Cubs

Cubs banking on Jason Heyward’s Gold Glove defense

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Cubs banking on Jason Heyward’s Gold Glove defense

The Cubs are paying Jason Heyward like a middle-of-the-order hitter, whether or not he ever evolves into that kind of offensive force. The age-26 runway, a .353 career on-base percentage and Gold Glove defense made eight years and $184 million seem like a safe investment in this market.

How Heyward responds to a different clubhouse, a new city and an unfamiliar position will be one of the many storylines for a Cubs team that will have World Series ambitions when pitchers and catchers officially report on Friday in Arizona.

There were times the Cubs looked unsure and sloppy in the field while getting swept by the New York Mets in the National League Championship Series, but that team had been built on a shaky defensive foundation and arrived ahead of schedule last year.

No doubt, Heyward is an elite defender in right field, where he won three Gold Gloves in the last four years with the Atlanta Braves and St. Louis Cardinals. He led all NL right fielders in putouts and assists in 2012 and 2014. He led the majors in Defensive Runs Saved in 2014 (32) and finished fourth in that category last season (22).

Only Tampa Bay Rays center fielder Kevin Kiermaier (30) posted a higher Ultimate Zone Rating than Heyward (20.2) last year. Only Kansas City Royals left fielder Alex Gordon (25) finished with a better UZR than Heyward (24.1) in 2014.

Heyward has already played almost 7,000 defensive innings in The Show, but only 3 percent of that time has been in center field.

“I’m going to give my best effort all the time,” Heyward said. “On defense, I can affect the game every pitch. But on offense, I only get one (key) at-bat or (it) comes around only so many times a game. On defense, there are 27 outs you need to make in nine innings to win a ballgame. And I’m not asleep for any of those.

“I try and do what I can to help my team, whether it’s cutting a ball off, throwing somebody out or making a nice diving play. You can score 10 runs, but if you can’t stop somebody from scoring 11, you’re not going to win.”

[RELATED: Why Cubs think their rock-star young players won't believe the hype in Year 2]

The qualifying offer has dragged down Dexter Fowler’s market, with teams like the White Sox and Baltimore Orioles apparently reluctant to give up a draft pick for a defender who doesn’t pass the eye test or grade out well on the metrics. (Though Fowler still remaining unsigned in the middle of February would have been inconceivable at the end of a walk season where he scored 102 runs for a 97-win team and got on base almost 35 percent of the time.)

The Cubs wanted to upgrade in center field and create more of a defensive identity. Jorge Soler and Kyle Schwarber will be projects for bench coach Dave Martinez, an enthusiastic teacher who played 16 seasons in the big leagues.

Soler has already missed out on so much development time while defecting from Cuba and recovering from injuries. Schwarber looked like a designated hitter coming out of Indiana University and he doesn’t want to give up on the idea of catching.

But it’s not like the Cubs are making this a lifetime appointment for Heyward. It could wind up being a one- or two-year solution while someone like Albert Almora continues to develop in the minors. Maybe Javier Baez smoothly transitions to the outfield or the Cubs eventually get a trade offer they can’t refuse.

Theo Epstein’s front office has already given manager Joe Maddon a deep roster to make in-game adjustments and create good matchups with versatile players like Baez, Ben Zobrist, Kris Bryant and Chris Coghlan.

And as long as Soler and Schwarber crush the ball, most of those defensive concerns will be going, going, gone.

“We love the offensive upside that Jorge Soler and Kyle Schwarber present at the corner-outfield positions,” Epstein said. “But it’s a long contract. Things will inevitably change over time. I’m sure there’s a time where Jason’s going to be playing plenty of right field for us. We’re excited about seeing him play center field day in and day out.

“(With) all the research that we’ve done and all the scouting reports we have, we feel like he’s going to handle himself very well in center field.

“(It’s) a great match (that) allows for some different combinations through the years as we move forward.”

[MORE: Cubs' message to Jason Heyward? Just be yourself]

Maddon – who had to focus on the little things with the small-market Rays and likes to say he comes from The Land of Run Prevention – won’t try to turn Heyward into something he’s not.

“Believe me, I will talk to him a lot,” Maddon said. “My expectation is that he comes out, gets ready to play and knows where to set up on defense, works a good at-bat and just keep running the bases (the same way), because I love the way he runs the bases.

“(It’s the) process. Don’t worry about the outcome of anything. Just go play.”

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.