Cubs

Cubs: How Jason Heyward changes the way to think about free agents

Cubs: How Jason Heyward changes the way to think about free agents

ST. LOUIS – Jason Heyward remembered watching “Pardon the Interruption” one day during the offseason and seeing Chicago guy Michael Wilbon on ESPN.

“They said: ‘Is Heyward really worth $300 million?’” Heyward recalled during his controversial return to Busch Stadium this week. “I was like: ‘Who brought that up?’ I don’t think I’m worth $300 million. I don’t think I would ever try and sell myself for $300 million or any (specific) amount. Teams are going to tell you what they feel and they go from there.”

The Cubs wound up going to a place they had never been before, giving Heyward the biggest contract in franchise history, committing eight years and $184 million to a player who does the little things.

Age is the essential data point to start with when understanding Heyward’s megadeal. Not the idea of weakening the St. Louis Cardinals or wishing he will develop into a middle-of-the-order force or going all-in to win the World Series this year.

It will probably make $300 million look like a half-hearted offer by the 2018 winter meetings, when Bryce Harper and Manny Machado are positioned to headline a ridiculously talented class of free agents that could also include Cy Young Award winners Clayton Kershaw and David Price, who like Heyward have opt-out flexibility.

“I just try and be myself,” Heyward said. “I think age has a lot to do with my contract, being 26 years old. You see MLB trying to go younger, younger, younger, wanting to pay guys earlier in their career and not pay someone who’s (in his 30s).

“There are going to be people who don’t agree (with the contract), but I’m kind of what you’re asking for in a lot of (ways).”

Harper and Machado will be 26 years old on Opening Day 2019. Harper has already made three All-Star teams and won National League Rookie of the Year and MVP awards for the Washington Nationals. Machado hit 35 homers for the Baltimore Orioles last year, earning his second All-Star selection and second Gold Glove at third base.

Heyward made an All-Star team as a rookie in 2010 and hasn’t come close to replicating his traditional power numbers (27 homers, 82 RBI) with the Atlanta Braves in 2012. He’s shown up three times in the MVP voting, never higher than last year’s 15th-place finish.

To put it in Hollywood terms, the Cubs see Heyward as a supporting actor and are paying him like a movie star, because there will be enough times where he can steal the show.

“With Jason, there are just so many things he does to help complement our roster incredibly well,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “He fits perfectly with our core from an age standpoint.

“He’s a terrific teammate (and) he does so many things to help you win games. His defense is terrific. He’s a terrific baserunner. He gets on base. He doesn’t strike out.

“When you think about all the things that we needed as a team and as a roster, he fills so many of those holes.”

Heyward says he never pays attention to the defensive metrics that framed him as one of the most valuable players in the game. But he does have a heightened awareness of the pitcher’s game plan, where a hitter usually sprays the ball and the speed of the runners involved.

That helps explain why Heyward has won three Gold Gloves in the last four seasons, leading the majors in Defensive Runs Saved in 2014 (32) and finishing fourth in that category last year (22).

This season isn’t three weeks old yet and Heyward has already made sliding catches and momentum-shifting throws from right field look routine.

“I just try to know where everybody’s going to be on the field,” Heyward said. “You always want to think about those things before the play happens and it develops. Expect the worst that could happen. Expect to have to go make a diving play. Expect the ball to be hit to you and you have to make a big throw out there.

“You want to be in every spot like that to know what’s going to happen. And when it does happen, you’re not surprised.”

Tampa Bay Rays center fielder Kevin Kiermaier (30) is the only defender who posted a higher Ultimate Zone Rating than Heyward (20.2) last year. In 2014, only Kansas City Royals left fielder Alex Gordon (25) finished with a better UZR than Heyward (24.1).

This is like having a quarterback or a point guard in the outfield. 

“I picked his brain a lot in spring training,” said bench coach Dave Martinez, who works with the outfielders and played 16 seasons in the big leagues. “I actually told him: ‘Hey, it’s no-holds-barred here. Not only are you a student – I want you to teach.’ And he’s done that.

“He is definitely a leader. He pays attention to detail and he takes a lot of pride in his defense.”

Imagine the response on talk radio and in the bleachers if Heyward had been on a different Cubs team – before Big Data – and was hitting .179 with zero home runs through his first 15 games.

But winning cures everything and the Cubs believe Heyward will see so many pitches near the top of the order – and get on base around 35 percent of the time – that the grinding, first-to-third mentality will influence their entire team.

Heyward’s sense of calm amid a racially charged social-media storm and the boos raining down at Busch Stadium – as well as his rational explanations for choosing the Cubs over the Cardinals – reinforced the idea that he is a person to build a franchise around.

This is also the cost of doing business in free agency. It’s not like the Cubs were out on an island with their valuations, either, since the Cardinals and Nationals tried to put together Heyward deals in the $200-million ballpark.

“He fits in so perfectly to what we’re trying to achieve and the kind of culture we’re trying to create,” manager Joe Maddon said. “He fits in anywhere, though. Understand that – he fits anywhere. He doesn’t just fit in Chicago. He fits anywhere.

“He is pretty much the poster child for a five-tool baseball player.”

Cubs Talk Podcast: Sitting down with new Cubs coaches Chili Davis and Jim Hickey

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USA TODAY

Cubs Talk Podcast: Sitting down with new Cubs coaches Chili Davis and Jim Hickey

Spring training baseball games are up around the bend, but before the boys of summer get into organized action, two of the team’s new coaches Chili Davis and Jim Hickey sit down with Kelly Crull.

Plus, Vinnie Duber joins Kelly to discuss these baseball conversations including the memorable first words of Kyle Schwarber to Chili Davis, “I don’t suck!"

Listen to the full episode at this link (iOS users can go here) or in the embedded player below. Subscribe to the podcast on Apple Podcasts.

Changes aren't exactly popular, but Cubs and Sox — except maybe Willson Contreras — will adapt to baseball's new pace-of-play rules

Changes aren't exactly popular, but Cubs and Sox — except maybe Willson Contreras — will adapt to baseball's new pace-of-play rules

MESA, Ariz. — We know Willson Contreras doesn’t like baseball’s new pace-of-play rules.

He isn’t the only one.

“I think it’s a terrible idea. I think it’s all terrible,” Jon Lester said last week at spring training, before the specifics of the new rules were even announced. “The beautiful thing about our sport is there’s no time.”

Big surprise coming from the Cubs’ resident old-schooler.

The new rules limit teams to six mound visits per every nine-inning game, with exceptions for pitching changes, between batters, injuries and after the announcement of a pinch hitter. Teams get an extra mound visit for every extra inning in extra-inning games. Also, commercial breaks between innings have been cut by 20 seconds.

That’s it. But it’s caused a bit of an uproar.

Contreras made headlines Tuesday when he told reporters that he’ll willingly break those rules if he needs to in order to put his team in a better position to win.

“I’ve been reading a lot about this rule, and I don’t really care. If I have to pay the price for my team, I will,” Contreras said. “There’s six mound visits, but what if you have a tight game? … You have to go out there. They cannot say anything about that. It’s my team, and we just care about winning. And if they’re going to fine me about the No. 7 mound visit, I’ll pay the price.”

Talking about pace-of-play rule changes last week, Cubs manager Joe Maddon said his team would adapt to any new rules. In Chicago baseball’s other Arizona camp, a similar tune of adaptation was being sung.

“Obviously as players we’ve got to make adjustments to whatever rules they want to implement,” White Sox pitcher James Shields said. “This is a game of adjustments, we’re going to have to make adjustments as we go. We’re going to have to figure out logistics of the thing, and I would imagine in spring training we’re going to be talking about it more and more as we go so we don’t mess it up.”

There was general consensus that mound visits are a valuable thing. So what happens if a pitcher and catcher need to communicate but are forced to do it from 60 feet, six inches away?

“Sign language,” White Sox catching prospect Zack Collins joked. “I guess you have to just get on the same page in the dugout and hope that nothing goes wrong if you’re out of visits.”

In the end, here’s the question that needs answering: Are baseball games really too long?

On one hand, as Lester argued, you know what you’re signing up for when you watch a baseball game, be it in the stands at a ballpark or on TV. No one should be shocked when a game rolls on for more than three hours.

But shock and fans' levels of commitment or just pure apathy are two different things. And sometimes it’s a tough ask for fans to dedicate four hours of their day 162 times a year. So there’s a very good reason baseball is trying to make the game go faster, to keep people from leaving the stands or flipping the TV to another channel.

Unsurprisingly, Lester would rather keep things the way they are.

“To be honest with you, the fans know what they’re getting themselves into when they go to a game,” Lester said. “It’s going to be a three-hour game. You may have a game that’s two hours, two hours and 15 minutes. Great, awesome. You may have a game that’s four hours. That’s the beautiful part of it.

“I get the mound visit thing. But what people that aren’t in the game don’t understand is that there’s so much technology in the game, there’s so many cameras on the field, that every stadium now has a camera on the catcher’s crotch. So they know signs before you even get there. Now we’ve got Apple Watches, now we’ve got people being accused of sitting in a tunnel (stealing signs). So there’s reasons behind the mound visit. He’s not just coming out there asking what time I’m going to dinner or, ‘Hey, how you feeling?’ There’s reasons behind everything, and I think if you take those away, it takes away the beauty of the baseball game.

“Every game has a flow, and I feel like that’s what makes it special. If you want to go to a timed event, go to a timed event. I’m sorry I’m old-school about it, but baseball’s been played the same way for a long time. And now we’re trying to add time to it. We’re missing something somewhere.”

Whether limiting the number of mound visits creates a significant dent in this problem remains to be seen. But excuse the players if they’re skeptical.

“We’ve got instant replay, we’ve got all kinds of different stuff going on. I don’t think (limiting) the mound visits are going to be the key factor to speeding this game up,” Shields said. “Some pitchers take too long, and some hitters take too long. It’s combination of a bunch of stuff.

“I know they’re trying to speed the game up a little bit. I think overall, the game’s going as fast as it possibly could. You’ve got commercials and things like that. TV has a lot to do with it. There’s a bunch of different combinations of things. But as a player, we’ve got to make an adjustment.”