Cubs

Cubs banking on Jason Heyward’s Gold Glove defense

jasonheywarddefensecubsinsider021616.png

Cubs banking on Jason Heyward’s Gold Glove defense

The Cubs are paying Jason Heyward like a middle-of-the-order hitter, whether or not he ever evolves into that kind of offensive force. The age-26 runway, a .353 career on-base percentage and Gold Glove defense made eight years and $184 million seem like a safe investment in this market.

How Heyward responds to a different clubhouse, a new city and an unfamiliar position will be one of the many storylines for a Cubs team that will have World Series ambitions when pitchers and catchers officially report on Friday in Arizona.

There were times the Cubs looked unsure and sloppy in the field while getting swept by the New York Mets in the National League Championship Series, but that team had been built on a shaky defensive foundation and arrived ahead of schedule last year.

No doubt, Heyward is an elite defender in right field, where he won three Gold Gloves in the last four years with the Atlanta Braves and St. Louis Cardinals. He led all NL right fielders in putouts and assists in 2012 and 2014. He led the majors in Defensive Runs Saved in 2014 (32) and finished fourth in that category last season (22).

Only Tampa Bay Rays center fielder Kevin Kiermaier (30) posted a higher Ultimate Zone Rating than Heyward (20.2) last year. Only Kansas City Royals left fielder Alex Gordon (25) finished with a better UZR than Heyward (24.1) in 2014.

Heyward has already played almost 7,000 defensive innings in The Show, but only 3 percent of that time has been in center field.

“I’m going to give my best effort all the time,” Heyward said. “On defense, I can affect the game every pitch. But on offense, I only get one (key) at-bat or (it) comes around only so many times a game. On defense, there are 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 or 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.”

[RELATED: Why Cubs think their rock-star young players won't believe the hype in Year 2]

The qualifying offer has dragged down Dexter Fowler’s market, with teams like the White Sox and Baltimore Orioles apparently reluctant to give up a draft pick for a defender who doesn’t pass the eye test or grade out well on the metrics. (Though Fowler still remaining unsigned in the middle of February would have been inconceivable at the end of a walk season where he scored 102 runs for a 97-win team and got on base almost 35 percent of the time.)

The Cubs wanted to upgrade in center field and create more of a defensive identity. Jorge Soler and Kyle Schwarber will be projects for bench coach Dave Martinez, an enthusiastic teacher who played 16 seasons in the big leagues.

Soler has already missed out on so much development time while defecting from Cuba and recovering from injuries. Schwarber looked like a designated hitter coming out of Indiana University and he doesn’t want to give up on the idea of catching.

But it’s not like the Cubs are making this a lifetime appointment for Heyward. It could wind up being a one- or two-year solution while someone like Albert Almora continues to develop in the minors. Maybe Javier Baez smoothly transitions to the outfield or the Cubs eventually get a trade offer they can’t refuse.

Theo Epstein’s front office has already given manager Joe Maddon a deep roster to make in-game adjustments and create good matchups with versatile players like Baez, Ben Zobrist, Kris Bryant and Chris Coghlan.

And as long as Soler and Schwarber crush the ball, most of those defensive concerns will be going, going, gone.

“We love the offensive upside that Jorge Soler and Kyle Schwarber present at the corner-outfield positions,” Epstein said. “But it’s a long contract. Things will inevitably change over time. I’m sure there’s a time where Jason’s going to be playing plenty of right field for us. We’re excited about seeing him play center field day in and day out.

“(With) all the research that we’ve done and all the scouting reports we have, we feel like he’s going to handle himself very well in center field.

“(It’s) a great match (that) allows for some different combinations through the years as we move forward.”

[MORE: Cubs' message to Jason Heyward? Just be yourself]

Maddon – who had to focus on the little things with the small-market Rays and likes to say he comes from The Land of Run Prevention – won’t try to turn Heyward into something he’s not.

“Believe me, I will talk to him a lot,” Maddon said. “My expectation is that he comes out, gets ready to play and knows where to set up on defense, works a good at-bat and just keep running the bases (the same way), because I love the way he runs the bases.

“(It’s the) process. Don’t worry about the outcome of anything. Just go play.”

Addison Russell is so over 2017: 'That's last year, don't want to talk about that'

Addison Russell is so over 2017: 'That's last year, don't want to talk about that'

MESA, Ariz. — “That’s last year, don’t want to talk about that.”

In other words, Addison Russell is so over 2017.

The Cubs shortstop went through a lot last year. He dealt with injuries that affected his foot and shoulder. He had a well-documented off-the-field issue involving an accusation of domestic abuse, which sparked an investigation by Major League Baseball. And then came the trade speculation.

The hot stove season rarely leaves any player completely out of online trade discussion. But after Theo Epstein admitted there was a possibility the Cubs could trade away one or more young position players to bolster the starting rotation, well, Russell’s name came up.

And he saw it.

“There was a lot of trade talk,” Russell said Saturday. “My initial thoughts were, I hope it doesn’t happen, but wherever I go, I’m going to try to bring what I bring to the table here. It’s a good thing that it doesn’t have to be that way. I’m happy being in a Cubs uniform, I want to be in a Cubs uniform, for sure. But there was some talk out there. If I got traded, then I got traded, but that’s not the case.”

No, it’s not, as the Cubs solved those pitching questions with free-agent spending, bringing in Yu Darvish and Tyler Chatwood to replace the departed Jake Arrieta and John Lackey. It means Russell, along with oft-discussed names like Kyle Schwarber, Ian Happ and Javy Baez, are all still Cubs.

While the outside world might have expected one of those guys to be moved in some sort of blockbuster trade for Chris Archer or some other All-Star arm, the Cubs’ young core remains intact, another reason why they’re as much a favorite to win the World Series as any team out there.

“I’m really not surprised. The core is still here. Who would want to break that up? It’s a beautiful thing,” Russell said. “Javy and I in the middle. Schwarber, sometimes playing catcher but mainly outfield. And then (Kris Bryant) over there in the hot corner, and of course (Anthony) Rizzo at first. You’ve got a Gold Glover in right field (Jason Heyward). It’s really hard to break that up.

“When you do break that down on paper, we’ve got a lineup that could stack up with the best.”

This winter has been about moving on for Russell, who said he’s spent months working to strengthen his foot and shoulder after they limited him to 110 games last season, the fewest he played in his first three big league campaigns.

And so for Russell, the formula for returning to his 2016 levels of offensive aptitude isn’t a difficult one: stay on the field.

“Especially with the injuries, I definitely wanted to showcase some more of my talent last year than I displayed,” Russell said. “So going into this year, it’s mainly just keeping a good mental — just staying level headed. And also staying healthy and producing and being out there on the field.

“Next step for me, really just staying out there on the field. I really want to see what I can do as far as helping the team if I can stay healthy for a full season. I think if I just stay out there on the field, I’m going to produce.”

While the decrease in being on the field meant lower numbers from a “counting” standpoint — the drop from 21 homers in 2016 to 12 last year, the drop from 95 RBIs to 43 can in part be attributed to the lower number of games — certain rate stats looked different, too. His on-base percentage dropped from .321 in 2016 to .304 last year.

Russell also struggled during the postseason, picking up just six hits in 36 plate appearances in series against the Washington Nationals and Los Angeles Dodgers. He struck out 13 times in 10 postseason games.

Of course, he wasn’t alone. That World Series hangover was team-wide throughout the first half of the season. And even though the Cubs scored 824 runs during the regular season, the second most in the National League and the fourth most in baseball, plenty of guys had their offensive struggles: Schwarber, Heyward and Ben Zobrist, to name a few.

“You can’t take anything for granted. So whenever you win a World Series or you do something good, you just have to live in the moment,” Russell said. “It was a tough season last year because we were coming off winning the World Series and the World Series hangover and all that. This year, we had a couple months off, a couple extra weeks off, and I think a lot of guys took advantage of that. I know I did. And now that we’re here in spring training, we’re going to get back at it.”

Cubs Talk Podcast: Discussing 5-man unit and where Montgomery fits into Cubs' plans

mikemontgomerycubs.png
USA TODAY

Cubs Talk Podcast: Discussing 5-man unit and where Montgomery fits into Cubs' plans

Jon Lester has arrived at Cubs camp, and he’s pleased with the new-look rotation full of potential aces. Kelly Crull and Vinnie Duber discuss the 5-man unit, and where Mike Montgomery fits into the Cubs’ plans.

Plus, Kelly and Vinnie talk Jason Heyward and Kyle Schwarber, along with the continuing free agent stalemate surrounding Jake Arrieta.

Listen to the full Cubs Talk Podcast right here: