Albert Almora Jr. delivers for Cubs in win over Nationals

Albert Almora Jr. delivers for Cubs in win over Nationals

WASHINGTON – The Cubs are not the team where rookies are supposed to be seen – and not heard – and veteran players rule the clubhouse with an iron fist. It’s a next-man-up philosophy inside Theo Epstein’s scouting-and-player-development machine, and a simple dress code for anti-rules manager Joe Maddon: “If you think you look hot, you wear it.” 

Albert Almora Jr. believes that he belongs here at the age of 22, playing in this prime-time series against the Washington Nationals. It’s only been one week in The Show, but he’s already demonstrated how he could help the Cubs win a tight, low-scoring game in October.

Almora delivered in the ninth inning of Tuesday night’s 4-3 victory at Nationals Park, lining the first pitch he saw from Washington lefty Sammy Solis past Washington shortstop Danny Espinosa and into left-center field for the go-ahead RBI double.

It didn’t matter that Almora had been a defensive replacement in the eighth inning, and only got 54 games of experience at the Triple-A level, and was supposed to be an offensive project while looking like a potential Gold Glove outfielder. This is what the Cubs do.

“He’s feeling (comfortable) because we’re a free team,” reliever Pedro Strop said. “We’re not the old-school style where rookies can’t do anything. Just be yourself.

“That’s because of the way Joe handles the situation, and we got really good veterans here, too. They don’t care about old-school (hazing). Just be who you are – and then help us win. We want to win the World Series. That’s what it’s all about.”

Maddon managed this like a playoff game, the way he went for the jugular against the San Francisco Giants during that four-game sweep of the defending World Series champs last August at Wrigley Field.

After John Lackey walked off the mound with runners on second and third and no outs in the seventh inning, Strop bailed him out and notched his 13th hold. Maddon also felt enough urgency that he called for Hector Rondon to try to get a five-out save in a one-run game.

Where Rondon allowed an inherited runner to score in the eighth inning – before needing only seven pitches to slam the door in the ninth – the Nationals (40-25) now have endgame uncertainty with closer Jonathan Papelbon (intercostal strain) on the disabled list.

“The Giants at that time really were a team that we had to earn our stripes against,” Maddon said. “The Nationals are the same kind of team. They got a bunch of gamers out there, man. They’re just like us. We’re just like them. Every pitch matters. Nobody takes a pitch off. None of their pitchers take a pitch off, none of their defenders do, none of their hitters do, and I love it.” 

That’s where Almora fits in as someone who grew up playing against elite competition in South Florida and performing for Team USA, a precocious nature that drove the Cubs to draft him No. 6 overall in 2012. Almora actually played with Solis – who will turn 28 this summer – in the Arizona Fall League in 2013.

“We looked at each other,” Almora said. “I gave him a little nod of the helmet and it was time to go to work.”

“How about Almora?” Maddon said. “Come on, the guy’s been up here for five minutes and is not passive. He went out there and he jumped on the first pitch and I loved it.

“The guy’s going to be playing in the big leagues for a long time.”

It took another Jorge Soler hamstring injury for the Cubs (44-19) to promote Almora, but this is how you force the issue and make sure you never go back to Iowa.

“This is the way I think: I’m just trying to do anything to help this team win,” Almora said. “I feel like if I do that, then it makes my job easier, because I can sleep well at night saying: ‘Hey, I left it all on the table.’ Whatever they choose to do – it’s their decision – I don’t care. I’m here to 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?


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.