Cubs

Jorge Soler is a player to watch if Cubs want to shake things up

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Jorge Soler is a player to watch if Cubs want to shake things up

PITTSBURGH – The Cubs are nearing a tipping point with their roster, the moment where they can’t worry about egos or defer as much to development, making difficult decisions to try to win that night’s game.

Jorge Soler is one of several moving parts here, a rookie so talented manager Joe Maddon called him Vladimir Guerrero with plate discipline in spring training, predicting he would have been a No. 1 overall pick if he had not been born in Cuba.

But you’re also watching Soler experience some growing pains, which can’t be all that surprising for someone who played in only 151 minor-league games across parts of the last three seasons. That doesn’t make Soler unique on a team where Kris Bryant and Addison Russell have had their up-and-down moments.

Once the Cubs activate Miguel Montero – probably as soon as this weekend – they will again have a potentially awkward three-catcher situation and what should be a fascinating domino effect.

The Cubs are looking for ways to keep Kyle Schwarber’s bat in the lineup, possibly moving Chris Coghlan from left field to right, which could displace Soler, who isn’t hitting for power yet (five homers) and doesn’t make up for it on defense (-10.5 UZR/150).

Coghlan also worked out at second base before Tuesday’s 5-0 win over the Pittsburgh Pirates at PNC Park, which could free up Russell to play shortstop while Starlin Castro sorts through his disappointing season. Javier Baez – who’s red-hot since getting healthy and returning to Triple-A Iowa (1.118 OPS through seven games) – remains another X-factor in the middle-infield equation.

“I’ve been conducting conversations with our guys in the front office to try to find out specifically what they have in mind,” Maddon said. “I know what I think. And I’ve told them that. So I’m not ready yet to specifically tell you what the plan’s going to be.

“Once Miggy comes back, I want it to be in place, so that there’s no gray areas and everybody knows what’s going on. But those conversations are actively going on.”

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Soler drew a bases-loaded walk in the first inning to score the game’s first run on Tuesday night and chipped in with an RBI single in the sixth. He worked another walk and also struck out twice, raising his total to 98 through 74 games.

But Maddon digs run prevention and typically sugarcoats his comments about his own players, so it’s telling when the manager grades out Soler’s defense as “average” and doesn’t talk him up as a future Gold Glove winner.

“It definitely could be improved,” Maddon said.

This doesn’t always show up in the box score, but Soler’s trouble with running routes is obvious, which, again, could be a product of his youth and inexperience. Maybe those flyballs don’t fall onto the warning track in 2016 and 2017 as Soler gets a better feel for defensive positioning and outfield dimensions.

Maddon sounded a little defensive when a reporter suggested the Cubs would “really dive in” and help Soler with those subtle adjustments next year during spring training.

“We dove in this year,” Maddon said. “We’ve been diving. I’ve had a lot of experience working with outfielders, and so has Davey (bench coach Dave Martinez). We combine a lot of different thoughts and I think our overall outfield play has been outstanding.

“With (Soler), he’s been outstanding on some days. And some days, he gets a little bit tangle-foot out there. And that’s just something you have to keep walking through. I promise you all the work has been put in from the very beginning in spring training.

“The information is really good. It’s not OK. It’s outstanding. So you just have to get the player to be able to take that and process it daily and work through (it). Because – believe me – the work has been done.”

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Maddon has been able to run the bullpen smoothly without anointing anyone as the closer, keeping different relievers involved and playing the matchups, which could be another way of thinking about the lineup across the final two months.

Still, Soler is a presence with so much potential at the age 23. He might also be the big bat the Cubs didn’t get at the trade deadline and could use right now.

“There’s definitely another level to his entire game,” Maddon said.

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.