Cubs betting Rafael Soriano will strengthen their bullpen


Cubs betting Rafael Soriano will strengthen their bullpen

DETROIT – The Cubs will be adding a big-name reliever to a bullpen operating without a set closer: Rafael Soriano.

The Cubs finalized a minor-league deal with Soriano on Tuesday, structuring it with a prorated $4.1 million base salary and $4 million in incentives. So if the 35-year-old right-hander comes up for half the season – a realistic timeline – then he would make roughly $2 million guaranteed.

The Cubs hope they will be getting the lights-out pitcher who put up a 0.97 ERA for the Washington Nationals in the first half of last season, not the one who lost the closer’s job and had a 6.48 ERA after the All-Star break.  

“I have no idea what he’s going to look like,” manager Joe Maddon said before a 6-0 loss to the Detroit Tigers at Comerica Park. “He’s down in the Dominican and has to go through some paperwork to get out of there. I think once he gets up here, we’ll have a better understanding.”

Soriano earned his only All-Star selection while pitching for Maddon on the 2010 Tampa Bay Rays, posting a 1.73 ERA and saving 45 games for the American League East champs.

[SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

Despite fading down the stretch, Soriano still finished with 32 saves last year. He’s pitched in five postseason series with the Rays, Nationals and New York Yankees, where he filled in for – and worked alongside – the legendary Mariano Rivera.

Soriano is coming off a two-year, $28 million contract delivered by super-agent Scott Boras. Soriano apparently grew frustrated with the waiting, recently dropping Boras and switching to Octagon Baseball, which has a Chicago office, several Cubs as clients and a managing director, Alan Nero, who represents Maddon.

“He really knows how to pitch,” Maddon said. “I would like to believe that he would be able to impart his pitching wisdom on a lot of those guys on how to pitch hitters, and how to pick your poison.

[WATCH: What can Soriano bring to bullpen?]

“Oftentimes, after a game, the next day, he and I would talk about the hitters he had faced, and he’d tell me what he was thinking going into the game. I was always impressed with what he saw from the bullpen.

“So beyond his ability to help us pitch and win games, he’s really good at observing and knowing what to do versus hitters. And I’d like to believe that’s going to be part of his value.”

Maddon likes to get creative with the bullpen and not do everything by the book. The manager appears to be leaning toward a closer-by-committee with some combination of Pedro Strop, Jason Motte and Hector Rondon, who’s been demoted after his struggles in the ninth inning.

Will Soriano factor into the closer’s role at some point?

“I have no idea – I honest to God don’t,” Maddon said. “I just want him to be well, and obviously get here and help us. And (then) we’ll make that determination.” 

Cubs bolster pitching staff with minor trade, foreshadow more moves coming

Cubs bolster pitching staff with minor trade, foreshadow more moves coming

The Cubs didn't wait long to make Joe Maddon's words come true.

Roughly 5 hours after Maddon said the Cubs are definitely in the market for more pitching, the front office went out and acquired Jesse Chavez, a journeyman jack-of-all-trades type.

It's a minor move, not in the realm of Zach Britton or any of the other top relievers on the market.

But the Cubs only had to part with pitcher Class-A pitcher Tyler Thomas, their 7th-round draft pick from last summer who was pitching out of the South Bend rotation as a 22-year-old.

Chavez — who turns 35 in a month — brings over a vast array of big-league experience, with 799 innings under his belt. He's made 70 starts, 313 appearances as a reliever and even has 3 saves, including one this season for the Texas Rangers.

Chavez is currently 3-1 with a 3.51 ERA, 1.24 WHIP and 50 strikeouts in 56.1 innings. He has a career 4.61 ERA and 1.38 WHIP while pitching for the Pirates, Braves, Royals, Blue Jays, A's, Dodgers, Angels and Rangers before coming to Chicago.

Of his 30 appearances this season, Chavez has worked multiple innings 18 times and can serve as a perfect right-handed swingman in the Cubs bullpen, filling the role previously occupied by Luke Farrell and Eddie Butler earlier in the season.

Chavez had a pretty solid run as a swingman in Oakland from 2013-15, making 47 starts and 50 appearances as a reliever, pitching to a 3.85 ERA, 1.31 WHIP and 8.2 K/9 across 360.1 innings.

"Good arm, versatile, could start and relieve," Joe Maddon said Thursday after the trade. "I've watched him. I know he had some great runs with different teams. 

"The word that comes to mind is verstaility. You could either start him or put him in the bullpen and he's very good in both arenas."

It's not a flasy move, but a valuable piece to give the Cubs depth down the stretch.

There's no way the Cubs are done after this one trade with nearly two weeks left until the deadline. There are more moves coming from this front office, right?

"Oh yeah," Maddon said. "I don't think that's gonna be the end of it. They enjoy it too much."

Jason Heyward has become an offensive catalyst

Jason Heyward has become an offensive catalyst

Expecting Jason Heyward to carry a team offensively would be thought as foolish just a few short months ago. But here in the middle of July, Heyward has turned into the offensive firestarter the Cubs have been seemingly missing since Dexter Fowler left. 

Heyward walked away from Thursday night's 9-6 win over the Cardinals tallying three hits, two RBI, two runs scored and his first stolen base of the year, as the 28-year-old outfielder continued to poke holes in the Cardinals defense. 

Twice Heyward was able to slip a ball between the 1st and 2nd basemen that off the bat looked like neither had a chance to make it through the right field side. Later, Heyward would battle through a lengthy at-bat, finally being rewarded with an opposite-field hit that drove in the game-tying run. 

"It just happened," Heyward explained. " [Carlos Martinez] is not going to give you a whole lot to do damage on throughout the game. I was able to get one pitch there and get a guy home." 

Cubs manager Joe Maddon mentioned Heyward and his ability to move the ball around the field and how it's helped him become an effective piece to this Cubs offense. So effective Heyward's batting average crept up to .290 after today's three-hit performance. 

Heyward credits his quick hands as the major tool he's utilized to create so many successful at-bats lately, which has allowed him to take advantage of certain pitches and punch them through for hits.

He's certainly not driving the ball for consistent power, but the approach has put Heyward on pace to match the 160 hit total he amassed with the Cardinals in 2015. 

"I feel like Joe's mindset on moving the ball is putting the ball in play when you got guys on base," said Heyward. "It keeps the line moving, regardless of the result." 

It might be crazy to think that Heyward's incredible turnaround this season might simply be attributed to putting the ball in play. But even just taking a look at Heyward's contact rates shows he's increased his contact on pitches outside the zone by roughly three percent.

Not a massive difference, but if Heyward's hands are truly giving him an edge at the plate, making contact with pitches that may not be a strike but are hittable pitches could explain the increased offense we are seeing now. 

"That's kinda the biggest thing," said Heyward. "The more good swings you take, the more hits you have a chance to get." 

Shooters shoot, and Heyward continues to shoot his shot and keep the Cubs offense chugging along.