Cubs called their shot with Jason Heyward signing


Cubs called their shot with Jason Heyward signing

As part of the elaborate presentation during Jon Lester’s recruiting visit to Wrigleyville, the Cubs unveiled a diamond diagram projecting their 2016 lineup – with Jason Heyward playing center field. 

At that point, Kris Bryant, Addison Russell and Kyle Schwarber hadn’t made their big-league debuts yet. Jake Arrieta hadn’t developed into a Cy Young Award winner. And Joe Maddon hadn’t managed a game in a Cubs uniform. 

Lester would have to take a leap of faith with Cubs executives Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer – who watched him grow up in the Boston Red Sox organization – to believe in a team that had finished in fifth place for five straight seasons and hadn’t won a World Series since the Theodore Roosevelt administration.

This was November 2014 – the same month the Atlanta Braves traded Heyward to the St. Louis Cardinals – and 13 months before he would sign the biggest contract in franchise history.

“They kind of broke down their ultimate plan,” Lester said. “(Heyward) was kind of their big guy they pitched to me.”

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Lester signing the richest contract in franchise history – at least until Heyward’s decision last month – marked a significant turning point in the rebuild. For $155 million guaranteed across six years, the Cubs would get an All-Star lefty to front their rotation, account for 200-plus innings and help a young team play meaningful baseball in September and maybe win around 84 games.  

The Cubs smashed all external expectations and internal projections for last season by winning 97 games and advancing to the National League Championship Series.

“Really, this year was their plan,” Lester said. “We weren’t supposed to do what we did last year. (But) I think it put that (sense of) urgency into this year.

“That’s what their ultimate plan was in 2016 – they were going to go all-in for this year. And they definitely have.”

Heyward became an obvious target because of his age-26 potential, left-handed contact skills, .353 career on-base percentage and Gold Glove defense. That made the Cubs so much more comfortable with this eight-year, $184 million investment – and he wouldn’t have to be “The Man” in Chicago.

[MORE: Cubs still in position to make the big trade when they need it]

“The biggest move we made this winter,” Epstein said, “didn’t feel like signing a free agent. He’s a day younger than Anthony Rizzo. It felt like adding another huge piece to our core of young players.

“It fits our identity. That’s really what defines us right now – a group of young position players that we really, really believe in, on the field and off the field. He adds to that mix.”

In the same way that Lester declined an offer from the San Francisco Giants in the range of seven years and $168 million, Heyward turned down a reported $200 million guarantee to return to Cardinals Nation, where at least one fan posted to Twitter an image of his red No. 22 jersey on fire.   

The Cubs also used 1908 to help convince two other big-name free agents – pitcher John Lackey and super-utility guy Ben Zobrist – who had bigger offers out there. Pitching coach Chris Bosio even said Trevor Cahill passed on a two-year offer to start for the Pittsburgh Pirates before accepting a one-year, $4.25 million deal to be a swingman for the Cubs.

“There’s something special about what’s happening,” chairman Tom Ricketts said. “All these guys that came in this year – and some of the ones that came in last year – had more money somewhere else. But they all want to be part of this team. So having a good, young nucleus and a great manager makes it easier for Theo and Jed to recruit.

[RELATED: 'Try not to suck': Javier Baez takes his swag to center field with Cubs]

“I had lunch with Jason Heyward the day he signed. I’m like: ‘Jason, so tell me, what about Chicago brought you in?’ And he’s like: ‘Well, I want to be part of a winning culture.’ And I’m like: ‘Wow, no one’s ever said that to me before.’”

Epstein thinks of it as confidence when Lester calls him arrogant. Whatever. The Cubs aren’t all talk anymore.

“I like that,” Lester said. “You come in and you stand up tall. You stick your chest out and you go: ‘This is what we see. This is what we believe in. These are our guys.’ That blew me away.

“It’s not, ‘Well, if this guy does this…’ No, everything was: ‘When this guy comes up, he’s going to do this.’ They couldn’t have been more right.”

Albert Almora's strong connection to Team USA baseball

Albert Almora's strong connection to Team USA baseball

Who was Theo Epstein’s first draft pick with the Cubs?

The answer to that trivia question will always and forever be Albert Almora Jr. picked sixth overall in the 2012 amateur draft.

In some ways, the young outfielder from Florida became the forgotten man in the stable of can’t-miss prospects that Epstein and top lieutenants Jed Hoyer and Jason MacLeod amassed since their arrival over six years ago. While players such as Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber and Ian Happ zoomed through the minor leagues on their way to the majors, Almora took a different path – one that included seven different stops over parts of five developmental seasons before he broke into the big leagues during the 2016 season.

But Almora’s road to the majors began years before he was selected by the Cubs, when he began playing for Team USA as a 13-year-old. Over the next several years, Almora played for the Red, White & Blue seven times, his final appearance coming in 2015. The seven appearances are the most in the history of USA Baseball, and Almora recognizes the impact his time with the national squad had on his playing career.

“[It was] one of the best experiences of my life," he said. "Every year I had something special to play with, unbelievable guys, went to crazy places, and out of those six years, five of them came with a gold medal so that was pretty special as well. Also, that helped me in my baseball life, how to experience things and learn from those type of experiences.

“I’m a Cubbie and that’s what’s on my chest right now, but Team USA will always have a special place in my heart.”

While Almora carries those national team experiences with him every day, his main focus coming into the 2018 season is becoming a consistent difference-maker. Almora made only 65 starts during the 2017 campaign, and 63 percent of his at-bats last year came against left-handed pitching, against which he hit a robust .342. That led to a platoon role in a crowded outfield, with Jason Heyward, Kyle Schwarber, Jon Jay, Ian Happ and Ben Zobrist all taking turns on the merry-go-round. But with the departure of Jay, Almora believes his time is near.

“I have the most confidence in myself that I can play every day, but I try not to think about that kind of stuff because it’s out of my control," Almora said. "All I control is like last year what I did; whenever I was given an opportunity, I tried to do my best and help the team win.”

Almora’s ultimate role on the 2018 Cubs remains to be seen, but there’s no question that Theo’s first Cubs pick will earn whatever role he ends up with, and the foundation of Almora’s journey to Clark and Addison was laid many summers ago during his time with Team USA.

Willson Contreras willing to pay the price for mound visits

Willson Contreras willing to pay the price for mound visits

News broke to Willson Contreras that the league will be limiting mound visits this upcoming season, and the Cubs catcher —notorious for his frequent visits to the rubber — is not having it.

“I’ve been reading a lot about this rule, and I don’t really care. If you have to go again and pay the price for my team, I will," he said.

The new rules rolled out Tuesday will limit six visits —any time a manager, coach or player visits the mound — per nine innings. But, communication between a player and a pitcher that does not require them moving from their position does not count as a visit.When a team is out of visits, it's the umpire's discretion to allow an extra trip to the mound.

But despite the new rules, Contreras is willing to do what's best for the team.

“There’s six mound visits, but what if you have a tight game? They cannot say anything about that. If you’re going to fine me about the [seventh] mound visit, I’ll pay the price.”