Cubs preaching patience on Jorge Soler's development

Cubs preaching patience on Jorge Soler's development

As Joe Maddon passed by a small contingent of fans beyond the left field bleachers at Wrigley Field before Friday's game, one fan found the courage to yell "try not to suck" at the Cubs manager.

That "Maddonism" has become the rallying cry for Cubs Nation in 2016, but baseball isn't always that simple.

Maddon can't simply tell Jorge Soler to "try not to suck."

Soler entered play Sunday hitting .174, which would be the lowest mark in the National League if he had enough plate appearances to qualify. His .530 OPS would also be the fourth-lowest mark in the NL if he qualified.

Soler's struggles culminated in a rough game Wednesday night, as he struck out all four times up and left four men on base in the Cubs' 1-0 loss to the San Diego Padres.

Still, Maddon kept trotting Soler out there, giving him the start in left field each of the first two games against the Pittsburgh Pirates over the weekend. Soler went 1-for-6 with a walk and a run in those two games against a pair of left-handed pitchers.

"He just has to go out there and play," Maddon said. "He needs opportunity. When a guy has a tough day, I don't get really carried away in a negative way. It's part of development. It's part of making a young player a good major league player.

"When you're attempting to develop young players, there's a lot of patience involved. And then if you put your scout's hat on, you can see what the eventual reward is going to look like. A guy like Jorge, you have to be patient."

Soler flashed his potential when he posted a .903 OPS and 20 RBIs during his 24-game cup of coffee in 2014.

He also set a record by reaching base nine straight times to begin the postseason, drawing five walks and collecting four hits — including a double and two homers — to help jumpstart the Cubs' offense against the St. Louis Cardinals in the NLDS.

It's that potential — and the fact that Soler just turned 24 in February — that explains why the Cubs aren't so quick to just bench Soler or give up on him in any form.

"That's absurd. If we had walked away from him last year, we probably don't get out of that Cardinals series," Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein said. "He and (Kyle) Schwarber were our two best hitters in that series. He played a primary role in helping us win a couple of those games.

"That's how good he's capable of being, and you need to invest in him in order to help him get to that level on a more consistent basis. And you have to win games along the way. We have good problems to have."

Like Epstein said, the Cubs have proven they've placed an emphasis on winning now so they have to manage Soler's development with what's best for the entire team.

Still, the Cubs entered play Sunday 27-8 with a plus-110 run differential, one of the best starts the game has ever seen.

Epstein predicted Soler will get hot and carry the Cubs at some point like he did in the playoffs.

He also reminded everybody this is actually the normal development path for young players, referencing the Kansas City Royals' patience with guys like Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas and Alex Gordon.

But Cubs fans and Chicago media have gotten a little spoiled of late, watching how guys like Kris Bryant, Addison Russell and Schwarber have been key contributors from the first second they stepped foot on a big league field.

"We have to be patient," Epstein said. "The fans have to be patient, too, because not everyone steps right in and wins the Rookie of the Year and takes off and puts up a .900 OPS.

"There are more variations of performance. It comes more sporadically. If you invest in young players over time, you get rewarded. His talent is there. It's undeniable. Look what he did against the best pitchers in the league at the most important time last year."

Soler's playing time has become a source of debate, too. Those who look at his numbers cry for the Cubs to bench him or send him back down to Triple-A Iowa.

There are also those who believe Soler's slump is at least partially due to inconsistent playing time with Bryant drawing a bunch of starts in left field.

Epstein and Maddon both acknowledged Soler would have plenty of opportunity to play as the season wears on, but Maddon also pointed to Soler's overall inexperience in professional baseball.

Soler has played in just 158 big league games and only 155 minor league games while battling injuries throughout his career. He also spent about two years where he didn't play much competitive baseball in defecting from Cuba before signing with the Cubs.

"His development has been spotty, in a sense, because of injuries," Maddon said. "He's shown flashes of brilliance. I guess from a fan's perspective or (media) asking me qeustions, I can understand where you're coming from.

"But from where I sit, it's very easy to see what the right thing to do is. I can't and I won't get caught up in that kind of rhetoric. It's about a young man developing. ... You just gotta keep throwing him out there until eventually it clicks and it will."

Maddon also has learned the need to be extra patient with young Latin players who are tasked with the culture shock of adjusting to life in a new country as well as learning a new language on top of developing on-field skills.

Soler admitted in spring training he had concentration and focus lapses last season but had no problem turning it on in the playoffs when the stakes were raised.

Maddon isn't willing to point to concentration issues as a reason for Soler's struggles this year.

"Actually, I think that's really done well," Maddon said. "He's done a lot of work with the hitting coaches, with our sports psych guys. If you watch him in the batter's box when he might not like something, he just takes the walk back and forth in the box (he doesn't get out of the box because that is a finable offense).

"Even that's a mindful moment for me right there. His self-awareness is growing. Of course you want to see more performance right now, but I know that's gonna be forthcoming. I'm not worried about that.

"He's really trying to do the right things and that matters a lot. You've got this 6-foot-5 behemoth, strong man, tremendous power, working on different things, making the adjustments to the United States. He'll figure it out."

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?


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.