Cubs

Can Jason Heyward handle the pressure of largest contract in Cubs history?

12-21-jason-heyward-cubs.png

Can Jason Heyward handle the pressure of largest contract in Cubs history?

There's no question Jason Heyward makes the Cubs a better team.

But is he worth $184 million?

It's a question plenty of people will try to answer throughout the length of Heyward's eight-year, $184 million deal - the largest contract in Cubs history.

[SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

There's plenty of pressure for Heyward to "live up" to that megadeal, but he's not focusing on the dollars and cents.

"Every time money comes up, I feel like the media talks about it way more than I'm thinking about it," Heyward said at his introductory press conference in Chicago last week. "I'm just happy to have the opportunity to play this game for at least eight more years, hopefully more than that.

"That's the most important thing for me. There's the business side that as players, we don't like at times. But that's also the side that rewards you for staying healthy and being a good person in the clubhouse and bringing things to the game on a daily basis.

"You just want to be appreciated for that at the end of the day. ... For me, nothing's going to change."

The Cubs haven't yet cashed in on the ridiculous sum of money coming from all the new TV deals around Major League Baseball, but it was clear this was a move Theo Epstein's front office wanted to make, regardless of the contract.

The Cubs know all about what Heyward can do after seeing him up close and personal on a member of the St. Louis Cardinals in both the regular season and postseason in 2015.

"Every game after we played the Cardinals," Cubs GM Jed Hoyer said, "I'd go down to talk to [Cubs manager Joe Maddon] and he was always just buzzing about Jason after the game and how much he impacted the game.

"Every time you looked at something on the field, Jason was a part of it. That's the kind of player we want."

Epstein also spoke highly of how the 26-year-old fits in so well with a young Cubs core that is expected to mature and grow together.

[MORE - Theo Epstein believes Cubs are selling themselves now]

The Cubs believe he personifies their brand of baseball and even though Heyward is getting paid like a middle-of-the order hitter, in reality, he doesn't have to become anything more than what he already is as a player.

Heyward may never develop 30-homer power or drive in 100 runs or become the most feared bat on the North Side of Chicago. But he does just about everything on the diamond really well and takes particular pride in his work in the outfield.

"On defense, I can affect the game every pitch," he said. "But on offense, I only get one at-bat or the at-bat comes around only so many times a game. On defense, there's 27 outs you need to make in nine innings to win a ballgame and I'm not asleep for any of those.

"I try and do what I can to help my team, whether it's cutting a ball off, throwing somebody out, making a nice diving play. You can score 10 runs, but if you can't stop somebody from scoring 11, you're not going to win."

Heyward is a natural right fielder - probably the best defensive right fielder in the game right now - but he's all for moving to center field for 2016, allowing the Cubs to keep the bats of Kyle Schwarber and Jorge Soler in the lineup at the corner outfield spots.

Heyward said his final contract would not just be about money and he proved it when he left offers of at least $200 million on the table to sign with the Cubs for less overall money.

But part of the reason why Heyward chose the Cubs as a destination was not just because of the young core, but the opportunity to do something historic, the chance to go down forever in baseball lore.

[RELATED - Cardinals don't appreciate Jason Heyward's reason for signing with Cubs]

Whoever is on the Cubs team that finally ends the championship drought will never be forgotten and that kind of glory is enticing for any competitive person.

However, being a Cub also comes with a different kind of pressure - that of curses and Billy Goats and black cats and Steve Bartmans.

Heyward knows that history, but he doesn't seem to care, immediately brushing off the "curse" talk when a Chicago reporter asked him about it following the opening press conference.

"I'm going to blame you for keeping that going," Heyward said to the reporter before moving on to discuss how he believes this is a franchise that can now move past all the talk of curses. "You see changes in the culture here.

"You see them getting younger. You see them spending a lot of time and detail in the young players coming up as well as the players that you bring in via free agency. Taking those strides, I feel like, go a long way.

"That's how you change a culture within a team. You see the Dodgers, Royals, Giants do it. ... I feel like Theo and Jed and the Ricketts family have done an outstanding job of being hungry in the sense of they want to take those strides to go win.

"They're not just talking about it; they're doing it."

MLB.com's Cubs' 2018 Top Prospects list full of potential impact pitchers

adbert_alzolay.jpg
USA TODAY

MLB.com's Cubs' 2018 Top Prospects list full of potential impact pitchers

Could 2018 be the year that the Cubs finally see a top pitching prospect debut with the team? 

Thursday, MLB.com released its list of the Cubs' 2018 Top 30 Prospects, a group that includes six pitchers in the Top 10. The list ranks right-hander Adbert Alzolay as the Cubs' No 1. prospect, projecting him to debut with the team this season. 

Alzolay, 22, went 7-4 with a 2.99 ERA in 22 starts between Single-A Myrtle Beach and Double-A Tennessee last season. He also struck out 108 batters in 114 1/3 innings, using a repertoire that includes a fastball that tops out around 98 MPH (according to MLB.com).

Following Alzolay as the Cubs' No. 2 overall prospect is 19-year-old shortstop Aramis Ademan. Ademan hit .267 in just 68 games between Single-A Eugene and Single-A South Bend, though it should be noted that he has soared from No. 11 in MLB.com's 2017 ranks to his current No. 2 ranking. He is not projected to make his MLB debut until 2020, however.

Following Alzolay and Ademan on the list are five consecutive pitchers ranked 3-7, respectively. Oscar De La Cruz, No. 3 on the list, slides down from his 2017 ranking in which MLB.com listed him as the Cubs' top overall prospect. De La Cruz, 22, finished 2017 with a 3.34 ERA in 13 games (12 starts) between the Arizona League and Single-A Myrtle Beach.

De La Cruz is projected to make his MLB debut in 2019, while Jose Albertos (No. 4), Alex Lange (No. 5), Brendon Little (No. 6) and Thomas Hatch (No. 7) are projected to make their big league debuts in 2019 or 2020. All are right-handed (with the exception of Little) and starting pitchers.

Hatch (third round, 2016) and Lange (30th overall, 2017) and Little (27th overall, 2017) were all top draft picks by the Cubs in recent seasons.

Having numerous starting pitchers on the cusp of the big leagues represents a significant change of pace for the Cubs. 

Since Theo Epstein took over as team president in Oct. 2011, a plethora of top prospects have debuted and enjoyed success with the Cubs. Majority have been position players, though.

The likes of Albert Almora, Javier Báez, Kris Bryant, Willson Contreras, Anthony Rizzo and Addison Russell all contributed to the Cubs winning the World Series in 2016. Similarly, Ian Happ enjoyed a fair amount of success after making his MLB debut last season, hitting 24 home runs in just 115 games.

Ultimately, Alzolay would be the Cubs' first true top pitching prospect to make it to the big leagues in the Theo Epstein era. While him making it to the big leagues in 2018 is no guarantee, one would think a need for pitching will arise for the Cubs at some point, whether it be due to injury or simply for September roster expansion.

The Cubs have enjoyed tremendous success in recent years in terms of their top prospects succeeding in the MLB. If the trend continues, Alzolay should be a force to reckon with on the North Side for years to come.

Even with an entire spring schedule to go, guessing the Cubs' 25-man roster is pretty easy

0222-joe-maddon.jpg
USA TODAY

Even with an entire spring schedule to go, guessing the Cubs' 25-man roster is pretty easy

MESA, Ariz. — The frequent mission of spring training is to iron out a 25-man roster.

But at Cubs camp, that mission seems to already be completed.

With an entire Cactus League schedule still to play, the Cubs’ 25-man group that will leave Arizona for the season-opener in Miami seems pretty well set.

The starting rotation: Jon Lester, Yu Darvish, Kyle Hendricks, Jose Quintana and Tyler Chatwood.

The position-player group: Willson Contreras, Victor Caratini, Anthony Rizzo, Javy Baez, Addison Russell, Kris Bryant, Tommy La Stella, Kyle Schwarber, Albert Almora Jr., Ian Happ, Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist.

The bullpen: Brandon Morrow, Steve Cishek, Pedro Strop, Carl Edwards Jr., Mike Montgomery, Brian Duensing, Justin Wilson and Justin Grimm.

Boom. There’s your 25.

Joe Maddon, do you agree?

“You guys and ladies could probably write down what you’re seeing and be pretty accurate,” Maddon said Thursday. “I can’t deny that, it’s true. Oftentimes, when you’re a pretty good ball club, that is the case. When you’re not so good, you always get auditions during spring training.

“I think what the boys have done is they’ve built up a nice cache in case things were to happen. The depth is outstanding. So you could probably narrow it down, who you think’s going to be the 25, and I won’t argue that.”

It’s the latest example in a camp that to this point has been full of them that the Cubs are one of baseball’s best teams and that only a World Series championship will fulfill expectations. Had the front office stuck with a starting rotation of Lester, Hendricks, Quintana, Chatwood and Montgomery, then there would’ve been a spot open in the bullpen. But the statement-making signing of Darvish jolted the Cubs into “best rotation in the game” status, sent Montgomery back to the bullpen and further locked the roster into place.

Guys like Grimm and La Stella have been forced off the 25-man roster at points in recent seasons, though even their spots seem safe. Maddon even said that a huge spring from someone else wouldn’t mean as much at what guys have done at the major league level in recent memory.

“Spring training performance, for me, it’s not very defining,” Maddon said. “You’re going to be playing against a lot of guys that aren’t going to be here, more Triple-A guys, even some Double-A guys. Some guys come in better shape, they normally look better early. The vibe’s different. You play a couple innings, you don’t get many at-bats, the pitcher doesn’t see hitters three times and vice versa. So I don’t worry about that as much.

“It’s more about, guys that might be fighting for a moment, what do they look like, does it look right, does it look good, how do they fit in? Is there somebody there that you scouted? Because what matters a lot is last year and what you did last year and the last couple months of last year.

“So of course guys that have been here probably have a bit of an upper hand, but we’re very open-minded about stuff. And I think when you look at the guys, you’re right, it’s probably pretty close to being set. But stuff happens.”

Could the recently signed Shae Simmons give Grimm an unexpected challenge for the final relief spot? Maddon said guys who have been with the Cubs in the recent past have a leg up. Could Chris Gimenez turn his experience with Darvish into a win over Caratini for the backup catcher spot? Maddon threw cold water on the "personal catcher" narrative last week.

Of course, Maddon left the door open the possibility of an injury that could open up a roster spot and even shake up the depth chart. But barring the unforeseen, this 25-man group looks locked into place.

That gives the Cubs an edge, perhaps, in that they can specifically find ways to tune up those guys rather than focus on getting enough at-bats for players who are fighting for roster spots. But most of that edge came during the winter, and in winters and summers past, when the front office built this team into a championship contender.

There have been plenty of years when the fans coming to Mesa to watch the Cubs play in spring training saw the blossoming of a big league player thanks to a monster spring or a surprise tear during March. That’s going to be unlikely this spring, a reflection of just how far this team has come.

“It’s easy for me to reflect on this because when I started out with the Rays, wow,” Maddon said. “That was a casting call trying to figure it out. You had very few settled positions when you walked in the door. And then as we got better, it became what we’re talking about. As we moved further along, you were pretty much set by the time (you got to spring training) except for one or two spots.

“So I think the better teams are like that.”

The Cubs are most definitely one of those better teams.