Will Joe Maddon keep Addison Russell ninth in Cubs lineup?


Will Joe Maddon keep Addison Russell ninth in Cubs lineup?

MESA, Ariz. - When Dexter Fowler surprised the Cubs roster and re-signed with the team, Joe Maddon said it opened up even more lineup options for 2016.

But in reality, Fowler's arrival actually sort of solidified the lineup.

When Fowler plays, Maddon already admitted the centerfielder will be leading off. It also means Addison Russell may be ticketed for the No. 9 spot again.

The Cubs' 2-8 spots in the lineup are up in the air, but Maddon likes Russell's skillset at the bottom of the order, acting as a sort of second leadoff hitter.

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

Last week, Maddon allowed himself to write down the Cubs lineup on a sheet of paper, just to get a visual at it.

"My god, hitting [Russell] ninth actually sounds pretty good, just leading into the rest of the group coming back around," Maddon said. "Last year, I was trying to protect him. That was a primary reason to do that.

"If I were to do it this year, it would not be so much as protection, as just the function from the whole group."

When Russell made his big-league debut in April last season, he was just a 21-year-old and, as Maddon said, the Cubs decided to hit him in the spot in the order with the lowest pressure.

This year, Russell is more comfortable in his "major-league skin" and doesn't need to be shielded as much in the order.

However, with the additions of Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist, the Cubs have plenty of solid on-base percentage options to hit at the top of the order.

Maddon said he likes the idea of Fowler, Heyward and Zobrist hitting in the first three spots in the lineup, setting the table for big boppers Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber.

[MORE - Cubs monitoring Addison Russell's hamstring issues]

All that seems like writing on the wall for Russell to serve as the No. 9 hitter, something he's ready for.

"Joe seems like he's one of those guys that has a puzzle and we're all pieces," Russell said. "The nine-hole was an adjustment last year, but I was looking at footage and trying to get better at the nine-hole this year.

"I'm excited to be in the nine-hole. I'd be excited to be [anywhere] in the lineup. I think anyone would be."

Long-term, who knows where Russell will end up. He joked that hitting leadoff would be nice, too, and he did post a career .377 OBP in the minor leagues. However, he sported just a .307 OBP in the majors last season, drawing only 42 walks in 142 games in his rookie campaign.

In terms of Russell's development, will the Cubs want to keep him in a spot that sees the fewest plate appearances of anybody in the lineup? The leadoff guy in the Cubs order last year netted 756 plate appearances, but the No. 9 spot totaled just 618 plate appearances.

Before Fowler signed, Maddon said he needed to get with the Cubs' "geeks" and crunch the numbers about hitting the pitcher eighth and Russell ninth.

"I think there's times where it makes a lot of sense," Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer said. "If you have the right nine hitter, a guy that gets on base and can almost act as a second leadoff hitter in front of the big guys, I think that makes a lot of sense.

"I'll be honest with you - I went back and forth on it during the course of last year. There were times where you have a big second inning and you're like, 'Ugh, we're already at the pitcher's spot.'

"It feels like it kills you, but there's plenty of times where that nine-hitter gets on and it creates momentum going into your best hitters."

[SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

Of course, this is Maddon and he's anything but conventional.

The Cubs' first two games of the 2016 season come in an American League park meaning the lineup will have a designated hitter, throwing another loop in the projected Opening Day lineup.

Maddon said he wasn't trying to pretend to be a fantasy owner with his lineup.

"Theory and reality," Maddon said. "Theoretically, this is what it looks like. The reality is - some guys are gonna struggle, somebody may get hurt.

"... It's not gonna be perfect. You draw your plans and you know it's not going to work that way. All these other contingency concepts and ideas are gonna be very important."

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.