Cubs

Joe Maddon feels like Cubs won baseball lottery again with Jason Heyward

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Joe Maddon feels like Cubs won baseball lottery again with Jason Heyward

HAZLETON, Pa. — Joe Maddon compared signing Jon Lester to winning the baseball lottery at last year’s winter meetings. The Cubs manager now feels like he hit another Powerball jackpot with Jason Heyward.

“We won two years in a row,” Maddon said Tuesday. “I believe he’s one of the top five players in the National League.”

Almost 700 miles from the fancy Michigan Avenue restaurant where the Cubs staged Heyward’s welcome-to-Chicago press conference, Maddon imagined the possibilities while back in his blue-collar hometown in Pennsylvania, preparing for his annual “Thanksmas” events at the Hazleton One Community Center.

This is the ideal player for a manager who digs run prevention, thinks batting average is overrated and understands baseball’s new aging curve in an era of tougher testing for performance-enhancing drugs: a three-time Gold Glove outfielder with a career .353 on-base percentage and a 1989 birth certificate.

No doubt, Maddon loves the Cubs gambling on Heyward with the biggest contract in franchise history, an eight-year, $184 million megadeal that comes with a World Series-or-bust mandate.

“Somebody’s got to be that guy, so it might as well be him,” Maddon said. “I really believe he’s going to handle it well.

“I believe he believes he’s earned the right to be in this position. (He’s) 26. He’s worked hard to get here. This is his third organization, so he knows what it’s like to be around a little bit. He’s not going to be wide-eyed.

“He just played in St. Louis on a 100-win team. He played on some really good teams in Atlanta. So I would hope that money should not change this dude at all. If anything, it would just provide motivation to play as well as he can.”

[MORE CUBS: Cubs buy championship influence with Lackey, Zobrist, Heyward]

Maddon’s message to Heyward could be boiled down to the same thing he told Lester after the All-Star lefty signed a six-year, $155 million contract: Be yourself. Don’t change anything. Just go play.

The Cubs don’t need Heyward to live up to the hype that followed him as Baseball America’s No. 1 overall prospect heading into the 2010 season.

The Cubs aren’t crossing their fingers hoping Heyward can match his numbers from the 2012 season, the only time he’s put up 20-plus homers and more than 80 RBIs.

The Cubs can live with Heyward still being a .268 hitter in this monster lineup, as long as he keeps seeing pitches, saving runs with his defense and putting pressure on the other team with his speed and instincts.

“Everybody gets hung up on batting averages all the time,” Maddon said. “Believe me, I do not. This guy is a really good baseball player. First of all, he comes to play every day. He plays both sides of the ball. I think he’s a top-three defender at any position. Great arm.

“He’s a top-three, top-five baserunner. And I think him and Kris Bryant together give you two of the best baserunners in the National League, maybe all of baseball.

“The sky’s the limit, man.”

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Heyward reminds Maddon of another corner outfielder he once worked with in the Angels system who developed into an eight-time Gold Glove winner in the big leagues.

“I think he can absolutely play center,” Maddon said. “I had Jimmy Edmonds in the minor leagues. Jimmy was a right fielder in the minor leagues. People were afraid to put him in center field because he wasn’t fast enough. He just wasn’t the prototypical-looking centerfielder. But Jimmy had this incredible, innate ability to be on line with his first step after a baseball.

“Jimmy was always in motion. I’m really eager to see Jason play center field. Because he’s big, he’s lanky, I think there’s the assumption that he can’t play in the middle. I’m curious. I think his instincts for the game are that good.

“Watching him in right field, going back on the baseball, he’s really good. Coming in on the baseball, he’s really good. Arm accuracy is fantastic. I think his makeup permits him to play there, too, because he seems like a take-charge kind of a dude. He’s not afraid to say what he thinks. I’m eager to see this.”

The entire baseball world will be watching to see how Heyward fits into a team that won 97 games and two playoff rounds and won’t be satisfied with anything less than a World Series title in 2016.

“I couldn’t believe we had that opportunity to sign him,” Maddon said. “It’s really exciting, man. And then when you talk to him, his head’s obviously in the right place. And to be that young with that many years ahead of us and him — it’s pretty cool.”

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.”