Cubs

How Theo Epstein sees Chili Davis making a difference for Cubs

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USA TODAY

How Theo Epstein sees Chili Davis making a difference for Cubs

The Cubs can’t send Chili Davis out to face Max Scherzer and Clayton Kershaw, but team president Theo Epstein believes his presence will help the franchise’s young hitters next October.

Those pronounced playoff struggles against the Washington Nationals and Los Angeles Dodgers — on top of the way the New York Mets power pitchers overwhelmed the Cubs during that 2015 National League Championship Series sweep — led to a major shakeup of Joe Maddon’s coaching staff.

Firing hitting coach John Mallee isn’t really about what he didn’t do, because he worked nonstop across the last three years, overseeing an offense that actually scored more runs this season than the 2016 World Series team.

It’s more the instant credibility that Davis brings as a switch-hitter who made three All-Star teams and earned World Series rings with the 1991 Minnesota Twins and the last New York Yankees dynasty (1998-99).

Epstein initially brought Davis into the Boston Red Sox organization, hiring him as an overqualified hitting coach for Triple-A Pawtucket in 2011, the last season before sweeping changes would hit Fenway Park.

Davis spent the next six years as the big-league hitting coach for the Oakland A’s and Red Sox, working with players like Josh Donaldson, Yoenis Cespedes, Josh Reddick, Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts, Jackie Bradley Jr. and Andrew Benintendi.

“Chili’s well-established as one of the very best hitting coaches in the game,” Epstein said after Thursday’s staff announcements. “His philosophy and approach happened to fit with what we hope will be the next step for many of our hitters. We talked after the season about hoping to get better with situational hitting, with our two-strike approach, with using the whole field, with having competitive, team-based at-bats.

“That happens to be Chili’s core philosophy — hitting line drives to the middle of the field. Your line drives will turn into home runs. He’s excellent at teaching a two-strike approach and teaching situational hitting. He’s really good at helping to get hitters to understand when an elite pitcher’s on his game, you have to sometimes take what he gives you, and have an adjustable swing, an adjustable approach for those situations.

“He’s got the gravitas of a 19-year career, 350 homers, over 1,300 RBIs. That combined with his excellent manner and ability to communicate with players makes him a really impactful figure.”

Mallee — who grew up as the son of a Chicago cop and graduated from Mount Carmel High School — brought stability to a position that used to have the job security of the drummer for Spinal Tap.

The Cubs wanted Mallee’s data-driven approach and the ability to explain heat maps and cold zones and how pitchers would attack each at-bat. Mallee also gave the Cubs a very accurate scouting report on Dexter Fowler before making that January 2015 trade with the Houston Astros.

During Mallee’s tenure, Kris Bryant became the fourth player in major-league history to be named MVP the season after winning Rookie of the Year honors. Ian Happ kept making enough adjustments to hit 24 home runs during his rookie season (with only 26 games of experience at Triple-A Iowa). Javier Baez made great strides this year — 23 homers, 75 RBI, .796 OPS — before an 0-for-20 tailspin to start the playoffs.

In one way, the Cubs even endorsed Mallee’s methods by promoting minor-league hitting coordinator Andy Haines to work with Davis as the assistant hitting coach. Mallee and Haines have a Miami connection after working in the Marlins organization.

“I would like to thank the Chicago Cubs for the amazing opportunity to be part of a great tradition and organization for the last three years,” Mallee wrote in a statement. “I left a great Houston Astros organization to be closer to home with my family and to help my hometown team win a World Series.

“We did that. I have no regrets and stand by my work. I wish nothing but the best for the Cubs organization and all the amazing people I met along the way, especially my hitters. See you from across the field.”

When the Cubs talk up their culture and the first-class organization they’ve built, there’s also an unspoken, underlying coldness to it all, even while making justifiable decisions. The Cubs publicly hailed Ricky Renteria basically up to the moment Maddon opted out of his contract with the Tampa Bay Rays and someone better came along.

Whether or not that will always be sustainable, Davis does have a great resume, no doubt. The Cubs are hoping Davis can help salvage the $184 million investment in Jason Heyward and rewire an offense that ranked last in batting average (.168) and on-base percentage (.240) among the 10-team playoff field. Outside of that unforgettable 9-8 thriller at Nationals Park, the Cubs scored 16 runs in nine postseason games.

“John Mallee is an outstanding hitting coach and we would not be in the position we’re in now with rings on our finger without him,” Epstein said. “Chili just happens to be, in our opinion, uniquely qualified for this group, at this moment in time, to help us get to the next level.”

Cubs close to deal with free agent outfielder Steven Souza, per report

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USA TODAY

Cubs close to deal with free agent outfielder Steven Souza, per report

The Cubs have made a roster move.

According to The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal, the Cubs are reportedly close to a deal with free agent outfielder Steven Souza.

Souza, 30, missed the 2019 season after suffering a torn left ACL and LCL at the end of spring training. He also missed a chunk of 2018, playing 72 games while hitting the injured list on multiple occasions.

Souza had a career year with the Rays in 2017, slashing .239/.351/.459 with 30 home runs, 78 RBIs and a 121 wRC+. Those figures were career bests for Souza, minus his batting average. He sported a walk rate (13.6 percent) above league average (8.5) that season, though his strikeout rate (29 percent) was worse than the MLB average (23).

The signing of Souza likely rules out a return of fan favorite outfielder Nicholas Castellanos. The Cubs have been linked to Castellanos throughout the offseason, but since they're looking to stay under MLB’s luxury tax threshold, re-signing Castellanos would require some financial maneuvering.

Souza has spent most of his career in right field (3,608 career innings) but has minimal experience playing center (33 1/3) and left (20). He’s above average in right (career 6 Defensive Runs Saved) and posted a career best 7 DRS in 2017.

The Cubs have a five-time Gold Glove right fielder in Jason Heyward, so Souza will see time at all three outfield spots. Heyward moved to center full-time last season after the Cubs acquired Castellanos and has played center at times throughout his career.

Assuming he stays healthy, Souza is a low-risk, high-reward move for the Cubs. He’ll add power to the middle of the order and add a proven bat to an outfield with some question marks. Albert Almora Jr. and Ian Happ have each struggled offensively at times since 2018. Souza offers another bat in case those two slump again. 

Following 2019 'learning process,' Ian Happ's offensive progression key for 2020 Cubs

Following 2019 'learning process,' Ian Happ's offensive progression key for 2020 Cubs

It’s been another quiet offseason for the Cubs.

January is almost over and the Cubs have yet to commit a single guaranteed dollar to the big-league roster. After exceeding MLB’s luxury tax threshold in 2019, Theo Epstein and Co. are looking to get under the figure in 2020 and reset penalties entering 2021.

Barring any major surprises — i.e. a core player getting dealt before Opening Day — the club will return largely the same team from last season. That group has plenty of talent, but there are some question marks, like second base and center field.

A fan made waves at Cubs Convention last Saturday, reciting the definition of insanity to Epstein and Jed Hoyer during a baseball operations panel. With a similar roster in hand, why should fans expect anything different from the Cubs in 2020?

For Epstein, part of the answer lies in the continued development of homegrown players like Ian Happ.

Happ was supposed to be a key cog for the Cubs in 2019, but he was sent to Triple-A Iowa at the end of spring training after striking out 14 times in 52 at-bats. This followed a 2018 season in which he sported a 36.1 percent strikeout rate.

“He was striking out 30 percent of the time and we decided to send him down, because what we were seeing with Ian Happ, in our mind, wasn’t the finished product,” Epstein said Saturday at the Sheraton Grand Chicago. “We believe it’s the same way with a lot of our hitters, that’s there’s tremendous talent in there, but it wasn’t manifesting in major league games — which is all that matters — the way we needed it to.”

Happ was reportedly upset with the move, but his strikeout rate dropped to 26.3 percent with Iowa. After the Cubs recalled him on July 26, he posted a 25 percent rate in 58 games (156 plate appearances), slashing .264/.333/.564. He recognizes the demotion was beneficial.

“I got a lot of at-bats. I used it as a learning process,” Happ told NBC Sports Chicago Friday of his Triple-A stint. “To be able to come back and have success, it was a good way to finish the season."

Happ ended the season on a high note, slashing .311/.348/.672 in September with six home runs. He was tremendous over the season’s final eight games: .480/.519/1.200, five homers and 12 RBIs.

“Just being more aware of the ways guys were gonna pitch me,” Happ said regarding his hot September. “There’s some tweaks. For me, it was more about handling different pitches and when to use two different swings — when to be a little bit more defensive, when to put the ball in play. It led to results.”

Cubs players have been criticized in recent seasons for a seeming unwillingness to shorten up at times to put the ball in play. Their 73.8 percent contact rate in 2019 was last in the National League, though Ben Zobrist’s personal absence contributed to the low figure.

Happ posted a 71.7 percent contact rate, up from his 63.5 percent rate in 2018.

“He went through a really difficult stretch in Iowa, making significant adjustments to his approach and his swing and as a person, growing from some failure,” Epstein said. “When he came back up towards the end of last year, his strikeout rate was under much better control, he had much more contact ability.

“He wasn’t driving the ball quite the same, and then by the end of the year, he had maintained that better contact rate, was starting to drive the ball again, and it looked pretty dynamic and pretty promising for the future.”

It’s not a coincidence Happ made strides with Iowa. He got to work on his swing in an environment where he played every day. This wouldn’t have been the case in the big leagues, especially if his struggles lingered.

Happ started each of the Cubs’ last six games; he said it's huge for his confidence knowing he'd be playing every day. 

“It’s huge, it’s huge. I think that’s what everyone’s striving for in this league, is be able to [play every day],” he said. “For me, after that stretch and being able to finish strong and look back on a solid year, that’s big moving forward.”

The Cubs roster may look the same, but there’s plenty of room for internal improvement. Pitchers will continue adjusting to Happ, but he’s a better player for what he went through last season. He can take what he learned and carry it into 2020.

“So now, same player on the roster — and I understand the definition of insanity — but to expect Ian Happ to grow from what he’s gone through and benefit from the coaching that he’s gotten,” Epstein said, “and the lessons that he’s learned and the adversity that he’s gone through, and go out and be a productive player for us next year in a certain role, I don’t think is insane.”

“It’s just about sticking with the process, understanding that that’s what worked and that’s what you want to do,” Happ said. “It’s not always easy at the beginning of the year at Wrigley. It’s cold, it’s windy. The results don’t always show up. But if you’re true to the process and you keep going, by the end of the year you’ll be at a good spot.”

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