MESA, Ariz. — The Tyler Chatwood Conundrum has been hovering over the Cubs all winter.
Where does he fit in on the 2019 pitching staff? If all the Cubs starters come out of spring training healthy, does that leave Chatwood in the bullpen? And if so, in what role? If a starting pitcher does get hurt, will it be Chatwood or Mike Montgomery to slide into the rotation as a replacement?
The Cubs don't have those answers yet with camp only two days old. In reality, the Chatwood picture probably won't become clear for weeks.
"Of course we'll give him a good look in camp and it's just gonna be up to him," Joe Maddon said. "His abilities really excite me and it's just gonna come down to the command of his pitches. Because if he's throwing the ball for a strike like he's capable, you wanna do a lot of things with him.
"I just want to be very open-minded. I don't want to continually prod at him — 'How ya feelin'? How we doin'?' — all that kinda stuff's not gonna get it done. You set out a plan, you set out a course with [pitching coach Tommy Hottovy] and the guys out there working with him, but you really want to just get him into that compete mode and don't worry about all this other stuff they worked on, like an item that I think is gonna help him delivery-wise.
"More than anything, just compete, beat the hitter at the plate, let's move on to the next guy, those kinds of things. Because he's exciting. The way his ball moves is unusual and the ability is unusual. ... [I'm going to] watch him closely, be there to support him and be positive without getting overtly mental regarding the mental mechanics or physical mechanics or whatever. Just compete."
When the Cubs picked up Cole Hamels' $20 million option for 2019 in the first week of November, it effectively shut the door on Chatwood making the Opening Day rotation, barring injury. Given the struggles Chatwood had in his first year in a Cubs uniform and the resumes/track records of the guys entrenched in the rotation, it will be awfully difficult for Chatwood to beat out Hamels, Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks, Yu Darvish or Jose Quintana.
But obviously injuries happen and a lot can change over the 6+ weeks of spring training. Maddon is trying to keep an open mind with regards to how everything may play out and instead is just focusing on harnessing Chatwood's talent and understanding "his abilities will answer the questions."
It's hard to doubt Chatwood's abilities. He's still only 29 years old and was a former 2nd-round pick out of high school. He made his MLB debut at age 21 in 2011 with the Los Angeles Angels and found his name on Baseball America's top prospect list (No. 76) prior to that season. He's had solid years in the past, but overall, his career has been largely marked by inconsistency or injury.
When the Cubs signed Chatwood to a 3-year, $38 million contract before the 2018 season, it was seen as a potentially underrated deal.
A year ago, when asked who has the best pure "stuff" of anybody in the Cubs rotation, Anthony Rizzo picked Chatwood.
Yet we all know those abilities didn't translate to the field last year. Chatwood led baseball in walks (95) despite pitching only 103.2 innings.
The Cubs were patient and stuck with Chatwood for the first few months of the season, but by the time they traded for Hamels at the end of July, Chatwood found himself banished to the bullpen. Mix in a DL stint and he only wound up pitching in 5 games (9.2 innings) after July 26.
Chatwood admitted it was very difficult to make drastic changes and right the ship during the middle of a season when the Cubs were in the midst of a pennant race and he used the offseason as a springboard to a potential fresh start.
With the help of people from back home in Southern California, the first thing he found was his hand was traveling too far to the third base side — a product, he believes, of removing the glove-tap from his delivery. That made it very difficult for the rest of his delivery to stay consistent and messing up his timing.
Chatwood spent all offseason with Jesse Chavez, working out and throwing every day. Chavez went through a somewhat-similar situation as Chatwood last year in that he was struggling by mid-May, made a minor change to his delivery and wound up piecing everything together and putting up a phenomenal couple months in a Cubs uniform down the stretch.
Chavez served as a sounding board and another set of eyes for Chatwood and was able to notice if anything was going awry with Chatwood's motion.
Chatwood also took video of his offseason work constantly, sending them to Hottovy throughout the winter to chart his progress and use as a resource.
Nobody's saying the one small mechanical change will be all Chatwood needs to right the ship. But a full offseason also has an added benefit of a mental reset button and he feels like he has a fresh start now.
"I take a lot of pride in what I do and I wasn't very happy with it [last year]," Chatwood said. "It just seemed like the harder I tried to fix something, the worse it got just because I didn't really notice that. So once I got a little time away and started throwing a bit, I watched a lot of video. I cleaned [my delivery] up and I feel really good.
"I wouldn't say [my mentality] was negative [last year], I just think I was trying way too hard. Normally you want to be free and easy out there, but when you know there's something going on wrong and you're trying to fix it, I just think you're mentally grinding more on that than putting more effort into stuff that I normally ever have. It was just a small detail, so I feel like I cleaned that up and I feel really good.
"...Last year, I knew something was wrong, but I couldn't identify it. That's the frustrating part. Going home, working with some people back there and getting to know my body a little better and locking in and making sure I can take my catch play a little more serious in feeling it day-to-day. I think that's going to be part of the fresh start, too."
As for his role, Chatwood said he still considers himself a starting pitcher and though he knows it will be difficult to crack the rotation, all he can do is pitch and prove he's back on track.
If not in the rotation, Chatwood will likely wind up in the Cubs bullpen. But a lot of those relief spots are going to be tied up in the established guy (again, if healthy) — Pedro Strop, Carl Edwards Jr., Steve Cishek, Mike Montgomery, Brad Brach.
Add in a slew of other guys on big-league deals (Brandon Kintzler, Tony Barnette, Brian Duensing, Kyle Ryan, the soon-to-be-official Xavier Cedeno), a bunch of non-roster invitees (George Kontos, Junichi Tazawa, etc.) and several young pitchers trying to earn their place (Alec Mills, Dillon Maples, Rowan Wick, Randy Rosario, etc.) and there are a lot of arms vying for only a few spots in the big-league bullpen out of camp.
It's safe to say Chatwood's road to redemption won't be easy with so many potential hurdles in his way.
Then again, if he can put it all together...
"Go stand behind home plate and watch the ball move," Maddon said. "It's unbelievable what this guy does. We just gotta get him over the plate. When he gets back over the plate consistently and does what he wants to do with the baseball, he can do anything. Really. He can be a starter again, he can be a long guy, he can be a short guy, he's got that kind of stuff. And he's got a rubber arm.
"It's just about watching him in this camp, trying to give him a fresh perspective and then just pay attention and see where it takes us. Because physically, he can do anything. His abilities play on all different pitching levels. It's just a matter of him getting back to comfortably throwing the ball in the strike zone.
"Tommy's been very optimistic about what he's seen. A real minor change to what he's doing, but pertinent. And [Wednesday], watching it, it looked really good. I definitely want to take this one moment at a time, I want to talk with him a lot, I want to support him, I want to be optimistic, I want to remain positive. Because if we get this guy right, he could be so huge in our success this year."
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