Cubs

Jason Heyward reflects on The Decision, Cubs Way and joining baseball’s version of Golden State Warriors

Jason Heyward reflects on The Decision, Cubs Way and joining baseball’s version of Golden State Warriors

After Kevin Durant bolted from the Oklahoma City Thunder this summer, he talked about the culture and chemistry surrounding the Golden State Warriors, sounding exactly like Jason Heyward’s explanation for making The Decision.

Heyward never made it personal while leaving the St. Louis Cardinals, even if Adam Wainwright and some of The Best Fans in Baseball took it that way. In the end, the Cardinals felt like no matter what they offered, they could never match the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to win a World Series at Wrigley Field.  

Major League Baseball isn’t the NBA, where a handful of the best players in the world can create Super-Teams and entirely shift the league’s balance of power and course of history. But in terms of getting treated like rock stars, reaching a tipping point in the National League Central and creating an environment that values freedom and self-expression, Joe Maddon’s Cubs have a Golden State of mind, with Warriors coach Steve Kerr even meeting the manager before a game in San Diego in late August.   

Of course, that’s how a 103-win Cubs team will be remembered if they run into a LeBron James, the way the record-setting Warriors won 73 games in the regular season before losing a Game 7 to the Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA Finals. (Though Golden State’s title drought only goes all the way back to the 2015 NBA Finals.)

But before Wrigleyville turns into some combination of Bourbon Street during Mardi Gras and Times Square on New Year’s Eve – Tuesday became the simulated-game calm before the storm – Heyward reflected on his first season with baseball’s traveling circus.  

“Yeah,” Heyward said, he felt the weight of that eight-year, $184 million contract. “But to be honest, I can look myself in the mirror and say: There’s the pressure of being a first-rounder. There’s pressure from playing at home in front of your home crowd, all that stuff. There’s pressure from getting traded at 25 years old and going to play for a different team. It’s just a different pressure. 

“At the end of the day – (whatever your contract may be) – there’s always going to be pressure from the fans. But that’s fun. That’s what we want. Nobody expects more out of yourself than you, so that’s a good pressure to have. If people aren’t expecting you to do well, then you don’t feel like you’re doing your job.”

In Heyward’s mind, the Cubs have lived up to all of his expectations – even as he’s dramatically underperformed offensively – and none of this should be interpreted as a shot at The Cardinal Way.    

Heyward is a class act who contacted traveling secretary Vijay Tekchandani sometime between his welcome-to-Chicago press conference at Spiaggia Restaurant in December and Cubs Convention in January, asking to pay for hotel-suite upgrades on the road for veteran catcher David Ross and assistant hitting coach Eric Hinske this season, thanking them for helping him when he broke into the big leagues with the Atlanta Braves. 
  
Heyward – the son of two Dartmouth-educated parents – wanted to think big picture with his career and take advantage of the rare opportunity to be a 26-year-old free agent. 

“It’s been a blast,” Heyward said. “It’s been awesome to show up for work every day, to be around the people that I get to work (with) – teammates, coaching staff, the people that work at the stadium, the people that take care of us and make sure we have everything we need, the vendors and the people that run the concessions. Everybody takes pride in working at Wrigley Field.

“And then the fans, they feel like they’re a part of the family. It’s really fun, man. It’s a unique experience. It’s well-thought-out, well-planned.

“We don’t take it for granted.”

[SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

Given their young core and deep lineup, the Cubs might be the only team that could have afforded Heyward’s career-low .631 OPS, which ranked third-worst among all qualified big-league hitters. But the bleacher bums got an up-close view of Heyward’s Gold Glove defense in right field, Maddon loves the instincts and aggressiveness while running the bases and teammates rave about his sense of calm and professionalism in the clubhouse. 

“I get to be myself,” Heyward said, a big selling point for a player compared to Hank Aaron as a rookie and once expected to put up huge power numbers. “And then do what I need to do to get ready to play every day. 

“There’s not a lot of hands-on (stuff) in the sense of you need to be one certain kind of way. The bottom line has been: Let’s make sure we’re doing the fundamental things right (and) approaching every day as if you’re trying to get the best out of yourself.

“After that, don’t try to do too much. Let the game come to you. Take what you get out of it – and 100 percent have fun with it – and just push each other to be the best we can. 

“At the end of the year, you look up and then you see what you have from it. Don’t really put too much stock into one day or the past or get ahead of yourself.”

While the 86-win Cardinals missed the playoffs for the first time since 2010, Heyward will be playing in the postseason for the fifth time in seven years when the Cubs face the wild-card winner – either the New York Mets or San Francisco Giants – on Friday night at Wrigley Field. 

If Heyward didn’t necessarily see Kris Bryant becoming a runaway MVP winner this year – or Addison Russell developing into an All-Star shortstop at the age of 22 or Kyle Hendricks emerging as a Cy Young Award contender – then he understood the Cubs should be good for a long time.
 
“It’s a pretty good group of coachable guys,” Heyward said. “That, to me, is the most impressive thing. Because you can have all the talent in the world – and the numbers can be whatever they are at the end of the year – but it’s really impressive to see them always wanting to take their game to the next level and not get complacent.”

When Maddon looks out from the dugout, he finds it reassuring to see Heyward standing in right field, and his all-around skills should help the Cubs win low-scoring, one-run games in October. But one big hit and no one will remember that Heyward only had seven home runs during the regular season.

“Everything matched up – the fan base, the city, the opportunity for me grow into myself as a baseball player even more,” Heyward said. “Where (else) are you going to have the ability (to) play with a group (that you can) grow with? 

“I’ve said that many times before, but I feel like that’s an important thing when you’re talking about playing with a team that’s serious about contending every year – and serious about trying to win a World Series every year. That’s the bottom line.”

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.

Even with an entire spring schedule to go, guessing the Cubs' 25-man roster is pretty easy

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USA TODAY

Even with an entire spring schedule to go, guessing the Cubs' 25-man roster is pretty easy

MESA, Ariz. — The frequent mission of spring training is to iron out a 25-man roster.

But at Cubs camp, that mission seems to already be completed.

With an entire Cactus League schedule still to play, the Cubs’ 25-man group that will leave Arizona for the season-opener in Miami seems pretty well set.

The starting rotation: Jon Lester, Yu Darvish, Kyle Hendricks, Jose Quintana and Tyler Chatwood.

The position-player group: Willson Contreras, Victor Caratini, Anthony Rizzo, Javy Baez, Addison Russell, Kris Bryant, Tommy La Stella, Kyle Schwarber, Albert Almora Jr., Ian Happ, Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist.

The bullpen: Brandon Morrow, Steve Cishek, Pedro Strop, Carl Edwards Jr., Mike Montgomery, Brian Duensing, Justin Wilson and Justin Grimm.

Boom. There’s your 25.

Joe Maddon, do you agree?

“You guys and ladies could probably write down what you’re seeing and be pretty accurate,” Maddon said Thursday. “I can’t deny that, it’s true. Oftentimes, when you’re a pretty good ball club, that is the case. When you’re not so good, you always get auditions during spring training.

“I think what the boys have done is they’ve built up a nice cache in case things were to happen. The depth is outstanding. So you could probably narrow it down, who you think’s going to be the 25, and I won’t argue that.”

It’s the latest example in a camp that to this point has been full of them that the Cubs are one of baseball’s best teams and that only a World Series championship will fulfill expectations. Had the front office stuck with a starting rotation of Lester, Hendricks, Quintana, Chatwood and Montgomery, then there would’ve been a spot open in the bullpen. But the statement-making signing of Darvish jolted the Cubs into “best rotation in the game” status, sent Montgomery back to the bullpen and further locked the roster into place.

Guys like Grimm and La Stella have been forced off the 25-man roster at points in recent seasons, though even their spots seem safe. Maddon even said that a huge spring from someone else wouldn’t mean as much at what guys have done at the major league level in recent memory.

“Spring training performance, for me, it’s not very defining,” Maddon said. “You’re going to be playing against a lot of guys that aren’t going to be here, more Triple-A guys, even some Double-A guys. Some guys come in better shape, they normally look better early. The vibe’s different. You play a couple innings, you don’t get many at-bats, the pitcher doesn’t see hitters three times and vice versa. So I don’t worry about that as much.

“It’s more about, guys that might be fighting for a moment, what do they look like, does it look right, does it look good, how do they fit in? Is there somebody there that you scouted? Because what matters a lot is last year and what you did last year and the last couple months of last year.

“So of course guys that have been here probably have a bit of an upper hand, but we’re very open-minded about stuff. And I think when you look at the guys, you’re right, it’s probably pretty close to being set. But stuff happens.”

Could the recently signed Shae Simmons give Grimm an unexpected challenge for the final relief spot? Maddon said guys who have been with the Cubs in the recent past have a leg up. Could Chris Gimenez turn his experience with Darvish into a win over Caratini for the backup catcher spot? Maddon threw cold water on the "personal catcher" narrative last week.

Of course, Maddon left the door open the possibility of an injury that could open up a roster spot and even shake up the depth chart. But barring the unforeseen, this 25-man group looks locked into place.

That gives the Cubs an edge, perhaps, in that they can specifically find ways to tune up those guys rather than focus on getting enough at-bats for players who are fighting for roster spots. But most of that edge came during the winter, and in winters and summers past, when the front office built this team into a championship contender.

There have been plenty of years when the fans coming to Mesa to watch the Cubs play in spring training saw the blossoming of a big league player thanks to a monster spring or a surprise tear during March. That’s going to be unlikely this spring, a reflection of just how far this team has come.

“It’s easy for me to reflect on this because when I started out with the Rays, wow,” Maddon said. “That was a casting call trying to figure it out. You had very few settled positions when you walked in the door. And then as we got better, it became what we’re talking about. As we moved further along, you were pretty much set by the time (you got to spring training) except for one or two spots.

“So I think the better teams are like that.”

The Cubs are most definitely one of those better teams.