Cubs

Win now: Cubs send message in blockbuster Aroldis Chapman trade with Yankees

Win now: Cubs send message in blockbuster Aroldis Chapman trade with Yankees

The Cubs put the finishing touches on a blockbuster deal to acquire superstar closer Aroldis Chapman from the New York Yankees on Monday, a win-now move that cemented their status as World Series favorites. 

This is why Theo Epstein’s baseball operations group spent years collecting long-term assets, so the Cubs could bundle young talent and get the final piece they needed for October without completely mortgaging their future and maybe ride in a parade down Michigan Avenue.

“This was a show of faith in our big-league team,” Epstein said before a 5-4 walk-off loss to the White Sox at U.S. Cellular Field. “It was an aggressive move. It was tough to give up what we gave up, but if not now, when? This was the appropriate move given where we are and what we’re trying to accomplish.”

The headliner for the Yankees is Gleyber Torres, a consensus top prospect and a defensively gifted shortstop out of Venezuela. Torres is only 19 years old and had already advanced to the high Class-A level, but he didn’t have a clear path to Wrigley Field with middle infielders Addison Russell and Javier Baez already in place.

No one can replace Chapman’s 105-mph fastball, but the Yankees also wanted Adam Warren to help patch together their pitching staff again and not make this seem like a White Flag Trade to the New York fans and media. Warren – who had been optioned back to Triple-A Iowa on Sunday to stretch out as a starter – never really carved out a role in Chicago after arriving through the Starlin Castro trade.

Chasing the franchise’s first championship since 1908, the Cubs also gave up two minor-league outfielders: Billy McKinney and Rashad Crawford. McKinney – a first-round pick acquired along with Russell from the Oakland A’s in the Jeff Samardzija/Jason Hammel trade – had been hitting .252 with one homer and a .677 OPS in 88 games at Double-A Tennessee this season. Crawford, 22, had teamed up with Torres at advanced Class-A Myrtle Beach, hitting .255 with 22 stolen bases in 83 games.

The cost is high for a rental player who can become a free agent after this season – Epstein signaled the Cubs have not engaged in extension talks with Chapman’s camp. But there is no one else out there quite like Chapman, and the Cubs can process the trade knowing they are still saturated with young position players, and didn’t have to give up Kyle Schwarber, a slugger the Yankees coveted in any deal for All-Star reliever Andrew Miller. 

[SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!  

The Cubs also rationalized the 30-game suspension Chapman served this season under Major League Baseball’s new domestic violence policy after an incident with his girlfriend in South Florida last fall, betting on manager Joe Maddon, a strong coaching staff and a good clubhouse mix of veterans and young players.

“I’m sure that you’re going to hear some kind of negativity,” Maddon said. “I totally understand and get that. However, I’m always about moving things forward. I’m not going to sit and reflect on that. He’s owned up to it. He’s moved on from that. He served his 30-game sentence. 

“Maybe that might not have been good enough for some people. And I get that, too. At the end of the day, he’s a Chicago Cub right now. That’s my responsibility as the manager of this team to make this thing work as well as it possibly can for us and for him. So I’m eager to get to know him. I really am.”

This allows Maddon to shorten games and change the entire shape of his bullpen, moving closer Hector Rondon to the eighth inning while freeing up setup guy Pedro Strop and incorporating new additions Joe Nathan and Mike Montgomery and not pushing rookie Carl Edwards Jr. too hard.    

It’s also a move against the Washington Nationals and San Francisco Giants, two first-place teams in the market for bullpen help that now might have to face Chapman in October. Good luck with that. Chapman converted 20-of-21 save chances for the Yankees and has 590 strikeouts in 350-plus innings in The Show.
 
“You can’t take for granted the position that we’re in right now,” Epstein said. “We have a dynamic and healthy starting pitching staff. We have a really talented bullpen, two MVP candidates in their prime, moving into their prime. We have a lot of talented hitters up and down the lineup, a really great defense. And they’ve worked their tail off to build up this nice lead.

“We believe in these guys. We feel like we have a chance to do something special, but there’s a lot of work ahead to finish strong down the stretch and make sure we get into the postseason. And then the goal is to win three postseason series.

“That’s not an easy thing to do. You need dynamic players. We felt like we really could benefit from an elite talent, a game-changing pitcher like Aroldis Chapman. 

“As you get down the stretch into the big games and hopefully into the postseason, those types of late-inning relievers take on even more (significance), even greater value, available to pitch every game, changing the scope of the game and the outlook of the game.”

And maybe even change the course of franchise history, because this move is all about Chapman getting the final out in this year’s World Series.  

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.