Cubs

Cubs have Jason Heyward on their radar at winter meetings

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Cubs have Jason Heyward on their radar at winter meetings

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – The Cubs have envisioned Jason Heyward batting leadoff and playing center at Wrigley Field, according to a source familiar with the team’s thinking, but it will take several steps to turn that dream into a reality.

Heyward’s appeal is obvious as the rare free agent who’s only 26 years old. Beyond age, he checks so many other boxes for the Cubs as a Gold Glove defender, a left-handed hitter with a .353 career on-base percentage and a professional clubhouse presence.  

Heyward’s market hasn’t really defined itself yet as teams splurged on pitching before the winter meetings began on Monday at the Opryland in Nashville, Tennessee. It’s hard to put a price tag on defensive metrics and a prime-age player who’s hit 20-plus homers only once, never coming close to driving in 100 runs in a season.

[MORE: Cubs respond to Kris Bryant’s grievance: ‘We were in the right’]

But there’s no doubt the Cubs have had Heyward on their radar for a long time, and they wouldn’t have to try to turn him into something he’s not with a lineup already anchored by Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant.  

Jed Hoyer wouldn’t get into specifics when asked about the Cubs pursuing a top outfielder now, but the general manager did say: “We have some available resources. That much is clear.”

The Cubs don’t have all that much financial flexibility – or even a big-market payroll – but if enough pieces fall into place maybe they can steal Heyward away from the St. Louis Cardinals.

It already started with John Lackey’s two-year, $32 million agreement, a reasonable investment at a time when the Boston Red Sox and Arizona Diamondbacks sunk nearly half a billion dollars into David Price and Zack Greinke.

Hoyer said the Cubs don’t feel a sense of urgency to add another established starter to their rotation at this point and can instead focus on overall pitching depth.

President of baseball operations Theo Epstein has talked about creatively structuring long-term contracts – which would essentially be borrowing against the next TV deal – while working with the business side to free up more funds for 2016.

While Hoyer dismissed most of the rumors on Twitter – “It’s like an alternate universe half the time with some of the stuff that comes up” – he did say the Cubs are in active talks with 10 or 12 teams after narrowing their focus for pitching. Infielder Javier Baez and outfielder Jorge Soler appear to be the most obvious trade chips.

[NBC SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

But to really compete for Heyward – and beat a St. Louis franchise that appears ready to spend big in free agency – the Cubs would also probably have to move some salaries. Between infielder Starlin Castro, catcher Miguel Montero and pitcher Jason Hammel, that’s almost $80 million in future commitments.

With five seasons left on Jon Lester’s six-year, $155 million megadeal – and Jake Arrieta only two years away from free agency – the Cubs had concerns about going to the absolute top of the pitching market. Epstein’s front office has also been much more comfortable spending capital on hitters, and Heyward is seen as a solid long-term investment.  

“When it comes to pitching, we are always thinking about the length of deals and who’s coming up at what time,” Hoyer said. “You want to have a balance of dollars available for hitting – and dollars available for pitching – and not get too locked in.

“That was a consideration. We’d be lying (if we didn’t) say that as we thought through the really, really huge pitching contracts, of course, we were thinking about not only Jon’s contract, but who we might want to extend, or who we might want to add in the future. Those things have to come into play.”

When Kyle Schwarber met new Cubs hitting coach Chili Davis: 'I don't suck'

When Kyle Schwarber met new Cubs hitting coach Chili Davis: 'I don't suck'

MESA, Ariz. — The first thing Kyle Schwarber told his new hitting coach?

"His first statement to me is, 'I don't suck.'"

The Cubs hired Chili Davis as the team's new hitting coach for myriad reasons. He's got a great track record from years working with the Boston Red Sox and Oakland Athletics, and that .274/.360/.451 slash line during an illustrious 19-year big league career certainly helps.

But Davis' main immediate task in his new gig will be to help several of the Cubs' key hitters prove Schwarber's assessment correct.

Schwarber had a much-publicized tough go of things in 2017. After he set the world on fire with his rookie campaign in 2015 and returned from what was supposed to be a season-ending knee injury in time to be one of the Cubs' World Series heroes in 2016, he hit just .211 last season, getting sent down to Triple-A Iowa for a stint in the middle of the season. Schwarber still hit 30 home runs, but his 2017 campaign was seen as a failure by a lot of people.

Enter Davis, who now counts Schwarber as one of his most important pupils.

"He's a worker," Davis said in an interview with NBC Sports Chicago. "Schwarbs, he knows he's a good player. His first statement to me is, 'I don't suck.' He said last year was just a fluke year. He said, 'I've never failed in my life.' And he said, 'I'm going to get back to the player that I was.'

"I think he may have — and this is my thought, he didn't say this to me — I think it may have been, he had a big World Series, hit some homers, and I think he tried to focus on being more of a home run type guy as opposed to being a good hitter.

"His focus has changed. I had nothing to do with that, he came in here with that focus that he wants to be a good hitter first and let whatever happens happen. And he's worked on that. The main thing with Kyle is going to be is just maintaining focus."

The physically transformed Schwarber mentioned last week that he's established a good relationship with Davis, in no small part because Schwarber can relate to what Davis went through when he was a player. And to hear Davis tell it, it sounds like he's describing Schwarber's first three years as a big leaguer to a T.

"Telling him my story was important because it was similar," Davis said. "I was a catcher, got to big league camp, and I was thrown in the outfield. And I hated the outfield. ... But I took on the challenge. I made the adjustment, I had a nice first year, then my second year I started spiraling. I started spiraling down, and I remember one of my coaches saying, 'I'm going to have to throw you a parachute just so you can land softly.' I got sent down to Triple-A at the All-Star break for 15 days.

"When I got sent down, I was disappointed, but I was also really happy. I needed to get away from the big league pressure and kind of find myself again. I went home and refocused myself and thought to myself, 'I'm going to come back as Chili.' Because I tried to change, something changed about me the second year.

"And when I did that, I came back the next year and someone tried to change me and I said, 'Pump the breaks a little bit, let me fail my way, and then I'll come to you if I'm failing.' And they understood that, and I had a nice year, a big year and my career took off.

"I'm telling him, 'Hey, let last year go. It happened, it's in the past. Keep working hard, maintain your focus, and you'll be fine.'"

Getting Schwarber right isn't Davis' only task, of course. Despite the Cubs being one of the highest-scoring teams in baseball last season, they had plenty of guys go through subpar seasons. Jason Heyward still has yet to find his offensive game since coming to Chicago as a high-priced free agent. Ben Zobrist was bothered by a wrist injury last season and put up the worst numbers of his career. Addison Russell had trouble staying healthy, as well, and saw his numbers dip from what they were during the World Series season in 2016.

So Davis has plenty of charges to work with. But he likes what he's seen so far.

"They work," Davis said. "They come here to work. I had a group of guys in Boston that were the same last year, and it makes my job easier. They want to get better, they come out every day, they show up, they want to work. They're excited, and I'm excited to be around them.

And what have the Cubs found out about Davis? Just about everyone answers that question the same way: He likes to talk.

"I'm not going to stop talking," he said. "If I stop talking, something's wrong."

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Andre Dawson talks about his Cubs reunion

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USA TODAY

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Andre Dawson talks about his Cubs reunion

Carmen DeFalco (ESPN 1000) and Jordan Bernfield join Kap on the panel. Anthony Rizzo returns to the Cubs after an emotional weekend home while Tom Ricketts expects another World Series parade. Plus Hall of Famer Andre Dawson joins Kap to talk about his Cubs reunion and how the current crop unsigned free agents compares to his experiences with collusion.