section of sources for information (so don’t read too much into every out-of-context whisper punched into Twitter). And you can never have enough pitching or too many backup plans, because Papelbon saved 365 games before going on the disabled list for the first time in his career.

“Pap’s a good dude,” Lester said. “A lot of the stuff that has kind of followed him around is maybe a little misconstrued. He’s obviously a strong personality. He’ll definitely tell you what’s on his mind, which I love. We get our asses powdered enough – I don’t need my teammates to do it.

“I love Pap. I thought he would have been a good fit. Joe and ‘Boz’ (pitching coach Chris Bosio) and all of us would have really helped him fit in here. I think the fan base would have been really good for him.

“Theo asked me about him. And then maybe like a week later I hadn’t heard anything, so I went (to Theo) and (said): ‘Hey, man, I think this would be great,’ and vouched for (it again).”

The Cubs tried to trade for Papelbon, but didn’t have the financial muscle to compete with the Nationals, who couldn’t placate displaced homegrown closer Drew Storen or live up to the World Series expectations, which got manager Matt Williams fired and ultimately led to Dusty Baker’s return to the dugout.

Papelbon agreed to rework his 2016 option, getting it guaranteed at $11 million instead of $13 million, with $3 million reportedly deferred to 2017 and the Phillies kicking in $4.5 million to cover the rest of his 2015 salary.

The Cubs had less than $5 million to play with last summer, and actually got swept by the last-place Phillies, waking up only five games over .500 on July 27 and facing a double-digit deficit against the St. Louis Cardinals in the division.

The Cubs wound up making smaller deals for their rotation (Dan Haren) and bullpen (Tommy Hunter) on July 31 before catching fire in August, finishing with 97 victories and winning two playoff rounds.

“It’s been documented that last year we weren’t expected to be where we were at,” Lester said. “So I think financially it kind of surprised everybody. And people kept asking us: ‘If they don’t get anybody, are you guys OK?’ It (was always): ‘Yeah, we’ll be fine.’

“Would we like maybe a little help here and there? Yeah, absolutely, but I didn’t really think that was the time to (mortgage the future). Obviously, now it’s easy to look back and say they made the right move as far as not selling the farm and not wasting a bunch of money.

“Theo and those guys are so good. They’re so prepared and they do (so much) homework and background on a lot of things that we (don’t think about). As a player and as a competitor, you’re like: ‘Just get him. I don’t care what his shoulder looks like – just get him – we’ll figure the rest out.’

“Whereas they sit back and (think): ‘We’re not trading two of our (young) guys for a half-a-year rental that we don’t need right now.’”

This is what Lester wanted when he signed that six-year, $155 megadeal after the 2014 season, deciding to anchor the rotation for a last-place team and dreaming about starting playoff games at Wrigley Field.

“That’s a cool part about being here,” Lester said. “In Boston, even though I had a little bit of time over there, I was still third or fourth on the totem pole as far as guys that were asked about things and kind of included in situations. So that was something that I also talked to Theo about when I was recruited by him – I want to be involved more. I don’t care if you listen to me or not, but I would like a phone call or I would like a text.

“He does such a good job with communicating, whether it be situations like (Papelbon) or something going on in the clubhouse or something on the field. There’s definitely no disconnect between players and the front office.”

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.