Cubs

Jason Heyward megadeal reinforces World Series expectations for Cubs

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Jason Heyward megadeal reinforces World Series expectations for Cubs

The Jason Heyward megadeal reinforces the World Series expectations at Wrigley Field, the gigantic exclamation point to what’s already been a frenetic offseason for the Cubs.

Heyward chose the Cubs over the St. Louis Cardinals and agreed to an eight-year, $184 million contract, sources confirmed Friday, reigniting what should be a great rivalry and showing the baseball world this team is absolutely serious about winning it all in 2016.

In Heyward, the Cubs get a 26-year-old outfielder with three Gold Gloves, a career .353 on-base percentage and a reputation for being a professional clubhouse influence. All those attributes – ideal age, elite defensive skills, an ability to grind out at-bats, off-the-field presence – made the Cubs see Heyward as a sound long-term investment.

It’s the targeted approach that led Theo Epstein’s front office to super-utility guy Ben Zobrist and big-game pitcher John Lackey, two players signed within the last week for $88 million combined.

Winning 97 games and two playoff rounds changed the equation for the president of baseball operations, who last month publicly ruled out the idea of doing two nine-figure deals this winter and didn’t say that as a smokescreen.

Working in concert with the Ricketts family and Crane Kenney’s business operations department across the last few weeks, Epstein’s baseball group got creative and freed up more money, using postseason revenues to keep the momentum going.

[NBC SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

Heyward reportedly turned down more money – the Washington Nationals were also believed to be heavily involved in the bidding – and received two opt-out clauses. Arizona Diamondbacks general manager Dave Stewart told reporters at the winter meetings that Heyward was “looking for $200 million.”

Yes, Heyward has made only one All-Star team, never driven in more than 82 runs in a season and hit 20-plus homers only once in his career. But at this point, the Cubs don’t need a middle-of-the-order basher with Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant already established as All-Stars.

Heyward is a strong foundation piece in areas where the Cubs are structurally weak, and he wanted to play for a winning team that would appreciate what he brings to the ballpark every day.

Heyward, who grew up in Georgia, debuted with the Atlanta Braves and blasted a three-run homer off Carlos Zambrano in his first big-league at-bat on Opening Day 2010. If the Braves had manipulated the service-time system the way the Cubs did with Bryant, then Heyward wouldn’t have been a free agent this offseason.

While Heyward didn’t necessarily live up to the superstar expectations drawn from that first impression at Turner Field, he’s a well-rounded athlete who’s been top-10 in WAR among National League position players in four of his six seasons.

[MORE: Zobrist brings World Series-or-bust mentality to Cubs]

The Braves traded their hometown, homegrown outfielder to the Cardinals in November 2014, with St. Louis viewing it as a one-year recruiting pitch for Heyward and seeing him as the next core player for an 11-time world champion.

But the Cubs keep selling 1908 and the chance to make history. Zobrist has already said his only goal is to win a World Series in the next four years, and those great expectations will be the same for Heyward.

While the Zobrist move had to be made in concert with the Starlin Castro trade to the New York Yankees, the belief was the Cubs didn’t have a Jorge Soler deal lined up immediately. But this obviously gives the Cubs even more options as they aggressively reshape the team that got swept out of the NL Championship Series.

The New York Mets exposed some free-swinging tendencies in October and defensive issues in the outfield. Heyward can be a left-handed presence near the top of the lineup and a short-term fix in center before moving back to a corner spot.

This comes 12 months after the Cubs gave Jon Lester what had been the richest contract in franchise history, a six-year, $155 million megadeal that accelerated the rebuild in Wrigleyville.

Lester and Lackey will be in a rotation fronted by Cy Young Award winner Jake Arrieta. Heyward can bat in front of a unanimous Rookie of the Year pick (Bryant) and perennial MVP candidate (Rizzo). Joe Maddon – now a three-time Manager of the Year – will be running the show.

After the delirium of an unexpected playoff run, anything less than a World Series title in 2016 will be a big disappointment.

Javy Baez can do anything defensively, but what's next for him at the plate?

Javy Baez can do anything defensively, but what's next for him at the plate?

MESA, Ariz. — You don’t need to spend long searching the highlight reels to figure out why Javy Baez goes by “El Mago.”

Spanish for “The Magician,” that moniker is a fitting one considering what Baez can do with his glove and his arm up the middle of the infield. The king of tags, Baez also dazzles with his throwing arm and his range. He looks like a Gold Glove kind of player when you watch him do these amazing things. And it’s no surprise that in his first media session of the spring, he was talking about winning that award.

“Just to play hard and see what I can do. Obviously, try to be healthy the whole year again. And try to get that Gold Glove that I want because a lot of people know me for my defense,” he said Friday at Cubs camp. “Just try to get a Gold Glove and stay healthy the whole year.”

Those high expectations — in this case, being the best defensive second baseman in the National League — fall in line with everything the rest of the team is saying about their own high expectations. It’s been “World Series or bust” from pretty much everyone over the past couple weeks in Mesa.

Baez might not be all the way there just yet. Joe Maddon talked earlier this week about his reminders that Baez needs to keep focusing on making the easy plays while staying a master of the magnificent.

“What I talked to him about was, when he had to play shortstop, please make the routine play routinely and permit your athleticism to play. Because when the play requires crazinesss, you’re there, you can do that,” Maddon said. “But this straight up ground ball three-hopper to shortstop, come get the ball, play it through and make an accurate throw in a routine manner. Apparently that stuck. Because he told me once he thought in those terms, it really did slow it down for him. And he did do a better job at doing that.”

But the biggest question for Cubs fans when it comes to Baez is when the offense will catch up to his defense. Baez hit a game-winning homer run in his first major league game and smacked 23 of them last season, good for fifth on a team full of power bats. But arguably just as famous as Baez’s defensive magic is his tendency to chase pitches outside of the strike zone. He had 144 strikeouts last season and reached base at a .317 clip. Seven Cubs — including notable struggling hitters Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist — had higher on-base percentages in 2017.

Baez, for one, is staying focused on what he does best, saying he doesn’t really have any specific offensive goals for the upcoming season.

“I’m not worrying about too much about it,” he said. “I’m just trying to play defense, and just let the offense — see what happens.”

Maddon, unsurprisingly, talked much more about what Baez needs to do to become a better all-around player, and unsurprisingly that included being more selective at the plate.

“One of the best base runners in the game, one of the finest arms, most acrobatic, greatest range on defense, power. The biggest thing for me for him is to organize the strike zone,” Maddon said. “Once he does that, heads up. He’s at that point now, at-bat wise, if you want to get those 500, 600 plate appearances, part of that is to organize your zone, accept your walks, utilize the whole field, that kind of stuff. So that would be the level that I think’s the next level for him.”

Will Baez have a season’s worth of at-bats to get that done? The versatile Cubs roster includes a couple guys who split time between the infield and outfield in Zobrist and Ian Happ. Getting their more consistent bats in the lineup might mean sacrificing Baez’s defense on certain days. Baez, of course, also has the ability to slide over to shortstop to spell Addison Russell, like he did when Russell was on the disabled list last season.

Until Baez learns how to navigate that strike zone a bit better, it might make Maddon more likely to mix and match other options, rather than considering him an everyday lock like Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant.

But like Russell, Albert Almora Jr. and Willson Contreras, Baez is one of the young players who despite key roles on a championship contender the last few years still have big league growth to come. And Maddon thinks that growth is right around the corner.

“I want to believe you’re going to see that this year,” Maddon said. “They’ve had enough major league at-bats now, they should start making some significant improvements that are easy to recognize. The biggest thing normally is pitch selection, I think that’s where it really shows up. When you have talented players like that, that are very strong, quick, all that other stuff, if they’re swinging at strikes and taking balls, they’re going to do really well. And so it’s no secret with Javy. It’s no secret with Addy. Addy’s been more swing mode as opposed to accepting his walks. That’s part of the maturation process with those two guys. Albert I thought did a great job the last month, two months of getting better against righties. I thought Jason looked really good in the cage today. And Willson’s Willson.

“The natural assumption is these guys have played enough major league at-bats that you should see something different this year in a positive way.”

MLB.com's Cubs' 2018 Top Prospects list full of potential impact pitchers

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USA TODAY

MLB.com's Cubs' 2018 Top Prospects list full of potential impact pitchers

Could 2018 be the year that the Cubs finally see a top pitching prospect debut with the team? 

Thursday, MLB.com released its list of the Cubs' 2018 Top 30 Prospects, a group that includes six pitchers in the Top 10. The list ranks right-hander Adbert Alzolay as the Cubs' No 1. prospect, projecting him to debut with the team this season. 

Alzolay, 22, went 7-4 with a 2.99 ERA in 22 starts between Single-A Myrtle Beach and Double-A Tennessee last season. He also struck out 108 batters in 114 1/3 innings, using a repertoire that includes a fastball that tops out around 98 MPH (according to MLB.com).

Following Alzolay as the Cubs' No. 2 overall prospect is 19-year-old shortstop Aramis Ademan. Ademan hit .267 in just 68 games between Single-A Eugene and Single-A South Bend, though it should be noted that he has soared from No. 11 in MLB.com's 2017 ranks to his current No. 2 ranking. He is not projected to make his MLB debut until 2020, however.

Following Alzolay and Ademan on the list are five consecutive pitchers ranked 3-7, respectively. Oscar De La Cruz, No. 3 on the list, slides down from his 2017 ranking in which MLB.com listed him as the Cubs' top overall prospect. De La Cruz, 22, finished 2017 with a 3.34 ERA in 13 games (12 starts) between the Arizona League and Single-A Myrtle Beach.

De La Cruz is projected to make his MLB debut in 2019, while Jose Albertos (No. 4), Alex Lange (No. 5), Brendon Little (No. 6) and Thomas Hatch (No. 7) are projected to make their big league debuts in 2019 or 2020. All are right-handed (with the exception of Little) and starting pitchers.

Hatch (third round, 2016) and Lange (30th overall, 2017) and Little (27th overall, 2017) were all top draft picks by the Cubs in recent seasons.

Having numerous starting pitchers on the cusp of the big leagues represents a significant change of pace for the Cubs. 

Since Theo Epstein took over as team president in Oct. 2011, a plethora of top prospects have debuted and enjoyed success with the Cubs. Majority have been position players, though.

The likes of Albert Almora, Javier Báez, Kris Bryant, Willson Contreras, Anthony Rizzo and Addison Russell all contributed to the Cubs winning the World Series in 2016. Similarly, Ian Happ enjoyed a fair amount of success after making his MLB debut last season, hitting 24 home runs in just 115 games.

Ultimately, Alzolay would be the Cubs' first true top pitching prospect to make it to the big leagues in the Theo Epstein era. While him making it to the big leagues in 2018 is no guarantee, one would think a need for pitching will arise for the Cubs at some point, whether it be due to injury or simply for September roster expansion.

The Cubs have enjoyed tremendous success in recent years in terms of their top prospects succeeding in the MLB. If the trend continues, Alzolay should be a force to reckon with on the North Side for years to come.