Back with Cubs, Dexter Fowler playing like he has something to prove


Back with Cubs, Dexter Fowler playing like he has something to prove

ANAHEIM, Calif. – Right up until the moment the Cubs shocked even their own players one day in spring training, it looked like Joe Maddon’s “You go, we go” message for Dexter Fowler would turn into “He gone.”

The Cubs manager still says that to Fowler before every at-bat, and the leadoff guy delivered on Opening Night, showing why that signing might be more of a necessity than a luxury item.  

“He brings a lot of energy,” Maddon said after Monday’s 9-0 win over the Los Angeles Angels. “He’s a catalyst, there’s no question about that. So to get him back like we did – in kind of dramatic fashion – imagine the lineup without him.”

Fowler saw 17 pitches at the top of an American League-style lineup that made five Angels throw 188 pitches. Fowler got on base four times, scored three runs and played center at Angel Stadium of Anaheim, allowing Gold Glover Jason Heyward to move over to his more natural position in right field.

“I’m always on a personal mission,” Fowler said with a smile.

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Fowler felt like he had unfinished business in Wrigleyville after helping the Cubs advance to the National League Championship Series: “It ended a little quicker than what we wanted. Coming back here, we definitely got something to prove.”

But if the Baltimore Orioles hadn’t slow-played the negotiations – pushing harder to close a reported three-year, $35 million deal – then Fowler probably wouldn’t have been wearing those sweet red-white-and-blue Air Jordan cleats for Opening Day. After that experience, Maddon believes the Cubs have a highly motivated employee.

“I’ve always been the underdog,” Fowler said. “I always play with a chip on my shoulder. But I’m going to go out and have fun and try to embrace the time I have with my teammates.” 

As expected, Fowler turned down the one-year, $15.8 million qualifying offer after a solid walk season that saw him get on base almost 35 percent of the time, hit 17 homers and score 102 runs for a 97-win team.

But the draft-pick compensation had a chilling effect on Fowler’s market and even teams that need to win now and could use a top-of-the-order presence – like the White Sox – became reluctant to give him the big multiyear deal.

Theo Epstein’s front office likes to kick the tires on everything, never ruling anything out, which explains some of the rumors that go nowhere. This time, the patience paid off, with Fowler accepting a one-year, $13 million guarantee and showing up at the team’s Arizona complex on Feb. 25, or two days after the Baltimore reports. 

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Game 1 showed what this team could be all about, with Cy Young Award winner Jake Arrieta in cruise control on the mound and Fowler reminding the Cubs what they might have otherwise missed.

“These guys are my boys,” Fowler said. “This is my family. So coming out each and every day and being in the trenches with them is always awesome.”

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.