Cubs

As spring training opens, Cubs hope this is the beginning of a dynasty

As spring training opens, Cubs hope this is the beginning of a dynasty

Even after winning arguably the greatest Game 7 ever played – and headlining one of the largest gatherings in human history – the Cubs still feel this is more like the beginning than the end.

The Cubs believe they have enough personality, style and crossover appeal to become Major League Baseball’s version of the Golden State Warriors, drawing sellout crowds all across the country and becoming must-see TV.  

The Cubs hope they have the homegrown talent and big-market financial muscle to match what the New York Yankees did in 1998, 1999 and 2000, pulling off a three-peat to go with their 1996 World Series title, part of an unbelievable stretch of 24 consecutive winning seasons.    

The Cubs talked about this amid the early-morning, champagne-fueled haze on Nov. 3, even before changing back into their street clothes, leaving Progressive Field’s visiting clubhouse and flying back from Cleveland to Chicago.

Once pitchers and catchers officially report to Arizona on Tuesday, and go through their first formal workout at the Sloan Park complex on Wednesday, the celebration will be over. Manager Joe Maddon can start rolling out the mimes, zoo animals and karaoke machines (or whatever else gonzo strength and conditioning coordinator Tim Buss comes up with this spring). But don’t get lost in the distractions – the Cubs are focused on becoming a dynasty.    

“We just keep getting better,” Jon Lester said. “That’s, I think, kind of a scary part for the rest of our league for the next however many years.”

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Two years ago, Lester showed up in Mesa, experienced a dead arm and got diagnosed with the yips on Opening Day, making it seem as if that $155 million investment might be doomed from the start. All the Cubs have done since then is win 200 games, five playoff rounds and the franchise’s first World Series title since 1908.  

Lester has been exactly what the Cubs hoped for, a 200-inning machine, a no-nonsense professional and one of the best big-game pitchers of his generation. The prospects Cubs executives Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer put front and center during their recruiting pitch to Lester have been better than advertised.    

Kris Bryant is 25 years old and already a Rookie of the Year, reigning MVP, Hank Aaron Award winner, two-time All-Star and World Series champion. Addison Russell is 23 years old and already an All-Star shortstop. Kyle Schwarber is already a Chicago legend and still hasn’t spent a full season in the big leagues yet. Anthony Rizzo, Javier Baez, Willson Contreras and Albert Almora Jr. will also remain under club control through at least the 2021 season.

“For anybody in this game, there’s a lot of factors you can’t control,” said San Francisco Giants general manager Bobby Evans, who had been an executive for the even-year teams that won World Series titles in 2010, 2012 and 2014, “from your health to the performance of your guys to your rosters (that) can be changed overnight in different ways.

“But from the controllable players that they have – and the leadership that they have from the manager to the general manager to Theo – it’s a really great combination of baseball people and elements to a lineup and a rotation and a bullpen that clearly are well-thought-out. And (it) gives me great pleasure to know they’re not in our division.”

The Cubs will also benefit from playing in a National League where so many franchises are playing/tanking for the future and a division populated with small-market teams. The Baseball Prospectus PECOTA system projects the Cubs (91-71) as the only Central team with a winning record – and the St. Louis Cardinals finishing at 76-86 (which would be only their second losing season since 2000).

“We want to compete,” St. Louis general manager John Mozeliak said. “We think we have talent that’s coming that’s going to be useful in the big leagues. So I don’t feel like in any way that we need to take a two- or three-year timeout.

“When you look at it from just a neutral state, (the Cubs are) built to be successful for many years. But you also have to understand that things sometimes happen. People get hurt. Sometimes people underperform. We’ve entered seasons where we thought Adam Wainwright was going to be our ace – and he ends up not coming out of spring training.

“You adjust, so that’s being able to create enough depth. And if you’re able to do that, it allows you to be successful. Or maybe the other way to think about it is it allows you to withstand some negativity.”     

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There are legitimate concerns about how the rotation will hold up and where the next wave of pitching will come from. When Epstein talks about avoiding “organizational arrogance,” it’s easy to think of the Bloomberg Businessweek cover from April 2015 heralding a “sports empire” now “in bloom” (after five straight fifth-place finishes, five different managers since 2010 and all the delays/drama/dysfunction surrounding the Wrigley Field renovations).

But it’s not hype anymore to say that the Cubs are positioned to rule baseball for years to come. It’s why Gold Glove outfielder Jason Heyward turned down the Cardinals last winter and signed his $184 million megadeal with the Cubs, believing this core could mirror the Atlanta Braves teams he grew up watching and broke in with as a 20-year-old kid, blasting a three-run homer off Carlos Zambrano in his first big-league at-bat on Opening Day 2010 at Turner Field.

“You only hope,” Heyward said. “You never know what’s going to happen with stuff. On paper is one thing. God willing, everybody stays healthy. (But) it looks like it could be a lot of fun for a long time.

“I know it’s going to be a lot of fun, because it’s an awesome place, an awesome organization to play for. These guys are very young – and they’re getting a lot of experience early on – and that can make for a lot of confidence-building and a lot of comfort and having that sixth sense on the field.

“(That’s) what you see with really good teams when they make a run like that – most of those guys play together for a while. And we have a chance to do that here.”

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.