Cubs

Cubs hope Jorge Soler can again be the hitter who crushed St. Louis last October

Cubs hope Jorge Soler can again be the hitter who crushed St. Louis last October

ST. LOUIS – When the playoff ride finally ended for the Cubs last October, Jorge Soler told Dave Martinez: “This is the guy I want to be. This is the guy I should be.”

The St. Louis Cardinals witnessed that monster performance in the National League divisional round, watching Soler become the first player in major-league history to reach base safely in his first nine postseason plate appearances.  

This is what the Cubs envisioned when they won the bidding war in the summer of 2012 and finalized a nine-year, $30 million major-league contract: Soler hitting two homers, driving in four runs and drawing six walks in those four pressure-packed games against the Cardinals.  

As manager Joe Maddon’s bench coach, Martinez has to put out fires in the clubhouse, use his bilingual skills and sometimes tell players what they might not want to hear.

In this case, Martinez recalled this week at Busch Stadium, “I (told Soler): ‘Absolutely, no question.’ The next thing you got to ask yourself is: ‘Why?’

“That’s what we’re doing now with him, making sure that he understands that you are that guy. There’s no ‘can’ or ‘will.’ You are that guy. Believe it – and that guy will happen.” 

The Cubs are going with positive reinforcement after Kyle Schwarber’s season-ending knee injuries created an opportunity in left field for Soler, who admitted he drifted at times before finding a higher level of concentration during the playoffs.      

“He’s getting there,” Maddon said. “His focus is improving. He’s understanding what it takes to be a regular player on the major-league level. The talent is prodigious. We all know that. But he needs to understand the mental side of this thing. And he’s working very hard at it. I give him credit.”  

There are certain matchups where the Cubs will sit Soler and Maddon likes to keep everyone involved anyway. The breaks might help keep Soler healthy after a series of injuries limited him to only 151 minor-league games between 2012 and 2014. 

Maddon also sees Matt Szczur as a late-inning defensive replacement for Soler, who isn’t quite comfortable making plays at the wall and sometimes gets caught in between, not sure when to stay back and when to charge the ball.      

Soler – who had a reputation for being a patient hitter with a plan as an amateur player coming out of Cuba – is hitting .200 (8-for-40) with two homers and six walks against 11 strikeouts through 14 games.

“The biggest thing for him is accepting his walks,” Martinez said. “If he starts doing that consistently, we really feel like he’s going to hit and the power’s going to come. People see him and they (project) with that tremendous physique. But in reality, he’s still very young (24) and he’s learning.

“He’s got so much potential to do so many different things. We’re just excited that he’s actually now really focusing on taking his walks and swinging at pitches that he can hit.”

The Cardinals know what that could mean if Soler gets locked in again hitting behind Dexter Fowler, Jason Heyward, Ben Zobrist, Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant.  

“(When) you talk about the way (our) lineup is – the relentless at-bats – that’s a mental component,” Maddon said. “That’s not physical. You can stay in the cage as long as you want – or take as many swings as you want – that ain’t gonna matter. 

“It’s about what you’re thinking and those are really well-thought-out at-bats by our group. And we got to get George (going) because he’s very capable of that. We’ve seen it in the past.

“If we get him there with those really strong mental at-bats, the sky’s the limit for him.”

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.