Cubs

Maddon, Cubs getting a 'fresh look' at Junior Lake

junior-lake-cubs-fresh-look.png

Maddon, Cubs getting a 'fresh look' at Junior Lake

It seems like so long ago that Junior Lake was the "it" prospect to talk about in the Cubs clubhouse.

Since making his debut in July 2013, that "top prospect" label has fallen off Lake's resume and he's been replaced by Kris Bryant, Addison Russell and a host of other young players who are making an impact with the Cubs.

Lake has become a forgotten man, even after drawing comparisons to Alfonso Soriano less than two years ago.

But Lake is back in Chicago and earned a second straight start Friday against the Royals. He got the call in right field in place of Jorge Soler Wednesday, doubling off Max Scherzer - the best pitcher on the planet right now - and subsequently swiping third when the defense stopped paying attention to him on the basepaths.

[MORE: Cubs see Addison Russell taking a big step forward]

When asked why he decided to give Lake another start Friday, Joe Maddon's response was simple: "Have you been watching him?"

"He's been outstanding," Maddon said. "I think he's a good baseball player. What's getting lost here is the fact that he's got a clue out on the field. He does some really smart things out there. That's what I've seen with him."

Maddon also admitted he opted for Lake over the left-handed-hitting Chris Coghlan against Edinson Volquez because the Royals starter is tougher on lefties (Volquez is allowing just a .177 average and .513 OPS to lefties, compared to a .218 average and a .574 OPS to right-handed hitters).

Lake has already been shuttled to and from Triple-A Iowa twice this year and the caveat always is that it's a small sample size (27 at-bats entering play Friday). But it's the approach that has Maddon encouraged right now.

For example, Lake's double Wednesday was only his fifth extra-base hit to the opposite field in his career, spanning more than 570 at-bats. 

He's also not swinging at every pitch thrown within spitting distance of home plate, averaging 4.57 pitches per plate appearance, tops on the team among active players (injured Tommy La Stella saw 5 pitches per plate appearance in his six at-bats earlier this season).

[RELATED: Starlin Castro leaves Cubs with questions to answer at shortstop]

"He's really good," Maddon said. "I got to see him in spring training. I saw him - I think - pinch-hit last year. And then with him in camp and I go to meetings and hear all these different things about Junior.

"A big part of it was he would pretty much swing at the rosin bag. But then this last offseason, he went to winter ball and I guess that stopped. Now, watching the guy run bases, play defense, his at-bats, his power, I don't know what there's not to like. I've not seen anything but good."

Lake is still only 25 and possesses an intriguing power-speed combo skillset. He can play all three outfield spots and came up through the Cubs system as an infielder, representing some versatility for Maddon off the bench.

Lake has shown flashes that he's the same player who hit .284 with a .760 OPS in 2013 and he's working to move past his 2014 struggles (.211 average, 110 strikeouts in 308 at-bats). 

But at the end of the day, he's still not seen as a building block with this Cubs franchise. 

[NBC SHOP: Buy a Cubs Memorial Day hat]

With Lake, it wasn't so much doubting his skillset, it was more about doubting whether it would all click and he would fulfill that potential.

He's got something of a fresh start now with Maddon in town.

"He's one of those guys, sometimes, I think you get in an organization long enough that people see him a certain way," Maddon said. "I'm coming in with some fresh looks right now and now I think everybody else is seeing the same thing.

"Junior's proven that he's made some adjustments, which is not easy to do at his particular point of development. I give him a lot of credit."

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?

chavez_kamka_story.jpg
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.