Boston Red Sox

How Theo Epstein sees Chili Davis making a difference for Cubs

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USA TODAY

How Theo Epstein sees Chili Davis making a difference for Cubs

The Cubs can’t send Chili Davis out to face Max Scherzer and Clayton Kershaw, but team president Theo Epstein believes his presence will help the franchise’s young hitters next October.

Those pronounced playoff struggles against the Washington Nationals and Los Angeles Dodgers — on top of the way the New York Mets power pitchers overwhelmed the Cubs during that 2015 National League Championship Series sweep — led to a major shakeup of Joe Maddon’s coaching staff.

Firing hitting coach John Mallee isn’t really about what he didn’t do, because he worked nonstop across the last three years, overseeing an offense that actually scored more runs this season than the 2016 World Series team.

It’s more the instant credibility that Davis brings as a switch-hitter who made three All-Star teams and earned World Series rings with the 1991 Minnesota Twins and the last New York Yankees dynasty (1998-99).

Epstein initially brought Davis into the Boston Red Sox organization, hiring him as an overqualified hitting coach for Triple-A Pawtucket in 2011, the last season before sweeping changes would hit Fenway Park.

Davis spent the next six years as the big-league hitting coach for the Oakland A’s and Red Sox, working with players like Josh Donaldson, Yoenis Cespedes, Josh Reddick, Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts, Jackie Bradley Jr. and Andrew Benintendi.

“Chili’s well-established as one of the very best hitting coaches in the game,” Epstein said after Thursday’s staff announcements. “His philosophy and approach happened to fit with what we hope will be the next step for many of our hitters. We talked after the season about hoping to get better with situational hitting, with our two-strike approach, with using the whole field, with having competitive, team-based at-bats.

“That happens to be Chili’s core philosophy — hitting line drives to the middle of the field. Your line drives will turn into home runs. He’s excellent at teaching a two-strike approach and teaching situational hitting. He’s really good at helping to get hitters to understand when an elite pitcher’s on his game, you have to sometimes take what he gives you, and have an adjustable swing, an adjustable approach for those situations.

“He’s got the gravitas of a 19-year career, 350 homers, over 1,300 RBIs. That combined with his excellent manner and ability to communicate with players makes him a really impactful figure.”

Mallee — who grew up as the son of a Chicago cop and graduated from Mount Carmel High School — brought stability to a position that used to have the job security of the drummer for Spinal Tap.

The Cubs wanted Mallee’s data-driven approach and the ability to explain heat maps and cold zones and how pitchers would attack each at-bat. Mallee also gave the Cubs a very accurate scouting report on Dexter Fowler before making that January 2015 trade with the Houston Astros.

During Mallee’s tenure, Kris Bryant became the fourth player in major-league history to be named MVP the season after winning Rookie of the Year honors. Ian Happ kept making enough adjustments to hit 24 home runs during his rookie season (with only 26 games of experience at Triple-A Iowa). Javier Baez made great strides this year — 23 homers, 75 RBI, .796 OPS — before an 0-for-20 tailspin to start the playoffs.

In one way, the Cubs even endorsed Mallee’s methods by promoting minor-league hitting coordinator Andy Haines to work with Davis as the assistant hitting coach. Mallee and Haines have a Miami connection after working in the Marlins organization.

“I would like to thank the Chicago Cubs for the amazing opportunity to be part of a great tradition and organization for the last three years,” Mallee wrote in a statement. “I left a great Houston Astros organization to be closer to home with my family and to help my hometown team win a World Series.

“We did that. I have no regrets and stand by my work. I wish nothing but the best for the Cubs organization and all the amazing people I met along the way, especially my hitters. See you from across the field.”

When the Cubs talk up their culture and the first-class organization they’ve built, there’s also an unspoken, underlying coldness to it all, even while making justifiable decisions. The Cubs publicly hailed Ricky Renteria basically up to the moment Maddon opted out of his contract with the Tampa Bay Rays and someone better came along.

Whether or not that will always be sustainable, Davis does have a great resume, no doubt. The Cubs are hoping Davis can help salvage the $184 million investment in Jason Heyward and rewire an offense that ranked last in batting average (.168) and on-base percentage (.240) among the 10-team playoff field. Outside of that unforgettable 9-8 thriller at Nationals Park, the Cubs scored 16 runs in nine postseason games.

“John Mallee is an outstanding hitting coach and we would not be in the position we’re in now with rings on our finger without him,” Epstein said. “Chili just happens to be, in our opinion, uniquely qualified for this group, at this moment in time, to help us get to the next level.”

Cubs continue coaching carousel with more sweeping changes

Cubs continue coaching carousel with more sweeping changes

The Cubs coaching staff will have a completely different look in 2018.

After well-respected pitching coach Chris Bosio was let go last weekend and assistant hitting coach Eric Hinske moved west to the Los Angeles Angels, the Cubs announced Thursday afternoon they also are parting ways with hitting coach John Mallee and third base coach Gary Jones.

In their place: Chili Davis (hitting coach), Andy Haines (assistant hitting coach) and Brian Butterfield (third base coach). 

The Cubs have not announced the rest of the coaching staff and have still not made a final decision regarding Jim Hickey, who interviewed for the pitching coach position earlier this week.

Less than a week ago, Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein said manager Joe Maddon will have every coach back that he wants to return. Before the Cubs were knocked out of the playoffs, Maddon himself said he expects all his coaches back and said Thursday on a conference call he and the Cubs weren't ready to make any final decisions on the coach staff at that time.

Davis has spent the last six seasons working as a hitting coach, first in Oakland from 2012-14 and then in Boston from 2015-17, where the Red Sox led all of baseball in runs and on-base percentage.

Davis turns 58 in January and played 19 years in the big leagues, posting a .360 on-base percentage and .811 OPS while finishing among Top 25 MVP finalists three times and earning three trips to the All-Star Game.

Maddon believes Davis will help the Cubs' young hitters develop more, particularly situationally, an area the Cubs struggled through all of 2017 and particularly in the postseason against the elite pitching of the Nationals and Dodgers.

Butterfield has spent 17 years as a third-base coach, most recently with the Red Sox from 2013 through the 2017 season. He also worked in the same capacity with the Toronto Blue Jays and was also a bench coach in Toronto for two seasons in addition to two years as a first-base coach with the New York Yankees.

Haines — an Eastern Illinois University product — was promoted from within the Cubs organization, where he's served as the minor-league hitting coordinator the last two seasons.

Mallee is a Chicago native who has been the Cubs hitting coach the last three seasons as the team has made it to three straight National League Championship Series and built a foundation of elite young position players. Hinske served as Mallee's assistant all three years, as well.

Jones has been the third-base coach since 2014.

Ranking the MLB playoff teams from least likely to most likely to win the World Series

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USA TODAY

Ranking the MLB playoff teams from least likely to most likely to win the World Series

The playoffs are here.

October has arrived, and one of 10 teams will win the World Series in about a month.

Of course, certain teams are more likely to do that than others. So here are the 10 playoff teams, ranked from least likely to win the World Series to most likely to win the World Series.

Oh, and there are predictions at the bottom. They'll probably end up being wrong. But check 'em out anyway.

10. Minnesota Twins

Congratulations to the Twins for emerging from the swamp of AL wild-card contenders. They did the unthinkable this season, seriously, going from a 100-loss team in 2016 to a playoff team in 2017. That’s not easy. But their chances of advancing from Tuesday night’s AL wild-card game seem slim if for no other reason than the long ball. Chicks dig it, but they don’t necessarily dig those who give up a whole bunch of them and no playoff team has given up more homers than the Twins. In fact, only five teams in baseball gave up more homers than the Twins did this season. Twins pitchers saw 224 big flies leave the yard, with Tuesday’s starter Ervin Santana leading the staff with 31 of those, one of the 10 highest totals in the league this season. Considering the Yankees, Tuesday’s opponent, have Aaron Judge and Gary Sanchez and Didi Gregorius — all members of the 25-dingers club — it could be a short postseason stay for the Twins.

9. Colorado Rockies

One of the best teams in baseball before the All-Star break (52-39), the Rox slid into the playoffs despite a sub-.500 second half (35-36). What they’ve got going for them is offense, unsurprising for the team that calls Coors Field its home ballpark. Nolan Arenado and Charlie Blackmon have been MVP candidates this season, and while it’s unlikely either will win the award (though I’d argue Blackmon should come very, very close), it’s worth taking a look at their numbers. Arenado is slashing .309/.373/.586 with 37 homers and 130 RBIs. Blackmon is slashing a ridiculous .331/.399/.601 with 37 homers and 104 RBIs. Plus the Rox have some other very good hitters like DJ LeMahieu and Mark Reynolds. But, and stop me if you’ve heard this before, the Rox pitching ain’t great. Only Jon Gray has an ERA under 4.10, and the team’s starters ERA of 4.59 ranked ninth in the NL during the regular season. Plus the Rox allowed 101 runs to the D-backs — Wednesday’s foe in the wild-card game — in 19 games this season. Not a great sign.

8. Los Angeles Dodgers

Now I know what you’re thinking: “How can the 104-win Dodgers, the team with the best record in baseball, be all the way down here in these rankings? You’re insane. Give me my money back.” Well, first, hopefully you didn’t pay to read this. Secondly, the Dodgers have been real bad since late August. That’s right, not just not as good as they were during an electrifying first four and a half months, when they looked like they’d never lose again. Bad. Real bad. In their final 35 games of the season, the Dodgers went 13-22. That includes separate stretches of losing 16 of 17 and five of seven. Yes, they picked things up right there at the end, winning eight of their last 10, but those wins came against the Phillies, Giants, Padres and Rockies, three of those four teams being three of the five worst teams in the NL. Anyway, my point is that this is not close to being the same Dodgers team that had 91 wins by Aug. 25. Still, of course, this team does have Clayton Kershaw, who, as you know, is amazing. They still have Cody Bellinger and Corey Seager and Justin Turner. They still have Alex Wood and Yu Darvish and Rich Hill and their sub-.3.50 ERAs. But excuse me if I’m down on the Dodgers’ chances considering this team sleepwalked through the last month-plus of the regular season.

7. New York Yankees

You’re going to be hearing a lot about Aaron Judge in the next few days (or just Tuesday night if the Yanks lose the AL wild-card game). You’re going to hear so much about Aaron Judge that you’ll probably get sick of hearing about Aaron Judge. But here’s the thing, the guy deserves to be talked about this much. He’s been unreal in his rookie season, blasting an ungodly 52 home runs, driving in 114 runs, scoring 128 runs, getting on base at a .422 clip and slugging .627 for a superhuman 1.049 OPS. And did I mention that he’s a rookie? Prediction: Ervin Santana’s not going to be able to keep the ball in the yard against this guy. How do I know that? Because he couldn’t just 16 days ago. But if the Yanks get by the Twins, things will get trickier because the pitching gets better. The Indians, Astros and Red Sox all have much, much stronger rotations than the Twins. And while Judge is fantastic, can the Bombers match those pitching staffs? Tuesday-night starter Luis Severino has been very good in 2017, but look at some of the other guys. There’s Sonny Gray (4.58 ERA in September), Masahiro Tanaka (35 homers allowed, third-most in the AL) and CC Sabathia (actually having his best season in half a decade but still 36 years old). Is that a World Series staff? The Yanks also have Aroldis Chapman, who was removed from closing duties in the middle of the season because he wasn’t getting the job done. He’s since returned to the role, though, and didn’t allow a run in September.

6. Boston Red Sox

The BoSox never really shook the Yankees in the AL East, ending up winning the division by only two games despite having a five-game lead with seven games to play. They lost five of their last seven, though they had to play the Astros to close out the regular season. Chris Sale is one of two main contenders to win the AL Cy Young after a spectacular season in which he logged 308 strikeouts. But while he got off to an immortal start to his first season in Boston, he kind of stumbled to the finish. That’s relative, of course, the guy’s ERA is still under 3.00, but it reached a season-high 2.90 after he gave up five runs in five innings in his last start and jumped up more than 0.50 points over the season’s final two months. David Price was injured for a large portion of the regular season, and he was pitching out of the bullpen the last two weeks, not a bad strategy, though, to be honest. He threw 8.2 shutout innings in five relief appearances. Drew Pomeranz has been good for the BoSox, with a 3.32 ERA and 17 wins (if you care about that sort of thing) in 32 starts. Guys like Andrew Benintendi and Mookie Betts and the awesome Rafael Devers should inspire plenty of confidence, but it’s important to remember that this team hit the fewest homers in the AL this season and has the lowest team batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage of the five AL playoff teams. So it’s on the pitching to shut down a potent Astros lineup — and that’s one tall task. Sale and Pomeranz have turned in the numbers this season, and Price can eat up multiple innings over multiple games in his new bullpen role. The key could be Rick Porcello. The reigning AL Cy Young winner has a 4.65 ERA this season and gave up seven runs in his only start against Houston.

5. Arizona Diamondbacks

Do not for one second sleep on the D-backs, who with the way the Rockies and Dodgers played in the second half could be well on their way to the NLCS. The bats are terrific, led by perennial should-be MVP candidate Paul Goldschmidt, who this season turned in a .966 OPS, 34 doubles, 26 homers and 120 RBIs. But while Goldschmidt is the headliner, this is a stacked lineup, with five regular players boasting an OPS north of .800: Goldschmidt, Chris Ianetta, Jake Lamb, A.J. Pollock and J.D. Martinez. Let’s talk about Martinez, who’s been one of the best baseball players on Earth since joining the D-backs, with a .302/.366/.741 slash line, 29 homers and 65 RBIs in 62 games. On the pitching side, Zack Greinke, who will start Wednesday’s wild-card game, has somewhat returned to form, boasting a 3.20 ERA. Robbie Ray’s been even better, with a 2.89 ERA and 218 strikeouts, both team highs. Patrick Corbin’s had a few clunkers this season, but he’s got a 2.69 ERA in his last 11 games, including a few great outings against playoff teams: In four starts against the Cubs, Astros and Rockies during that stretch, he went 4-0 with two earned runs allowed in 27.1 innings. In other words, the Snakes are good so look out.

4. Chicago Cubs

After a frustratingly up-and-down season, the Cubs really turned it on at the end of the campaign and suddenly look like “that” team again. They went 19-9 in September and closed the season on a 15-4 stretch. They can score with anyone, that’s plainly obvious, with Kris Bryant again leading the charge with a phenomenal season, his on-base percentage nearly .025 points higher (an insane .409) than it was last year when he won NL MVP. He’s also got 20 more walks than he did last year. Anthony Rizzo’s on-base percentage was also almost .400 during the regular season, and Willson Contreras got on base at a .460 clip in 15 September games after returning from the DL. But the Cubs’ lineup won’t be the question mark in the postseason. It’s expected to be a struggle to replicate their run production against a crazy good Nationals starting staff. So the focus will be on the starting pitching, which while good has been nowhere near as dominant as it was last year. Jon Lester has a 4.33 ERA, and Jake Arrieta is still battling a hamstring injury that prevented him from making his final start of the regular season. Kyle Hendricks and Jose Quintana were the team’s most impressive pitchers down the stretch, Hendricks so good after a somewhat shaky start and early injury woes that he finished with a 3.03 ERA. While these guys, save Quintana, have recent postseason experience and should inspire confidence in anyone that watched this team’s run last season, the Nats’ starters are so good that there’s very little room for error.

3. Washington Nationals

Guys, the Nats are really good. Let us ogle at the starting pitchers that Dusty Baker will likely send out against his former team in the first three games of the NLDS. Max Scherzer is dealing with a hamstring “tweak,” whatever that means, so his status is a little bit of an unknown. But he’s been typically Scherzer-esque this season, turning in a fantastic 2.51 ERA and 268 strikeouts. Gio Gonzalez posted a 2.96 ERA in his 32 starts and was particularly awesome in July and August before a rough September. And then there’s Stephen Strasburg, who finished the regular season with a 2.52 ERA and 204 strikeouts. Dusty’s famous in these parts for overworking his starting pitchers and who knows, maybe he will again and it will benefit the Cubs. But this trio is pretty fantastic and should give the Cubs everything they can handle. Then there’s the Nats’ lineup, which is finally healthy and stacked with its own cadre of powerful hitters. Bryce Harper’s the headliner, obviously, and he’s back from a long stay on the DL. Before getting hurt, all he did was slash .326/.419/.614 with 29 homers and 87 RBIs in 106 games. Then there’s another MVP candidate in Anthony Rendon, he of the .937 OPS (and a .403 on-base percentage). And there's Ryan Zimmerman, Daniel Murphy, Trea Turner, Michael Taylor. This lineup is loaded. The Cubs are playing great right now, but the Nats look like a championship kind of team.

2. Houston Astros

Until the Tribe blasted into the stratosphere, the Stros were the runaway best team in the AL. And for good reason. They were the best offensive team in the league this season, the leaders in runs, hits, average, on-base and slugging and just barely the No. 2 team in homers. The up-the-middle duo of Jose Altuve and Carlos Correa is mind-bogglingly good. Altuve should probably win the AL MVP after another sensational season in which he slashed .346/.410/.547, picked up 204 hits and stole 32 bases. Correa wasn’t far behind with a .315/.391/.550 slash line. The two combined for 48 homers and 165 RBIs. George Springer’s OPS is also nearing the .900 mark with his team-high 34 homers helping. And Marwin Gonzalez has been awesome, too, with a .303/.377/.530 slash line and a team-high 90 RBIs. The lineup’s a menace, and now their starting pitching is pretty well ironed-out, too, thanks to the acquisition of Justin Verlander (again?!?) who has been great since coming over from the Tigers. In an Astros uniform, Verlander has a pencil-thin 1.06 ERA and 43 strikeouts in five starts. Add that to Dallas Kuechel’s bounce-back season and the impressive campaign of Brad Peacock and Collin McHugh’s 2.61 ERA in his last eight starts and you’ve got a rotation that can go the distance. It’s hard imagining a better team, to be honest, until … 

1. Cleveland Indians

The WWWWWWWWWWWWWIndians. I didn’t count the number of Ws there, but it’s a lot and that’s the point. The Tribe went 55-20 in the second half and have lost just 12 times since Aug. 2. That includes an absolutely unbelievable 25-4 September that featured that record-breaking winning streak. So why, you ask, have the Indians been the planet’s best baseball team? Well, look to the pitching. No squad in the game had a better ERA this season than the Indians’ 3.30 mark. No team gave up fewer home runs. No team issued fewer walks. Corey Kluber is the ace of this staff, and he had himself another remarkable season, entering the playoffs with a 2.25 ERA, baseball’s lowest. Only Chris Sale and Max Scherzer struck out more guys than Kluber did (265). He’s a true ace that should shut down any and all playoff lineups coming his way. That fearsome staff also features Carlos Carrasco, who was injured during last year’s postseason run. This time around, he’s not injured. He won 18 games during the regular season, the most in baseball. He’s also got a 3.29 ERA, his career best as a full-time starter. The Indians’ third-best starter has been Mike Clevinger, who has a 3.11 ERA and 137 strikeouts in 121.2 innings. Trevor Bauer’s ERA might be north of 4.00, but he was just four whiffs away from making it three Indians starters with 200 strikeouts this season. Oh, and then there’s one of baseball’s best offenses, a menacing lineup that features uber-productive stars Francisco Lindor (33 homers and a .505 slugging percentage), Jose Ramirez (29 homers and a eye-popping .318/.374/.583 slash line), Edwin Encarnacion (38 homers, 107 RBIs and a .881 OPS) and Carlos Santana (23 homers and a .818 OPS). And, oh yeah, that bullpen. Cody Allen? Still there with 30 saves. Andrew Miller? Still there with a 1.44 ERA. The Indians have been dominant the past few months. They’ve got seeming edges in almost all aspects of the game. The Tribe enter as World Series favorites. And there are a bunch of very good reasons for that.

Prediction time!

AL wild-card game: Yankees over Twins
NL wild-card game: D-backs over Rockies

ALDS: Indians over Yankees
ALDS: Astros over Red Sox
NLDS: D-backs over Dodgers
NLDS: Nationals over Cubs

ALCS: Indians over Astros
NLCS: Nationals over D-backs

World Series: Indians over Nationals