Now healthy, Cubs' Clayton Richard optimistic about future


Now healthy, Cubs' Clayton Richard optimistic about future

Clayton Richard is optimistic about his future and until recently it had been a while since he experienced similar confidence.

With his health intact for the first time in two offseasons, Richard likes his chances of earning a big league job in 2016, though the pitcher wouldn’t mind if he stayed put with the Cubs.

Richard — who produced 4 2/3 scoreless innings in the playoffs after he went 4-2 with a 3.83 ERA in 42 1/3 innings — was just as confident during a turbulent period this summer when the Cubs twice designated him for assignment.

Even though his future was uncertain, Richard, 31, knew he was healthy and likely to get a chance somewhere. Turns out the Cubs ultimately would give him that opportunity and benefitted from their decision. Now, after two offseasons of ambiguity and injury, the Lafayette, Ind.-native is excited about his prospects this winter.

“Having been through the health issues, that puts things in perspective,” Richard said. “I kind of look back and put myself where I was a year and a half ago, it’s pretty special. I’m excited to be here now and looking forward to the future.”

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A future is something Richard wasn’t certain he’d ever have again.

He had his first surgery in June 2013 to shave parts of his left clavicle to avoid future difficulties with his AC joint.

But that didn’t end his issues.

The following February, Richard had surgery for thoracic outlet syndrome, a condition that can cause numbness in the fingers and pain in the shoulder, arm and neck. He was able to pitch again by August and posted a 6.75 ERA in four minor league games for the Arizona Diamondbacks.

Last offseason, Richard signed a minor-league deal with the Pittsburgh Pirates. He appeared in his first game at Single-A Bradenton on May 7 was immediately promoted to Triple-A Indianapolis, where he went 4-2 with a 3.21 ERA in nine starts.

In need of starting pitching depth, the Cubs acquired Richard from Pittsburgh in July for cash. He won his first start on July 4 but posted a 5.40 ERA through 15 innings before the Cubs DFA’d him on July 22. The Cubs brought him back for another start on Aug. 2 and he won, allowing a run in six innings. But in need of room, Richard was designated again the next day.

Still, he didn’t worry about his future.

“I knew I was healthy and I was going to be playing and no matter where I went I was going to be able to prove that I could be a contributor at the big league level,” Richard said.

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When he returned again on Aug. 12, Richard moved to the bullpen and it looks like the move could stick. With a four-seam fastball that averaged between 93-95 mph from mid-August through October, Richard posted a 3.38 ERA over 19 appearances. He followed it up with the 4 2/3 scoreless innings in relief in the postseason.

“It took a little bit of time (to adjust) but it wasn’t terrible,” Richard said. “At the end of the day its getting loose and executing pitches and we were able to do that.”

Richard played a key role for Joe Maddon down the stretch and he may fit in the bullpen again next season. A former 14-game winner, the left-hander has one more season left until he becomes a free agent, which means the ball is in the team’s court.

Though he was disappointed by the team’s loss in the National League Championship Series, Richard could see past the disappointment to realize what had transpired. He’s also excited about the team’s future and his own.

“It’s a special team and I hope that doesn’t get lost in the loss,” Richard said. “It’s a special young team that did big things for this city and the organization and it has a bright future. But you don’t want to just dismiss what happened this year. It was a special year and I hope people recognize that and appreciate it for what it is and then when the time comes look forward to the future.”

Cubs bolster pitching staff with minor trade, foreshadow more moves coming

Cubs bolster pitching staff with minor trade, foreshadow more moves coming

The Cubs didn't wait long to make Joe Maddon's words come true.

Roughly 5 hours after Maddon said the Cubs are definitely in the market for more pitching, the front office went out and acquired Jesse Chavez, a journeyman jack-of-all-trades type.

It's a minor move, not in the realm of Zach Britton or any of the other top relievers on the market.

But the Cubs only had to part with pitcher Class-A pitcher Tyler Thomas, their 7th-round draft pick from last summer who was pitching out of the South Bend rotation as a 22-year-old.

Chavez — who turns 35 in a month — brings over a vast array of big-league experience, with 799 innings under his belt. He's made 70 starts, 313 appearances as a reliever and even has 3 saves, including one this season for the Texas Rangers.

Chavez is currently 3-1 with a 3.51 ERA, 1.24 WHIP and 50 strikeouts in 56.1 innings. He has a career 4.61 ERA and 1.38 WHIP while pitching for the Pirates, Braves, Royals, Blue Jays, A's, Dodgers, Angels and Rangers before coming to Chicago.

Of his 30 appearances this season, Chavez has worked multiple innings 18 times and can serve as a perfect right-handed swingman in the Cubs bullpen, filling the role previously occupied by Luke Farrell and Eddie Butler earlier in the season.

Chavez had a pretty solid run as a swingman in Oakland from 2013-15, making 47 starts and 50 appearances as a reliever, pitching to a 3.85 ERA, 1.31 WHIP and 8.2 K/9 across 360.1 innings.

"Good arm, versatile, could start and relieve," Joe Maddon said Thursday after the trade. "I've watched him. I know he had some great runs with different teams. 

"The word that comes to mind is verstaility. You could either start him or put him in the bullpen and he's very good in both arenas."

It's not a flasy move, but a valuable piece to give the Cubs depth down the stretch.

There's no way the Cubs are done after this one trade with nearly two weeks left until the deadline. There are more moves coming from this front office, right?

"Oh yeah," Maddon said. "I don't think that's gonna be the end of it. They enjoy it too much."

Jason Heyward has become an offensive catalyst

Jason Heyward has become an offensive catalyst

Expecting Jason Heyward to carry a team offensively would be thought as foolish just a few short months ago. But here in the middle of July, Heyward has turned into the offensive firestarter the Cubs have been seemingly missing since Dexter Fowler left. 

Heyward walked away from Thursday night's 9-6 win over the Cardinals tallying three hits, two RBI, two runs scored and his first stolen base of the year, as the 28-year-old outfielder continued to poke holes in the Cardinals defense. 

Twice Heyward was able to slip a ball between the 1st and 2nd basemen that off the bat looked like neither had a chance to make it through the right field side. Later, Heyward would battle through a lengthy at-bat, finally being rewarded with an opposite-field hit that drove in the game-tying run. 

"It just happened," Heyward explained. " [Carlos Martinez] is not going to give you a whole lot to do damage on throughout the game. I was able to get one pitch there and get a guy home." 

Cubs manager Joe Maddon mentioned Heyward and his ability to move the ball around the field and how it's helped him become an effective piece to this Cubs offense. So effective Heyward's batting average crept up to .290 after today's three-hit performance. 

Heyward credits his quick hands as the major tool he's utilized to create so many successful at-bats lately, which has allowed him to take advantage of certain pitches and punch them through for hits.

He's certainly not driving the ball for consistent power, but the approach has put Heyward on pace to match the 160 hit total he amassed with the Cardinals in 2015. 

"I feel like Joe's mindset on moving the ball is putting the ball in play when you got guys on base," said Heyward. "It keeps the line moving, regardless of the result." 

It might be crazy to think that Heyward's incredible turnaround this season might simply be attributed to putting the ball in play. But even just taking a look at Heyward's contact rates shows he's increased his contact on pitches outside the zone by roughly three percent.

Not a massive difference, but if Heyward's hands are truly giving him an edge at the plate, making contact with pitches that may not be a strike but are hittable pitches could explain the increased offense we are seeing now. 

"That's kinda the biggest thing," said Heyward. "The more good swings you take, the more hits you have a chance to get." 

Shooters shoot, and Heyward continues to shoot his shot and keep the Cubs offense chugging along.