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First impressions of Jason Heyward and how he can change Cubs

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First impressions of Jason Heyward and how he can change Cubs

PHOENIX — Jason Heyward is listed at 6-foot-5, 240 pounds and has the biggest contract in franchise history. Yet there are still times where he blends into the background on this Cubs team.

That’s partially by design, the Cubs investing in Gold Glove defense and on-base/contact skills after a 97-win season, plus Heyward wanting to go to a place where he could be part of a talented young core that could win for a long time.

It also says something about the subtleties to Heyward’s game, which still got him paid like a middle-of-the-order hitter. Eight years and $184 million guaranteed wasn’t necessarily even the biggest offer out there this winter.

Just watch Heyward in the seventh inning of Sunday’s 7-3 win over the Arizona Diamondbacks at Chase Field, sprinting from first base to third on a ball that skipped past shortstop Chris Owings into left field. Heyward then raced home on Jorge Soler’s sacrifice fly to right field, and plays like that are what Chicago fans can expect on Monday night when he makes his Wrigley Field debut in a Cubs uniform.

“Everybody is only going to look at batting averages all the time,” manager Joe Maddon said. “But this guy is a really good baseball player. He impacts the game in so many different ways. I just love him right where he’s at.”

What a difference between Heyward’s low-key arrival and the symbolism behind Jon Lester’s six-year, $155 million contract and how that framed his first season on the North Side.

“There should be a lot of hype around him,” said Lester, who will start the home opener against the Cincinnati Reds. “There should be a lot of hype around ‘Zo’ (Ben Zobrist). Those two guys have really elevated the young guys in the way they go about their business, which is even more impressive (considering) what they did last year.”

[MORE CUBS: Another win over D-backs sends Cubs back to Wrigley riding wave of momentum]

Lester remembered watching Kris Bryant stretch a single into a double against Zack Greinke on Saturday and turning to assistant hitting coach Eric Hinske: “I told ‘Ske: ‘This isn’t a knock on you, (but) my favorite part about this team is the way we run the bases.’”

“That’s a testament to J-Hey,” Lester said. “He brought that over. That’s what he’s known for — playing really good defense, running the bases with — I don’t want to say reckless abandon, because he knows what he’s doing — but he makes other guys better. He makes guys want to get better and take that extra base and do that sort of thing.”

To be clear, Bryant was a polished, heads-up, instinctual player from the moment he arrived in The Show last year. Anthony Rizzo credited Dave McKay — a Dale Sveum hire now on Arizona’s coaching staff — for helping him develop that aggressive mentality on the bases. And Maddon turned running hard to first base into a “Respect 90” catchphrase.

But the Cubs believe Heyward will be a good influence, the same way Lester stayed the same guy throughout a statistically strong season (3.34 ERA and 207 strikeouts in 205 innings) that still had plenty of ups and downs.

“Position players have it a little bit easier than pitchers do, just because our days are so much more magnified,” Lester said. “He plays every day. He goes 0-for-4, it’s like: ‘Well, I got tomorrow.’ (When) I stink — I got four more days for everybody to talk about how much I stink.

“It’s just so much easier for a position player to come in and feel more relaxed and more of a part of this team, as opposed to a guy that kind of stands out.

“Plus, he’s such a level-headed, grounded guy that you’d never know what he signed for.”

[SHOP CUBS: Get your Cubs gear right here]

Heyward wore a St. Louis Cardinals uniform the last time he played at Wrigley Field, and he will hear all about that decision when the Cubs go to Busch Stadium next week and reignite that rivalry.

Heyward — who had once been Baseball America’s No. 1 overall prospect while coming up with his hometown Atlanta Braves — didn’t feel like he needed to be The Man or a face of the franchise.

“Early in my career in Atlanta, there was a lot of focus on me,” Heyward said. “And you got guys with Hall of Fame (resumes), guys who put up some good numbers (and had) good seasons. The focus is all about what the team wants" (it to be) from ownership down to the front office down to the coaching staff.

“I feel like here, they do a great job of just letting it be about the team,” Heyward said. “It’s not one person that’s going to do it overnight. I understand that there’s marketing and things like that to promote. But as a group, you want everyone understanding this is your team — the Chicago Cubs — not just one player to look at and say: ‘We’re going to rally around this guy when he comes to the bat or when he’s on the field.’

“That’s something special, regardless of the contract you have.”

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

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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:

Jon Lester sounds the alarm baseball's lack of free-agent spending this winter

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USA TODAY

Jon Lester sounds the alarm baseball's lack of free-agent spending this winter

MESA, Ariz. — Spring training is no longer some upcoming deadline. Spring training is here.

And still there are dozens of free agents without jobs, including some of the bigger names in the game, guys like Jake Arrieta, J.D. Martinez, Eric Hosmer and plenty of others.

The reasons behind this inactive offseason have been written about ad nauseam. But to the players themselves, as Jon Lester put it, it’s just alarming.

“It’s crazy,” Lester said, talking at length about the situation Friday at Cubs camp. “I kind of thought once February hit, it would be kind of a mass signing, that guys would sign in that first week and we really wouldn’t talk about it anymore. But obviously that’s not the case.

“I don’t know what’s going on. I don’t know behind closed doors what’s being said, what’s been said. It’s just alarming, that’s kind of how I look at it. We’re not talking about middle relievers with 5.00 ERAs. We’re talking about big guys. We’re talking about guys that need to be playing. It’s alarming. Hopefully we can get this thing figured out and get these guys a team relatively soon.”

The Cubs have made plenty of moves this offseason, making the league-wide situation seem like it might not apply to the North Siders. After all, the Cubs have been the ones to hand out the two biggest pitching contracts of the winter, first to Tyler Chatwood and then to Yu Darvish earlier this week.

But the affected parties are closer to home than it might seem, with Arrieta being perhaps the biggest unsigned name out there. It would be completely unforeseen if Arrieta returned to the Cubs after the Darvish signing locked the rotation into place for the foreseeable future. But the topic of where one of the biggest parts of the team’s three-year playoff stretch might land continues to be a big one in Cub World. Tommy La Stella spoke about it earlier Friday. Then it was Lester’s turn.

“I would imagine (Arrieta is frustrated), yeah. He doesn’t have a job,” Lester said. “This is what we do. So I can only imagine what those guys are going through probably emotionally and physically, too. If they do a free-agent camp, if they don’t, whatever, you’re physically behind the 8-ball when you come back. You’ve got to get to know your new teammates or even just settle into a team that you were with. It’s alarming. I don’t understand it. Selfishly, I’m glad I’m not in that situation. But for those guys, it’s got to be hard.”

Lester continued to hit home that he had no insider information, but he came to the same conclusions many have, that next winter’s free-agent bonanza starring Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, potentially Clayton Kershaw and a host of other All-Star caliber players is having a big effect this winter. And he also made an understated finger-point at the owners, talking about teams’ unwillingness to spend on free agents like they have in every offseason prior.

The caveat with that, of course, is that it’s Lester’s team that has potentially set the trend that player agents have been complaining about. Not the one of refusing to spend — Lester, Jason Heyward, Ben Zobrist and Darvish have big paychecks from the Ricketts family — but the trend of a total teardown rebuild. Theo Epstein’s front office committed to multiple years of losing in order to produce this current team, one of the best in baseball for the past three seasons with no sign of slowing down, using top draft picks to build the core.

“There’s too many good players out there that don’t have teams, you’re kind of scratching your head on why,” Lester said. “I think each individual year is different, it’s just like the season. I know people have kind of downplayed it, but you’ve got next year, as well. Big class that’s coming out. I would imagine that has something to do with it, teams trying to set themselves up to be able to spend next year on those guys. But at the same time, it screws the guys that are going through it now.

“There’s no reason why Jake Arrieta or J.D. Martinez or any of these guys should have to sign a one-year deal. That’s ridiculous. There’s too much money in the game. It’s going up, our game’s not suffering at all. There’s money there to be spent, and for whatever reason it’s not being spent.

“The money that’s being made on the other side in this game, absolutely (I could foresee a $400 million contract next winter). I think people are forgetting where a lot of that money is actually going to. It’s there to be spent, and it’s not being spent right now.”

The unpredictability of the offseason signals that the upcoming months will be unpredictable, as well. Who knows when Arrieta and the other jobless players will sign? As Lester mentioned, those guys are already behind schedule. And while they’re surely working out and keeping their bodies in shape, it’s tough to sign a contract in March or April or May or June and instantly hit the ground running with a new team.

So while baseball season is indeed underway in Arizona and Florida, there’s still a lot of uncertainty about how the season will play out — because some of its main characters have yet to receive their roles.