Cubs trying to tap into Jorge Soler’s ‘superstar’ potential

Cubs trying to tap into Jorge Soler’s ‘superstar’ potential

SAN FRANCISCO – During Friday night’s postgame news conference, manager Joe Maddon gushed about Jorge Soler’s performance, which took on added significance with the Cubs not knowing what would show up on Jason Heyward’s MRI.   

“I want to believe that he understands what we’re talking about,” Maddon said, analyzing Soler. “Now he went out and did it. And that’s the kind of mental effort that can make him a superstar.”

Soler isn’t about to become the everyday right fielder. The Cubs could exhale once they found out Heyward’s injury – bruised right side/rib area – shouldn’t be a disabled-list situation. But the issue for the Cubs and Soler remains the same – tapping into that potential on a more regular basis and sustaining a superstar-level of concentration. 

“I’m more worried about what he’s thinking, I swear, because physically he’s got all the gifts that God could bestow on a baseball player,” Maddon said. “So now if we could really just get him to process the day properly, work every at-bat, work every trip around the bases, be prepared for every pitch defensively, this guy could be really, really good.”

Maddon looked beyond the 2-for-4/home run box score and accounted for all of Soler’s contributions during Friday’s 8-1 victory over the San Francisco Giants at AT&T Park, making two difficult catches at the left-field wall and taking an aggressive turn rounding first base.

“It’s nice to see George play a complete game,” Maddon said. “That’s what we’re looking for from all of our guys. We just don’t want hitters. We want guys that play a complete game. 

“I was really, really pleased to see that – for him and for us. I don’t even care about the home run at all. That has nothing to do with how excited I am right now. It’s that bullet at the second baseman. It’s a homer in the latter part of the game. But everything else he did, I saw a Major League Baseball player out there. 

“The way he ran the bases, the way he played defense, his focus during the course of the game, that’s what got me excited.” 

Soler began Saturday’s 5-3 loss hitting .200 with a .604 OPS, but he didn’t let his offense effect his defense in the third inning. Soler smoothly cut off a ball in left field, gathered himself and threw out Trevor Brown at second base when San Francisco’s backup catcher tried to stretch an RBI single into a double. 

Soler also doubled, scored a run and drew a walk and you can put all this in a wider context. Last year’s exceptional class of rookies also warped the perception of normal speed for player development around the Cubs. 

Remember that Soler is only 24, still assimilating into a new culture, learning a different position in The Show while playing for a World Series contender and trying to make up for essentially the two years of game action he lost while defecting from Cuba. 

“I’m focused on what I have to do – sometimes things don’t go the right way,” Soler said through coach/interpreter Henry Blanco. “I understand the message. That’s why I’ve been working hard. I’m going to give everything I got on the field. I understand it’s not only about hitting. Just play the game all around and win games.”

Overnight, Soler isn’t going to develop Heyward’s defensive instincts or Ben Zobrist’s plate discipline or Jake Arrieta’s laser focus. Leading up to the trade deadline, it’s also in the best interests of the organization to talk up a player who’s been discussed in deals for pitching. But Maddon is noticing signs that Soler gets it. 

“To develop a young player like that, everybody wants to see the ball in the seats – nice,” Maddon said. “Spectacular plays – great. I want to see him run the bases right. I think if he runs the bases properly and diligently and hard, that other stuff will just happen because he is that gifted.” 

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.