Cubs

Jason Heyward knows how sweet it will be for Cubs to clinch in front of Cardinals

Jason Heyward knows how sweet it will be for Cubs to clinch in front of Cardinals

ST. LOUIS – Even Jason Heyward – a thoughtful player who chooses his words carefully – admits the Cubs would particularly enjoy clinching a division title in front of the St. Louis Cardinals and partying at Busch Stadium.   

“But I want to wreck the American League clubhouse or Wrigley at the end of the year,” Heyward said before Monday’s 10-2 win eliminated the Cardinals from the National League Central race and guaranteed at least a tie with the Milwaukee Brewers. “That’s what’s most important.

“So, yeah, that could be fun here. It will be fun. Celebrating’s fun, regardless. But we got to take care of some business. That will be a fun step to where we want to be.”

This is exactly where Heyward wanted to be, because he saw one window opening and another one closing when he switched sides after the 2015 playoffs where the Cubs dismantled a 100-win Cardinals team.

The Cubs have only 12 players left from the 25-man roster for that NL Division Series roster, amassing young talent and building out a deep organization on the verge of a third 90-win playoff season in a row.

Heyward signed the biggest contract in franchise history: before Kris Bryant, Addison Russell, Kyle Schwarber and Javier Baez played a wire-to-wire season in the majors; before Willson Contreras and Albert Almora Jr. made their big-league debuts; and the same year the Cubs drafted Ian Happ.     

“Signing with Chicago, people would always say: ‘Oh, how do you feel about the rivalry?’” Heyward said. “When I got to the Cubs, I made it kind of clear that I feel like we got some catching up to do, as far as that goes, playoff wins and world championships and things like that.

“This is another opportunity to take a step in that direction. And we want to continue to be known as a team that’s expected to be in the playoffs.”

Heyward may never live up to the offensive expectations set by an eight-year, $184 million megadeal. But he is at least a more productive hitter this season with a .259 batting average (up almost 30 points) and a .705 OPS (a 74-point jump) to go along with his contact skills, game-changing instincts on the bases and Gold Glove defense in right field.    

There are also the intangibles that might make Heyward the most respected player in the clubhouse for his day-to-day attitude, sense of calm and leadership style. (See: World Series Game 7 Rain Delay Speech.)

After getting swept by the Brewers on Sept. 10 – which left Milwaukee and St. Louis only two games back – it was Heyward who reminded reporters at Wrigley Field that no one would remember what happened during the regular season as long as the Cubs got into the playoffs. The defending World Series champs have gone 11-2 since then, finally looking like a team ready for October.

“We’re on a rollercoaster of a baseball season,” Heyward said. “Every year’s different and you got to be able to handle each blow.

“You can’t ever say ‘back on track’ or whatever. I don’t feel like we’ve gotten ‘on track.’ We’re in first place. We’ve been in first place for a while now. And here we are with a chance to clinch our division. To me, we’re on track.”

Why Joe Maddon still thinks Kyle Schwarber makes sense as a leadoff hitter

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AP

Why Joe Maddon still thinks Kyle Schwarber makes sense as a leadoff hitter

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Kyle Schwarber may take the first official at-bat of the 2018 Cubs season. 

When the Cubs take on the Giancarlo Stanton-less Marlins in Miami March 29, Schwarber may very well be the team's leadoff hitter.

Yes, even after that idea didn't pan out so well last year.

As manager Joe Maddon met with the media Tuesday afternoon at the Walt Disney World Dolphin Resort, he admitted he hasn't lined up a batting order for 2018 yet, but when asked about Schwarber, he said he wouldn't run from the idea of using the now-svelt slugger atop the lineup.

"He's probably arguably in the best shape of his life, so it starts there," Maddon said. "Regarding the leadoff thing — it was only failed in the sense that Kyle had a tough time last year. He could have hit 1-9 and still had a tough time last year. It just was not his year, although he rebounded nicely.

"I don't know, I haven't drawn a lot of conclusions with that. Obviously we still got to see what the team's going to look like in its entirety. Schwarber obviously could lead off, if he is hitting like Schwarber and he's accepting his walks and he's got his .250-plus batting average. His on-base percentage is going to be a hundred points over his batting average, I really believe that again.

"I definitely will consider [Schwaber leadoff] again, but I want to see who all the available candidates are first."

Schwarber hitting leadoff was a gigantic storyline entering 2017 and it didn't work out so well when the lefty slugger hit just .190 with a .693 OPS in 36 starts atop the order. 

He was moved lower in the order, but still wound up hitting just .211 with a .782 OPS overall, though he did manage 30 homers despite coming in shy of 500 plate appearances after a midseason stint in the minors.

The Cubs still haven't found a clear choice for the leadoff spot since Dexter Fowler left in free agency following the 2016 World Series championship and unless they make a trade, the 2018 leadoff guy(s) will come from the group already in place.

Among the choices, Schwarber provides maybe the best option, especially against right-handed pitching. He's patient, sees a lot of pitches, can give the team an immediate boost with a first-inning homer and can set the table for MVP candidates Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo immediately behind him.

Ian Happ could also fill that role in his sophomore campaign, though both players strike out a ton.

Maddon wouldn't commit to Schwarber playing more against left-handed pitching in 2018, but even if he sits, Albert Almora Jr. — who hammers southpaws — could be a nice fill-in guy.

Either way, the Cubs aren't stressing about this whole leadoff thing anywhere near as much as the fanbase is.

"It would be a luxury for us," Theo Epstein said. "You can have a really functional offense without a traditional leadoff guy. I think we demonstrated that last year — we scored over 800 runs, second most in the league behind Colorado, without much impact in the leadoff spot.

"I'd sign up for over 800 runs again and the second-most runs in the league. What shape it takes, I don't really care. We'd love to have a prototypical leadoff guy, but not at the expense of the core elements of the team.

"Right now, pitching is more important."

Cubs plan to keep stockpiling pitching even as 2018 staff comes into focus

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AP

Cubs plan to keep stockpiling pitching even as 2018 staff comes into focus

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — In a way, the Cubs are playing not to lose right now.

That may seem like an odd way to approach the MLB offseason for a team that has made it to three straight National League Championship Series. 

But in reality, it's a smart way to gear up for 2018.

Theo Epstein's front office knows they can't count on the remarkable run of health the Cubs pitching staff posted in 2015-16. Last year, Jon Lester and Kyle Hendricks missed several weeks each with injuries, but the staff was otherwise pretty healthy.

So this winter is all about pitching, pitching, pitching and more pitching. It's a war of attrition and the Cubs are trying not to lose the war.

The Cubs entered the offseason with a clear need for two starting pitchers, a closer and at least one other high-leverage reliever. They've since signed Tyler Chatwood and reached an agreement with Brandon Morrow that should become official Tuesday morning.

Check off one starter and one impact reliever, a guy who could slot in at closer if the Cubs can't bring back Wade Davis.

That pair of moves has helped the Cubs relax a bit at the MLB Winter Meetings this week at Walt Disney World Dolphin Resort, but the hunt for pitching will never be truly over.

"One way to look at the offseason is to look at all the different ways a season can be sunk and build to mitigate those threats," Epstein said. "Our greatest threats right now relate to pitching and not having enough quality pitching, suffering multiple injuries to pitching, not having enough depth."

Fans want to know about a leadoff hitter and that's fair, but run prevention is dominating the Cubs' attention.

They're open to trades from their glut of young, controllable position players for impact pitching, but Epstein and Co. are also still hot on the free agent market, in talks with Alex Cobb and other potential starters. 

Even after the Morrow signing becomes official, the Cubs still figure to be involved in what Epstein calls a very deep reliever class. 

Morrow doesn't have a long track record of health — he's appeared in more than 20 games in a season just once (2017) since 2012 — but the Cubs are wary of injury issues for every pitcher they acquire. They know full well the injury risks associated with pitching and don't intend to push anybody they sign or trade for.

Joe Maddon is a huge proponent of rest and the Cubs have no interest in running relievers — closers or not — into the ground by having them throw more than three outs on a consistent basis.

Is there any scenario in which the Cubs leave the "Happiest Place on Earth" with a content feeling about their 2018 pitching staff?

"You can't dictate the timetable, so I think an opportunity that really makes sense presents itself and we hesitate, I'd be disappointed," Epstein said. "But I also don't want to make something happen just for the sake of making something happen.

"We'll try to be really thorough, try to be really creative and try to be aggressive when appropriate to continue to round out this pitching staff. It really doesn't matter when you get stuff done — at the winter meetings, after the winter meetings, in January, in spring training — as long as you end up having a pitching staff that is really talented and deep enough to withstand the attrition that always happens during the course of the season.

"We'd love to add another starter one way or another if we could and at least one more reliever."