Cubs

After strong debut at third, where do Cubs see Bryant long term?

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After strong debut at third, where do Cubs see Bryant long term?

Kris Bryant’s debut didn’t end the way many were hoping when it came to the 0-for-4 mark in the box score.

But Bryant still managed to impress in another facet of the game: defense.

It was just one day — and should be taken with the same grain of salt as his three-strikeout day— but Bryant’s performance in the field on Friday might put a bring a bit of a ceasefire in the debate over whether or not the No. 1 prospect in baseball can remain at third base for an extended time to start off his major league career.

Theo Epstein, for one, thinks Bryant can stick at third base, trumpeting that potential Friday after there’s been much discussion over where Bryant will settle in the field.

[MORE CUBS: The wait is over: Kris Bryant arrives at Wrigley Field]

“He’s got some versatility, where we feel comfortable with him in the outfield and third base, but I think this guy can stay at third base for a while,” Epstein said. “He wants to, he’s invested in it, he’s really athletic. He faces some challenges playing third because he’s 6-foot-5 1/2, but he’s aware of it. He works extremely hard. He brings great focus to the position. I think there’ll be some bumps in the road, as there are for all young players, but I think he’s got a chance to stay there for a long time.

“But he’s also a tremendous athlete and plays a really good outfield. So we’ll just see how his career evolves. Not too many players these days stay at one position their entire career. But I think the need right now is at third base, and we’re very comfortable with his defensive abilities working and continuing to improve.”

Friday featured Bryant making every play that came his way at the hot corner — and he was very busy — including starting a pair of double plays and making a highlight-reel diving snag on a rocket off the bat of San Diego Padres catcher Derek Norris.

For the guy who was called up because of his prowess with the bat — he launched 55 home runs in 181 minor league games — the lack of success at the dish and the strong day with the glove was surprising.

“We did bring him up for his glove, didn’t we?” Cubs manager Joe Maddon joked after Friday’s game.

[MORE CUBS: Cubs fall to Padres as Kris Bryant goes 0-for-4 in debut]

Maddon’s joke aside, he had his own opinion on Bryant’s future in the field.

“It’s not impossible (for Bryant to play outfield),” Maddon said. “That’s something me and him talked about. … He likes playing the outfield, and that was good to know. I didn’t know that, I didn’t know how much he liked to play the outfield. When you’re asking guys to do multiple things like that, part of it is their acceptance, and if they accept it, it makes it a lot easier to do and normally they play better because of that. So I think (the outfield) could be possible, but I think it’s really intriguing to see if he can nail down third base, too.”

And if Friday was any indication, that could be a very real possibility. Madden certainly was impressed.

“I liked his defense,” Maddon said Saturday morning. “I’m watching that whole game, he played really well out there. That was really impressive. To me that was our bigger concern because you know he’s going to do (fine at the plate).”

[SHOP CUBS: Get a Kris Bryant jersey right here]

Of course, a “concern” with a player the caliber of Bryant’s has to be taken in perspective.

That’s what Mike Olt is for.

“He’s a good defensive player,” Olt said Saturday. Olt’s injury was the determining factor in the Cubs calling Bryant up on Friday, according to Epstein. “Everyone’s quick to judge little things that could be wrong with him. People don’t think he’s human, so they’ve got to pick something. I think he did really well. He’s a good third baseman.”

The defensive effort was part of the reason Bryant was so pleased with his major league debut. Of course, for a 23-year-old kid realizing a lifelong dream, there wasn’t much that was going to ruin it. But while he wasn’t happy with the 0-for-4, three-strikeout game, he was happy with how he played in the field, pointing out to everyone focusing on the hitless debut that there are two sides of the ball.

“You have bad games, but I felt like I did good defensively,” Bryant said. “Always two sides of the ball, and I’ll keep on keeping on and come out here tomorrow ready to go, hungry and ready to help the team win.”

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?

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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.