Cubs

Cubs: Jorge Soler, Ryan Kalish and what the outfield picture looks like now

Cubs: Jorge Soler, Ryan Kalish and what the outfield picture looks like now

PITTSBURGH – More than five hours before first pitch, Jorge Soler took early batting practice on Tuesday afternoon in an empty PNC Park while a group of Cubs coaches watched the young Cuban hitter.

The Cubs unveiled a different outfield look for that night’s game against the Pittsburgh Pirates, trying to jumpstart Soler by batting him second and putting him in left, while keeping Dexter Fowler in center and moving Kris Bryant to right.

The team with the best record in baseball can’t be in scramble mode in the first week of May, but the Cubs are almost burning through the depth they acquired this winter.

Jason Heyward is still dealing with the sore right wrist that’s been bothering him since early April. An MRI on Matt Szczur’s right hamstring revealed a strain that landed him on the disabled list. The Cubs promoted Ryan Kalish – a guy who planned to play independent ball before signing a minor-league deal in March – from Triple-A Iowa.

Manager Joe Maddon has been asked about Soler – who began the day hitting .186 with a .591 OPS – in the context of trading for pitching, losing playing time with the Fowler signing and getting another chance after Kyle Schwarber’s season-ending knee surgery.

So Maddon didn’t feel like looking for a deeper meaning to Soler’s opportunity this time.

“It’s Tuesday, that’s it, I swear,” Maddon said. “Because you got other options to deal with. There’s different ways to look at this. I’m going to continue to try to do my best to keep everybody solvent. That’s the best way I can answer that. George obviously has prodigious power ability, so we’ll see how it plays.

“But I’m not going to make any promises.”

Beyond Bryant’s versatility as an All-Star third baseman, the Cubs also have super-utility guys Ben Zobrist and Javier Baez with the ability to toggle between the infield and the outfield.

It’s a remarkable comeback story for Kalish, another former Boston Red Sox prospect with connections to Theo Epstein’s front office.

Kalish struggled to stay healthy at Fenway Park and eventually recovered from cervical fusion surgery – performed by the same doctor who did the neck procedure for Peyton Manning – to make the Opening Day roster for Rick Renteria’s Cubs in 2014.

Kalish spent last year hanging out in Southern California, thinking about life after baseball and watching old buddies like Anthony Rizzo perform in the playoffs.

“I needed to keep trying,” Kalish said. “There were points where people were saying (stuff), even close friends wondering like: ‘Hey, maybe it’s time to move on?’ But I just couldn’t have that.

“I was going (to independent ball) if this didn’t come. The crazy part is that season hasn’t even started yet. It starts in like two weeks. But with all this developing, it just puts it all in perspective. It makes me appreciate what I have.”

The Cubs don’t want to rush Albert Almora from Iowa, even though they know their 2012 first-round pick could play above-average defense in The Show right now. Almora just turned 22, isn’t on the 40-man roster yet and has spent about a month on the Triple-A level.

Until this setback, Szczur had maximized his opportunity after the Cubs ruled out Shane Victorino (calf) for the Opening Day roster. Victorino is still working into game shape at the team’s Arizona complex and getting closer to joining the Triple-A club.

Szczur, who’s out of minor-league options, went from a bubble player to a key contributor, hitting .367 with two homers and 10 RBI in 34 plate appearances and becoming a late-game defensive replacement for Soler.

“It’s always bad timing,” Szczur said.

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.