Tyler Chatwood

Where does Tyler Chatwood fit with 2019 Cubs? 'His abilities will answer the questions'

Where does Tyler Chatwood fit with 2019 Cubs? 'His abilities will answer the questions'

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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Considering Cubs' budget crunch, was picking up Cole Hamels' option the right move?

Considering Cubs' budget crunch, was picking up Cole Hamels' option the right move?

Did the Cubs make the right call in picking up Cole Hamels' $20 million option?

That question was a no-brainer in the first few days of November — an easy call to pencil Hamels into the Cubs rotation for 2019 even if it meant trading away Drew Smyly and his $7 million contract to the Texas Rangers.

But here on Jan. 8, it's at least a fair question and the answer isn't so automatic, as we discussed on Hot Stove Tuesday.

Mind you, the result is still the same. The Cubs have Hamels under contract for 2019 and his $20 million salary is part of why Theo Epstein's front office doesn't have much wiggle room to add to the roster.

Epstein and Co. have pointed to payroll issues all winter (the Smyly move to clear some salary for Hamels was a clear indicator), but those woes seem to have hit a crescendo this week as The Athletic's Ken Rosenthal reported the Cubs couldn't even sign a second-market relief pitcher like Adam Warren without first clearing salary.

[Explaining Cubs budget woes: Why Theo Epstein's front office is limited this winter

Those are some serious financial restraints, though it's understandable. With a payroll projected to surpass $228 million, the Cubs will pay far more to their roster in 2019 than they have at any other point in franchise history.

But that is not a lot of financial flexibility for Epstein to add necessary pieces. Warren made just $3.3 million in his final year of arbitration in 2018 and would probably fetch a bit more than that on the open market.

If that's true and Epstein's front office is restricted that much, there's one definite conclusion to be drawn from the Hamels decision: The Cubs clearly felt they absolutely needed the veteran starting pitcher. 

Either the budgetary restraints have changed since the Cubs picked up Hamels' option on Nov. 2 (Epstein and Jed Hoyer maintained throughout the MLB Winter Meetings the budget has not changed) or the Cubs felt Hamels was more valuable to the 2019 team than using that money elsewhere to address the other holes on the roster (bullpen, veteran backup catcher, another bat, etc.).

It's tough to argue that point. Bringing Hamels back really was a no-brainer at the time, especially given how he performed in 12 starts down the stretch (2.36 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, 8.7 K/9). Sure, he's 35 and has shown signs of decline in the past, but he was obviously rejuvenated in a Cubs uniform and increased health/mechanics support the boost in numbers over the last two months of 2018.

The Cubs also have serious question marks in their starting rotation beyond maybe only Kyle Hendricks. Jon Lester is 35 and showing some minor signs of decline, Jose Quintana had a bit of a disappointing 2018 despite a strong finish and of course Yu Darvish and Tyler Chatwood are far from reliable options after the way their first season in Chicago played out. Imagine the tenor of fans this winter if the Cubs were planning on cruising into next year with Chatwood as a projected member of the rotation.

There's a strong argument that the reliability Hamels brings is well worth the $20 million and financial constraints the Cubs now face. 

It's much easier to find a reliable member of the bullpen than a solid starting pitcher with the upside of Hamels. Relievers can pop up from all over the place, as Jesse Chavez proved in 2018.

To play devil's advocate, if the Cubs are as limited financially as they are saying, they could've done a whole hell of a lot with that extra $13 million in savings from not picking up Hamels' option and keeping Smyly instead. (Though that obviously is not enough money to turn around and add Bryce Harper just because Hamels is off the books.)

Smyly missed all of 2018 to Tommy John recovery and $7 million ($5 million hit against the luxury tax) would've been a lot to pay for an unreliable option like that, but he showed signs of health in September and would've represented an option in either the rotation or bullpen.

That would then leave $13 million (or close to it) to fill in other gaps on the roster, namely in the bullpen while also potentially adding a veteran backup catcher and more depth for the starting rotation alongside Smyly, Chatwood and Mike Montgomery.

The offseason is far from over (pitchers and catchers don't report for another 5+ weeks) but as it stands right now, the Cubs bullpen appears in worse shape than it was heading into 2018 spring training. They will be without closer Brandon Morrow for at least the first couple weeks of 2019 due to surgery to clean up his elbow after a bone bruise erased his entire second half.

There's a valid case to be made on either side of the Hamels decision, but the Cubs drew their line in the sand months ago and will have to add to the roster in other ways.

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How new Cubs pitching coach Tommy Hottovy plans to reduce walks and take staff to the next level

How new Cubs pitching coach Tommy Hottovy plans to reduce walks and take staff to the next level

One of the main Cubs themes coming out of Winter Meetings last week was the desire for better communication between the front office/coaching staff and the millennial players.

What better way to bridge the gap than to hire a millennial to head up the organization's pitching infrastructure?

Tommy Hottovy, 37, was named the Cubs' new pitching coach earlier this month, a big promotion after he's spent the last four years as a run prevention coordinator with the team.

Sure, it's the Cubs' third different pitching coach in three seasons, but this isn't some 50-year-old coming in off the street having to introduce himself to each of the pitchers on the staff. Hottovy is a guy who can relate to the players in age (he's only about 2 years older than Jon Lester and Cole Hamels) and from the rapport he's built as an integral part of the clubhouse since the start of the 2015 season.

This is a former pitcher who made 17 appearances in the big leagues and last pitched a full season in the minor leagues only a few years ago (2013). The Wichita State University product also has seen the rise of the Cubs firsthand, joining the organization in Kris Bryant's first spring training in 2014 while still trying to make it as a pitcher before trainsitioning to the video scouting/coaching aspect of the game.

"When I was done playing, I really felt like there was this gap in the game. I really felt like there was a unique spot for guys like me who had a little experience," Hottovy said. "I didn't have all the major-league experience those guys have, but I stepped foot out there. I can relate to those guys. But then I can also communicate with the front office and the R&D department that's giving us such good information. 

"How can we translate that and take a nugget and give it to Quintana or how can we take a nugget and give it to Lester? We joke because we may do 3-4 hours of work and dig and dig for that two-minute conversation and that two-minute conversation may make or break the next two weeks of the season for the player. So that's really what I envisioned that role to kind of become — to help guys shorten that gap between when we need to make an adjustment and when things got out of whack. 

"I was a player and you had to do that off feel — or what a coach told you — for a long time. Now we have data to help provide all that. Now it's about funneling it down and translating it to the players."

Hottovy will have his plate full in his first year on the job as major questions exist on the Cubs pitching staff, including the role/future of Tyler Chatwood, the return to health of Yu Darvish and Brandon Morrow and how to avoid a third straight late-season bullpen fade.

He'll also have to navigate the dugout and a new line of communication with Joe Maddon during games instead of delivering scouting reports and information to the manager ahead of games and series. But Hottovy said he's not concerned about that aspect, as he's worked closely with Maddon for four years now and the organization's pitching infrastructure (Hottovy, catching/strategy/associate pitching coach Mike Borzello, bullpen coach Lester Strode) remains intact, which the Cubs hope will lead to year-over-year continuity.

One of Hottovy's main points of interest this offseason is trying to find a way to limit all the free passes. Cubs pitchers walked the third-most hitters in baseball in 2018 and finished 8th in that regard in 2017. (For reference, they finished 14th in walks allowed in 2016 and permitted the fifth-fewest free passes in 2015.)

A lot of that was Chatwood, who led baseball with 95 walks despite throwing only 9.2 innings in the final two months of the season.

But it wasn't just Chatwood. Jon Lester posted his worst walk rate since 2011 and Jose Quintana, Yu Darvish (when he pitched) and Brian Duensing sported the highest walk rates of their career while young flamethrower Carl Edwards Jr. still struggled with his command.

So how can Hottovy and Co. fix an issue that has plagued this team and driven fans crazy for the last two years?

"To say we're gonna walk less people, that's not — in my mind — the right approach to take," Hottovy said. "It's process-oriented, not results. What can we do ahead of time? What can we do that's gonna help? It's about attacking hitters. It's about having the right approach and I think a lot of those this will take care of themselves. 

"I think we need to take maybe a little bit different approach to what our goals are in terms of we're not gonna walk anybody, etc. We're [9th] in the league in OPS, so you have the high walk rates, but we limit slug and we do other things. So how can we get better on both aspects of that?"

Much like the position players, Hottovy said the Cubs pitchers are eager to get back to work and come out of the shoot firing in spring training in an effort to put the sour taste of the end of the 2018 season behind them.

Hottovy may not be reading "Managing Millennials for Dummies," but he's still interested in the same concept — paring down the insane amount of information available and focusing on the WHY behind decisions and adjustments.

"With all of our guys, what you're trying to do ultimately is get them in the best position to execute a pitch," Hottovy said. "Yeah, there's mechanics things they work on with everybody, but letting them understand what those mechanical changes are and not just telling them, "You do this and this is gonna help." We're walking them through why and we're helping them see why this part of the delivery is important.

"We have a lot of data and that data will give us information on mechanics and how to make changes, but it's about simplifying it. It's about giving them one or two nuggets to focus on and not 10 different things. It's about, hopefully, in the end, you land in a good position to throw a baseball and execute."

When Hottovy met with the media in Las Vegas last week for the first time since taking the job, he was asked specifically about working with Chatwood and Darvish this winter as the two big free agent signings from last winter are looking to build off rough first years with the Cubs.

However, Hottovy has an interest in meeting with each of the Cubs' pitchers this winter. And since the organization has yet to add to the pitching staff this winter, everybody on Hottovy's current list is a familiar face.

That includes veteran reliever Brandon Kintzler, who had a forgettable time with the Cubs in the final two months of the season, but exercised his $5 million option for the 2019 season. Kintzler is a Las Vegas native, so Hottovy stopped in to see the right-hander before the Winter Meetings began.

"I think it's important to go see as many guys as we can just to get eyes on them. There's technology now — you can FaceTime and see, but there's something to be said to be there and see them," said Hottovy, who wants to visit each guy in person before pitchers and catchers report to Arizona in mid-February. "I think it's important."