Cubs

Cubs believe Jason Heyward still has room to grow as a power hitter

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Cubs believe Jason Heyward still has room to grow as a power hitter

If you thought fans were excited when Jason Heyward chose to sign in Chicago, just imagine how the Cubs must be feeling.

Joe Maddon called Heyward "a beautiful man," throughout the 2015 season when he watched the dynamic 26-year-old outfielder star for the St. Louis Cardinals.

Theo Epstein's front office took note of the way Heyward played against the Cubs all year, but it was a particular at-bat in the National League Division Series that really caught Epstein's eye.

[RELATED - Can Jason Heyward handle the pressure of largest contract in Cubs history?]

In Game 3 at Wrigley Field, Heyward got a breaking ball from Jake Arrieta - the best pitcher on the planet at the time - off the plate outside and drove it to the left-field bleachers.

"It was a swing I hadn't seen from him up close in person before," Epstein said. "It shows a real sophisticated approach and an ability to make and adjustment like that against one of the best pitchers in the game.

"A lot of our players and staff were buzzing about that swing in the clubhouse after the game. You couldn't help but envision maybe some of the damage he could do playing at Wrigley Field on a consistent basis."

Heyward has had success at Wrigley Field throughout his career, sporting an .898 OPS (on a .311/.376/.522 line) in 25 games at "The Friendly Confines."

He also enjoyed playing in Chicago during the postseason, going 3-for-6 with a double, that homer off Arrieta and a pair of walks in a limited sample size.

That being said, Heyward only hit 13 homers in the regular season, after hitting 11 in 2014. In fact, he's only topped 18 homers one time in his career - clubbing 27 with the Atlanta Braves in 2012.

The Cubs are paying Heyward like a middle-of-the-order slugger ($184 million), but the fact of the matter is, he may never develop into more of a power hitter.

[SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

That doesn't mean the Cubs can't hope, however.

"I think it's in there," Epstein said. "He has hit 27 home runs before. There are a lot of players who don't find their consistent power stroke until they get to this age - 26, 27, 28."

Epstein then compared Heyward to another right fielder - Dwight Evans - who didn't find his consistent power stroke until his late 20s with the Boston Red Sox.

Up until age 26, Evans managed just 65 homers over six seasons in the big leagues, topping out at 17 in 1976 at age 24.

However, Evans hit 24 homers in his age 26 season, launching a 12-year run where he hit 301 longballs, averaging 25 per season and hitting at least 20 in every year but one during that stretch.

"Obviously for Jason, it's in there," Epstein said. "But his frame and his batspeed, how far he does hit the ball when he gets ahold of one and his ability to manipulate the barrel and opposite field home runs in parks that allow it like Wrigley Field, I think there's more power in there.

"But the beautiful thing about this is he doesn't have to hit for more power than he already has to really help us win a lot of games because of what he brings to the table defensively, on the bases and his on-base skills.

"Now, you add consistent power production into the mix and you're talking about one of the true, true elites in the game. We'll see how his career evolves.

"But he doesn't have to do more than what he's already done. His approach and how hard he works and wants to get better and the growth mindset that he has, he could put it all together."

Heyward was an interesting free agent, given that most players who hit the open market are on the wrong side of 30. But he is a young player with his prime years ahead of him and even though he isn't a consistent power threat yet, he was still considered the top position player in the free agent class.

[RELATED - Cardinals don't appreciate Jason Heyward's reason for signing with Cubs]

Heyward appreciates the way this game has developed and everybody can understand there's more to a player's skillset than just batting average, home runs and RBI.

But he also believes - like the Cubs - that there's room for his game to grow.

"I feel like I'm not done," Heyward said. "I feel like there's more in there. I said that at the beginning of spring training in 2015.

"I feel like I took some strides going forward and getting back to some things that I used to do when I was 19, 20 years old. I want to see what I can do to make the most of that and continue to build off this past year."

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.