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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.”

Jon Lester already delivered on free-agent promise with Cubs: Can Max Scherzer do the same for Nationals?

Jon Lester already delivered on free-agent promise with Cubs: Can Max Scherzer do the same for Nationals?

If you worked for a billionaire family, would you recommend signing Jon Lester or Max Scherzer for the future? If your season depended on it, would you rather have Lester or Scherzer on the mound?

The Cubs and Washington Nationals already answered those questions after the 2014 season, committing $365 million combined to two different aces at two different points in their construction projects, making the free-agent decisions that helped shape this National League Division Series.

Both franchises are pleased with the returns on the investments – and aware of the checkered history for pitchers with nine-figure contracts. But only Lester has looked out from a Grant Park stage at the endless sea of people and announced into the microphone: “How about this s---?”

The Nationals are still waiting for their first ever playoff series win – much less a championship parade down Pennsylvania Avenue in a city where the Senators last won the World Series in 1924.  

All those dynamics make Scherzer’s hamstring “tweak” – in the right leg where he pushes off and generates so much power – such an X-factor on Monday in a Game 3 that will leave one team nine innings away from elimination.    

“I feel like I’m good to go,” Scherzer said. “Hey, we’re in the playoffs. Every game is a must-win. This is going to be a crazy atmosphere here at Wrigley. I can’t wait to toe the rubber.”

Coming off a fifth straight fifth-place finish, Lester vs. Scherzer wasn’t much of an internal debate in the team’s old Clark Street headquarters.

Lester had formed solid relationships with Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer and the Cubs executives knew which buttons to push during the recruiting pitch after their years together with the Boston Red Sox.

The Cubs already had an in-depth understanding of Lester’s medical history and clubhouse reputation and an appreciation for a smooth left-handed delivery they believed would help him age gracefully.

[MORE: With time running out at Wrigley, Jake Arrieta chases another World Series ring

The Red Sox insulting Lester with a lowball offer in spring training and shipping him to the Oakland A’s at the trade deadline opened his eyes to the world beyond Fenway Park and exempted the Cubs from having to pay a draft pick as compensation on top of the six-year, $155 million contract.

“For us, such a big part of that process was our comfort with Jon as a person, as a competitor, as a teammate,” Hoyer said. “That was sort of our first big commitment in free agency. Without knowing Jon so well, it may have been a different calculus.

“But given that relationship, it just made the most sense to go after the guy we respected and knew as well as you’re going to know any free agent.”

Scherzer is a baseball unicorn, the outlier stretching beyond the preconceived notions about his violent delivery and when he might break down, making at least 30 starts in nine straight seasons and working toward a third Cy Young Award.

The Nationals knew all about Scherzer’s bulldog mentality, because general manager Mike Rizzo had overseen scouting when the Arizona Diamondbacks made him the No. 11 overall pick in the 2006 draft. Super-agent Scott Boras – who represents Scherzer and several other high-profile Nationals – also has an unusually close relationship with principal owner Ted Lerner.     

Scherzer believes he can will himself through 100 pitches and overpower a Cubs lineup that outside of Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo is 5-for-44 with one RBI and 15 strikeouts through two playoff games against Washington.

“The thing I admire the most about Scherzer is he’s constantly evolving, improving pitches, developing pitches,” Hoyer said. “The best guys in any sport continue to get better and better each season.

“Jordan evolved his game and ended up with the fadeaway. In every sport, you think of different examples of a guy who’s really willing to make changes. And I think Scherzer is that guy.

“Every time he starts, you watch him compete and you feel like this is a guy who lays it all out there every single time.”

Scherzer is also 33 years old and guaranteed four more seasons on a $210 million megadeal that contains a significant amount of deferred money. It may not be now or never for the Nationals, but the window won’t stay open forever, and you never know if you will ever have a better opportunity.  

“In this day and age, there’s not much that guys don’t hear about,” Lester said, “with social media and MLB Network and ESPN and all this other stuff. Yeah, I’m sure it was in our heads. We all knew about it. It’s hard to run away from it.

“The guys that signed here – that was the reason why we signed here – to break that curse and win a World Series for the city of Chicago.

“On their side, I don’t know if it’s in their head. I know for us, every day, you heard about a goat or you heard about Bartman or you heard about a black cat or 1908 or whatever.”

The questions won’t stop until the Nationals deliver in October – and it’s hard to see that happening if a “tweak” compromises everything that turns Scherzer into Mad Max.  

“You’ve got to eliminate that stuff and go out and play the game,” Lester said. “The game does not change. In the postseason, yeah, it probably speeds up. (But) once you step on that rubber, it’s still 60 feet, 6 inches. You still have to execute a pitch. You still have to have good at-bats and catch the ball.

“That’s kind of how I’ve always looked at it. And you try to eliminate the goats and all that other stuff.”

After playoff run, Shohei Otani could be the next big thing on Cubs’ radar

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AP

After playoff run, Shohei Otani could be the next big thing on Cubs’ radar

MILWAUKEE – Shohei Otani is supposed to be Japan’s Babe Ruth, a potential top-of-the-rotation starter with a 100-mph fastball and a left-handed slugger who hit 22 homers last year for the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters. Imagine what kind of mad-scientist moves Cubs manager Joe Maddon could make with a talent like that.

“If he’s that freakin’ good, there’s a lot of things you could do,” Maddon said. “If he’s that good, it presents a lot of unique situations.”

Yes, the Cubs will be in on Otani, because any team that can afford the $20 million posting fee would be foolish not to make the recruiting pitch to a two-way player who’s only 23 years old and apparently willing to work for around the major-league minimum ($545,000) next season.

The Cubs want to be known for playing in October on an annual basis and won’t stop after the second straight National League Central title that feels inevitable after this playoff-atmosphere weekend against the Milwaukee Brewers at Miller Park.

Otani will be the big name on MLB Trade Rumors this offseason. The Cubs are capped under this collective bargaining agreement and could only offer a maximum $300,000 signing bonus. But if money had been the No. 1 priority, Otani would presumably just wait out Major League Baseball’s system for two more years and cash in with a $200 million megadeal.

“He’s not available right now,” team president Theo Epstein said. “There was a story that came out that said that he would request a post. I’m not going to talk about any player that’s not available.”

New York Yankees general manager Brian Cashman was among the group of officials who recently traveled to Sapporo to scout Otani in person. San Francisco Giants manager Bruce Bochy watched Otani highlights on a laptop and told Bay Area reporters: “I absolutely would play him every day.”

“There’s always the exception to the rule,” Maddon said. “I think the day after, the two days after you pitch, maybe not. You’d have to give your arm some kind of breather.

“He’s a perfect fit for an American League team then. When he’s not starting, he DHs. For an American League team to find a player like that — where you don’t have to go spend all that dough on a good DH and get this starting pitcher and a guy that can actually hit — kind of intriguing.

“If he’s that good, you can go National League (rules) when he pitches. If he’s that good, for one day, you would have an extra player on the bench. You could do whatever you want.”

There are a lot of ifs and unknowns with Otani, a low-cost, high-upside option that would fit with just about any team’s vision, from the defending World Series champs, to San Francisco’s rebuild, to the bright lights at Yankee Stadium or Fenway Park or Dodger Stadium.

“On the surface, I would say American League, easy, National League, get creative,” Maddon said. “But if he’s not pitching, you don’t want him like moving his arm that much, even throwing the ball in from the outfield.

“If he’s used to doing it, that might be something different entirely, too.”

The Cubs are loaded with position players and already have a good idea of what their Opening Day lineup could look like through 2021. But next year’s rotation should be dramatically reshaped with Jake Arrieta and John Lackey about to become free agents.

“It’s interesting,” said Maddon, thinking back to his years in player development. “But I think that can be done more in the minor leagues. If you have the DH and you have a young guy with a good arm — but you’re not sure and you see he runs well or he has exceptional pop, something that’s a really exciting offensive tool — let him DH a couple days a week in between his starts.”

Who knows? That pretty much sums up the Otani sweepstakes. The Cubs can sell their built-to-win foundation, iconic Wrigley Field, a world-class city and an international brand that will guarantee off-the-field endorsement money — and wait to see if that would be enough for baseball’s next big thing.