Cubs

Cubs waiting for everything to click with Dexter Fowler

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Cubs waiting for everything to click with Dexter Fowler

Joe Maddon floated the idea that Dexter Fowler would be the right player at the right time for the Cubs. The manager talked up his new switch-hitting leadoff guy/centerfielder in spring training as someone on the verge of a breakout season.

Maddon felt Fowler would be playing at a prime age (29) and had already seen a lot with the Colorado Rockies and Houston Astros.

The media noticed how Fowler had once made the interesting decision to turn down an offer to play basketball at Harvard University. Cubs officials pointed out Fowler had worked with new hitting coach John Mallee last season in Houston and would help create this new identity as a grinding type of offense. 

[MORE: Cardinals make it another frustrating night for Cubs and Jon Lester]

It hasn’t quite happened yet.

“I believe it’s there,” Maddon said at Wrigley Field. “I believe you’re going to see it by the end of the season. He’s probably even trying a little bit too hard to set the table for us. And that’s why I wanted to back it off a little bit.”

So Maddon dropped Fowler to the seventh spot on Monday and moved Chris Coghlan into the leadoff position. It didn’t make a difference in a 6-0 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals — lineup shakeups usually don’t matter and the offensive issues are team-wide now. But Fowler did walk, single and drive a ball to the warning track against right-hander John Lackey.     

“Just take a little heat off him,” Maddon said. “I actually texted him today — we went back and forth. I just told him I had a different idea for today until he really gets it going from the left side. Because when he’s got it going on, he really does make us great. Look at the numbers when he gets on base and scores a run, (see) what our record looks like (27-12).

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“It’s obvious right now there’s a disconnect between the left- and right-handed side.”

Fowler should be back at the top of the order for Tuesday’s doubleheader against St. Louis left-handers Tyler Lyons and Tim Cooney. Fowler is hitting .340 with an .833 OPS against lefties — while hitting only .210 with a .655 OPS against right-handers.

Overall, Fowler is hitting .230 in his walk year, with eight homers, 11 stolen bases and 51 runs scored. His .308 on-base percentage is 58 points lower than his career average heading into this season.

That makes tagging Fowler with a qualifying offer — and getting the draft-pick compensation once he signs elsewhere — a more complicated decision.

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Then again, it’s not like the Cubs have all these outfielders forcing the issue at Triple-A Iowa and Double-A Tennessee for 2016 (unless you pull the plug on Kyle Schwarber’s catching experiment).

Fowler still has the second half to put it all together, and the Cubs in a pennant race will be a big platform.

“His defense has been really good, and his baserunning has been really good,” Maddon said. “I have a lot of faith in this guy. He’s really a bright young man. He comes to play every day. It hasn’t manifested itself yet.”

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.