Cubs

5 reasons for optimism surrounding Cubs in the second half

5 reasons for optimism surrounding Cubs in the second half

The Cubs enter the second half of play with the best record in the National League — only the fifth time they've accomplished that feat — and a 2.5-game lead in the division.

If that's not enough optimism for you, we've got you covered elsewhere.

The Cubs are obviously in a good spot for the final 69 games of the 2018 season.

Here are 5 other reasons for Cubs fans to be feelin' sexy as the second half gets underway:

1. The Brewers aren't getting Manny Machado.

The Cubs trailed Milwaukee by 5.5 games at the break last year and wound up tied for first less than two weeks into the second half. So this 2.5-game lead could evaporate in a hurry.

It's going to be a dogfight with the Brewers all season and the good news for the Cubs is Manny Machado — a rumored Brewers target — won't be joining the division after he was traded to the Dodgers officially Wednesday.

Which means the best player on the trade market will not be duking it out with the Cubs for the NL Central title for the last 2.5 months of the season.

Whether that means the Brewers go out and add to their pitching staff or not remains to be seen, but either way, it's not adding Machado to a lineup that already includes Lorenzo Cain, Christian Yelich, Jesus Aguilar and Travis Shaw.

2. Never forget the back of the baseball card.

Neither Kris Bryant nor Anthony Rizzo went into the All-Star Break feeling great about their overall body of work in 2018.

Yet somehow, the Cubs offense is the best in the National League in just about every category that matters.

Imagine how well this team is gonna be clicking when Bryzzo returns as the best hitting tandem on the Cubs.

Bryant actually got off to a fantastic start to the campaign, but since May 14, he's been a different hitter — .277/.352/.409 (.761 OPS), 3 HR, 21 RBI, 48 K in 37 games.

Rizzo got off to a dreadful start in March/April and though he's leveled out a bit since then, he's still hitting only .246 with a .748 OPS on the year.

The two sluggers are on pace for only 38 combined homers in 2018; they teamed up for 61 dingers last season.

They've also posted a combined OPS 230 points below where they were at last season — Rizzo (.748) is 151 points below his .899 OPS from last year while Bryant (.867) is 79 points below his .946 mark.

MLB players reference "the back of the baseball card" often because it happens to be a cliche that's true more often than not. Both Bryant and Rizzo are well-established stud hitters and chances are high they'll return to that form in the second half.

Mix that in with the development the Cubs' young lineup has shown (fewer strikeouts, using the whole field more, etc.) and Jason Heyward's re-emergence and you have yourself a formidable offense for the stretch run.

3. The Cubs are due for some good luck on the injury front.

"Yu" can never predict injuries with any sort of precision and it's safe to say the Cubs did not expect their first half to go as it did on the injury front.

Yu Darvish hasn't pitched since late May and has accounted for only 40 innings this season. 

Both Rizzo and Bryant had stints on the disabled list and have missed other time with ailments, as well. 

The Cubs were without their top relievers — Brandon Morrow and Carl Edwards Jr. — for 10 days at the same time and Edwards missed more than a month overall.

Throw in the Jason Heyward concussion DL stint, Brian Duensing hitting the shelf and a few other minor injuries and the Cubs have had their fair share of injuries already in 2018.

So the luck's gotta turn eventually, right?

That's what they're hoping, though much of that depends on Darvish, who still hasn't progressed much since receiving a cortisone shot in his elbow three weeks ago.

For a team with championship aspirations, the Cubs badly need Darvish to return to the mound and return to form. But if they're concerned about his stability in the rotation moving forward, there's still enough time to rectify that for 2018, with nearly two weeks left until the non-waiver trade deadline.

4. All-Star confidence

Players like Javy Baez, Willson Contreras and Kyle Schwarber don't lack for confidence, that's for sure.

But there's something to be said for being voted to start for the National League in the All-Star Game or picked for the Home Run Derby. That's a confidence that can only be provided from the outside. 

All three of these young Cubs sluggers got that boost this week and can carry that over into the second half. Especially with the showing they put up — Baez leading off with a single, Contreras sending the first pitch he saw into the bleachers, Schwarber very nearly taking down the hometown favorite (Bryce Harper) in a thrilling Derby.

These guys had already proved they belonged in the spots granted to them and certainly were able to rise to the occasion.

Joe Maddon has talked about how he loves when young players get to go to the All-Star Game because of how it can impact a player's confidence moving forward. We could see that with this trio, even if Baez is already playing at an MVP level.

5. Rotation normalizing

This one's a double-edged sword. 

Jon Lester has obviously pitched at an All-Star level and carried the Cubs rotation through much of the first half. But despite a 2.58 ERA, he has a 4.34 FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) and a 4.59 xFIP (expected FIP), which would both be Lester's worst marks since becoming a full-time starting pitcher in 2008.

What does that mean? Lester has been a bit lucky so far and all that contact he's given up — his K/9 is at its lowest since '08 — may come back to haunt him at some point.

Which is fair. Lester has admitted he's a different pitcher now after all the wear and tear on his arm at age 34. He's focused on pitching to contact now and sometimes that can hurt you with some bad luck.

That being said, the rest of the rotation should be able to return to form.

Kyle Hendricks, Jose Quintana and Tyler Chatwood are all pitching below their career norms and working individually to get back to that level. 

And while Mike Montgomery has been a godsend to this rotation, getting Darvish back and pitching at the elite level he's capable of would do wonders for this team.

The Cubs need a whole lot more from their rotation in the second half and history indicates that "more" should be coming. Remember that whole "back of the baseball card" thing. 

Bonus: Reinforcements are coming.

If the rotation cannot return to form immediately coming out of the break (and Darvish still isn't showing signs of progress), the Cubs can bolster their starting staff with a move, as we already mentioned.

They could also add another member or two to the bullpen to help counteract the weight that's been placed on the shoulders of the Cubs' relievers to date and the weight that's surely coming in the postseason. 

The Cubs will make a move or two before Aug. 1 and that only figures to make this team stronger for the stretch run.

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?

chavez_kamka_story.jpg
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.