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How Cubs plan to avoid the dreaded sophomore slump for young players in 2016

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How Cubs plan to avoid the dreaded sophomore slump for young players in 2016

The sophomore slump is one of those dreaded terms that hovers around baseball's top young players like a shadow.

It's the idea that the league has an offseason to adjust to players who had successful rookie seasons and production takes a dip in Year 2.

If that's the case for the Cubs, that could be a brutal blow with four key players - Kris Bryant, Addison Russell, Kyle Schwarber and Jorge Soler - entering their "sophomore" seasons in the big leagues in 2016.

[RELATED - Will Joe Maddon keep Addison Russell ninth in Cubs lineup?]

If the Cubs really have hopes of a World Series this year, they're going to have to get production from that quartet. So how will they keep the "sophomore slump" at bay?

For starters, the Cubs hope to avoid the issue simply because they feel a lot of their young players have already endured a bump.

"I thought last year, some of the guys had the opportunity to experience the sophomore bump in their freshman year," Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. "They had some difficult moments last year that I thought they really worked through well."

Maddon cited the mechanical adjustments Bryant and Russell made last season to get through some slumps.

Bryant has worked to cut down on his strikeouts by keeping the bat through the strike zone longer, eliminating a bit of his uppercut swing.

Russell incorporated a leg kick into his swing last year, something he and the Cubs felt helped unleash some of the power in his line-drive swing.

Schwarber, meanwhile, hit .179 with zero homers and only one RBI in his final 17 games of the 2015 regular season and also endured yearlong inconsistency against left-handers (.143 AVG, .481 OPS).

However, in the postseason, Schwarber found his stroke, clubbing a franchise-record five homers, including a monster shot on top of the right-field scoreboard at Wrigley Field off St. Louis Cardinals lefty Kevin Siegrist in Game 4 of the National League Division Series.

[SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

The Cubs know there are still slumps awaiting all their young players, but they feel they have the tools in place to rise above.

"Our job is to try to stay ahead of [the difficult moments] as much as we possibly can," Maddon said. "Be there for them and try to understand what's going on. But primarily would be that our guys adjust back to what these other guys are trying to do to us.

"If you're not hardheaded and you're mindful and you understand those concepts, I think you have a better chance of adjusting back and avoiding those prolonged periods of nonproductivity."

The Cubs also hope to combat any inkling of a sophomore slump by understanding the mental game.

Bryant said one of the ways he's looking to avoid a dip in numbers is by envisioning 2016 as just a continuation of 2015...with a three-and-a-half-month break.

You can't have a sophomore slump if you don't have a sophomore season, right?

"I've actually felt that way watching our guys - it's kinda like they're picking up where they left off," Maddon said. "A lot of enthusiasm, a lot of desire to be at the ballpark, they like each other - all those factors are still in play.

"So yeah, it feels almost like we did pick it up where we left off. We're having a lot of fun, but the work's been outstanding."

The Cubs are attacking projected slumps and adversity head-on.

"I think that's the attitude you have to have," Bryant said. "I've played this game for a very long time, but not as long as some guys in here. You go through your bad spells. You go through your good spells. The good ones always bring you back.

"It's fun to go through those. It's a roller-coaster ride. I wouldn't be playing this game if it wasn't like that. I enjoy the adversity because I know it only gets better."

The other factor playing into all this is each guy's role into the overall locomotive that is the Cubs.

Ideally, young players first cracking into the big leagues wouldn't have to be major pieces on an everyday basis. That wasn't the case with the Cubs last season, of course.

But this year, Theo Epstein's front office helped supplement the young talent with proven commodities like Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist, plus starting pitcher John Lackey and they also brought back centerfielder Dexter Fowler to set the table at the top of the order.

Maddon has talked about young players getting their first taste of life in "The Show" and caring more about their own survival - ensuring they don't make mistakes, focusing and obsessing over their personal numbers - rather than just helping the team win.

[RELATED - No question: Addison Russell knows he belongs now with Cubs]

The Cubs don't see their "sophomores" just keeping their heads above water.

"A lot of times, younger guys are still in survival mode and they're just trying to stay here because they think it's pretty cool," Maddon said. "They're not normally the guy that's going to help you win because their agenda is to not make a mistake.

"But once you get to the point where you feel like you belong here, then you really shift to, 'All I wanna do is win.'

"...I think all our young guys are about that. Believe me, man. It's a real pleasure to talk to these guys."

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.