Cubs

Cubs: Joe Maddon won’t put ‘injury-prone’ label on Jorge Soler

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Cubs: Joe Maddon won’t put ‘injury-prone’ label on Jorge Soler

The Cubs don’t have a timetable for Jorge Soler yet, but the rookie outfielder doesn’t believe his strained oblique muscle will become a season-ending injury.

“I’m going to be back,” Soler said Wednesday at Wrigley Field through interpreter/coach Franklin Font.

While the Cubs miss Soler’s presence in the lineup right now, this could also be a much bigger-picture issue for a franchise that gave him a nine-year, $30 million major-league contract in the summer of 2012.

That turned out to be a shrewd investment in the Cuban market for Theo Epstein’s front office, because there’s no denying the talent. Staying healthy and getting on the field has been the biggest concern with Soler.

“I’m not ready to label him as ‘accident-prone’ or ‘injury-prone’ or whatever,” manager Joe Maddon said. “Let it just play out. Let’s see how it goes. And as he gains more major-league (experience) with playing baseball on a 162-game schedule, he might be able to stay healthier as he gets older.”

[MORE: Javier Baez returns to Cubs with something to prove]

Soler played only 151 games across parts of the last three seasons in the minors while dealing with a series of leg injuries. He is built more like an NFL linebacker, the type of athlete that typically doesn’t play baseball at a high level anymore in this country.

The Cubs monitored Soler’s workload in spring training and then had him go 49-for-49 in games played before he sprained his ankle in early June, awkwardly landing on first base while trying to hustle for an infield single.

“It happens,” Maddon said. “But a lot of times, my experience has been guys that maybe as they’re younger fall into this trap. And as they gain more experience, it kind of goes away.”

Soler hoped to maybe swing a bat on Friday, but oblique injuries are particularly difficult to project (see Tommy La Stella). The Cubs placed Soler on the disabled list on Aug. 24, but he said he first felt something two days earlier on a throw to second base.

The Cubs had been seeing signs that Soler’s power might finally start to emerge. Overall, he’s hitting .265 with seven homers, 42 RBI and a .710 OPS in 90 games this season.

[NBC SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

Soler’s extended absence helped drive this week’s Austin Jackson deal with the Seattle Mariners. Jackson – a right-handed hitter who can move all over the outfield – played in seven postseason series with the Detroit Tigers between 2011 and 2013.

“There’s definitely the mitigating factor,” Maddon said. “Austin is a good baseball player, man. He’s having a good year and he’s really been hot. Furthermore, he’s been there and done that in this time of the year, and that really helps, also. So I thought it was an outstanding move on the part of our guys to get him here under these circumstances.

“Losing George at this moment was not very good. But I think we’ve done a nice job of trying to fix it up a little bit. So I’m really excited about Austin and what he can do here.”

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.