Cubs

Cubs see Gold Glove/Andre Dawson potential in Jorge Soler

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Cubs see Gold Glove/Andre Dawson potential in Jorge Soler

Dave Martinez has flashbacks watching Jorge Soler.

While Jon Lester’s yips became a viral video and a national story, the Cubs bench coach watched Soler stay with the play and channel another Wrigley Field fan favorite: Andre Dawson.

“I saw ‘Hawk,’” Martinez said Wednesday. “I saw ‘Baby Hawk’ out there. I played next to ‘Hawk’ and (saw) some of the throws he made from out there. And as soon as (Soler) threw the ball, that’s the first thing I thought about.”

[MORE: Joe Maddon wants Cubs to take the fight to NL Central]

Soler bailed out Lester on Monday night with two home runs and what manager Joe Maddon called that “ridiculous” throw during a 7-6 comeback victory that took 10 innings. After Lester’s throw to first base sailed wide of Anthony Rizzo and bounced off the rolled-up tarp and into the visiting bullpen, Soler picked up the ball and gunned down Zack Cozart at third base.    

Dawson’s Hall of Fame plaque features his classic nickname — “THE HAWK” — as well as the eight Gold Gloves and 1987 National League MVP Award, labeling him as “a complete player.”

Martinez primarily played center while Dawson patrolled right during that MVP year on the North Side. Maddon’s longtime bench coach with the Tampa Bay Rays now works with the Cubs outfielders and sees the same kind of all-around potential in Soler.

“He’s a beast, but he does a lot more than just hit the ball hard,” Martinez. “My biggest thing in spring training, I kept telling him: ‘Hey, you can win a Gold Glove in the outfield. You’re that good.’ I said: ‘You run the bases well, but you got to try to do it all the time, not just when you feel like it.’ And he’s been unbelievable. (He’s) worked his butt off.”

[NBC SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

Soler turned 23 in spring training and possesses all the physical tools, carrying about 240 pounds on his 6-foot-4-inch frame. He’s shown an ability to quickly make adjustments after playing only 151 games in the minors. He’s a polished, patient hitter who put up 26 RBI across his first 30 games in The Show, the most for any Cub since Bob Speake did the same thing in 1955.

That advanced feel is even more impressive when you consider the Cuban outfielder missed roughly two years of game action while trying to defect and establish residency before signing a $30 million major-league contract in the summer of 2012.

If Soler stays healthy, it looks like that signing could go down as one of the pivotal moments for the Theo Epstein administration.

“People don’t realize how young he is,” Martinez said. “He’s a young baseball player that’s learning how to play the game the right way.”

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.