Thrown into the fire, Cubs rookies leading the charge into contention


Thrown into the fire, Cubs rookies leading the charge into contention

Experience is overrated.

As the smoke cleared and the dust settled after their four-game sweep of the San Francisco Giants, the Cubs sat with the fourth-best record in baseball, even if they're only third in their own division.

The Cubs are now 3.5 games up on the Giants in the battle for the second wild card.

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It doesn't matter if the Cubs are a year ahead of schedule in the rebuild. They're here now, riding the coattails of four rookies into contention.

There is no learning curve for Kris Bryant, Addison Russell, Jorge Soler and Kyle Schwarber. The 2015 Cubs can't wait for them to go through growing pains the way Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo could over the team's fifth place finishes over the last several seasons.

For this team to have success, those rookies have to be thrown into the fire.

"That's huge. It's how you learn," said Jon Lester, owner of two World Series rings with the Boston Red Sox. "When you get put on this stage and you get put against good teams, you have to figure out ways to win.

"It's nice to see these guys show up every day, regardless of what happened the day before and they're ready to play. It's good to see. They're learning on the job and it's a hard thing to do."

But the rookies aren't just learning and taking notes. They're thriving.

The foursome combined to go 20-for-53 (.377 average) in the four games against the Giants with 16 RBI and 14 runs on six extra-base htis (four doubles, two homers), eight walks. They even added two stolen bases for good measure.

[MORE: Anthony Rizzo believes Starlin Castro will be fine]

The series also featured slight role changes for both Russell and Schwarber as Castro headed to the bench, making Russell the team's shortstop and Schwarber the new left fielder.

These rookies are learning and switching positions on top of adjusting to life in "The Show" and trying to figure out big-league pitching.

How do they keep from getting overwhelmed, especially during big moments when mistakes are magnified for a team playing so many close games?

"It's exciting to me," Russell said. "Whenever we're in big positions, it kinda hypes me up and I think it gets me more into the game.

"As competitors, we all do that. It's pretty cool to be able to feel that atmosphere at the big-league level."

Cubs manager Joe Maddon is one of the best in the game at nurturing young talent and creating a situation for rookies to thrive.

For the Cubs' foursome, it's just about not giving them more than they can handle.

Like Maddon's signature T-shirt says, "Do simple better."

"I don't want them to think about anything but just playing," he said after the Cubs' win Saturday. "Just go play. I don't want extra work, I don't want too much work, I don't want too much information.

"Like when you talk about big games, for example. It's not. It's Saturday's game. Tomorrow is Sunday's game. Play it. Play Sunday's game like you know how. And then we'll move on to come back on Tuesday's game."

Maddon called Bryant one of the best young players he's ever had and took the time to gush about each one of the four rookies over the course of the weekend, calling attention to some small part of their game that they're excelling at.

In the clubhouse, ask any veteran about one of the rookies and watch them immediately light up.

Miguel Montero - who just came off the disabled list Friday in a move that helped contribute to Schwarber's switch to left field on a more regular basis - said these rookies "don't get shy."

"They've been amazing," Montero said. "They've been doing a great job all around. Those guys are incredible and they come to play.

"You can tell. They play hard; they grind it out. It's fun to watch them."

[NBC SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

Of course, it's always fun when you're winning.

But this team is winning because of that youth, Lester said. All the postgame dance parties in the clubhouse and "firsts" on the field are keeping things fresh for everybody in the locker room.

"Guys have energy, guys have excitement to be in this position," Lester said. "Sometimes, you can get complacent by doing it every single year and being with the same guys and just kinda going through the motions of August and September like, 'Oh we'll be there when we get there.'

"For a group of guys that have never done it, you've got that excitement every single day that we've got a chance.

"It's just been impressive to see the transformation as they came up as prospects to everyday big leaguers and now we're into this little push. Seeing them learn has been fun."

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?


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.