Cubs

Jon Jay: The underrated hero the Cubs need

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AP

Jon Jay: The underrated hero the Cubs need

Willson Contreras is the best player on the planet right now. Anthony Rizzo is the face of the franchise. Kris Bryant is the reigning NL MVP.

But Jon Jay has been the hero the Cubs need.

The 32-year-old outfielder has flown under the radar with fans, but players and coaches around the league have always appreciated his game.

Jay began the year as a part-time player for the Cubs — a pinch-hitter off the bench, a defensive replacement and spot-starter at any of the three spots in the outfield.

But he's been playing full time lately and filling the void at the top of the order. Jay has started nine of the Cubs' last 11 games, playing a ton of center field while rookies Ian Happ and Albert Almora Jr. work to make adjustments. 

"He's playing at a very high level right now," Joe Maddon said. "We have really been in need of his services. He's made a great impact this year and we wouldn't be nearly in as good of shape without him right now."

Jay's numbers don't jump off the page, but he is hitting 298 with a .388 on-base percentage and is sixth on the team in position-player WAR, ahead of guys like Jason Heyward, Ian Happ, Ben Zobrist and Kyle Schwarber.

In addition to what he's done on the field, Jay has helped fill the leadership void in the clubhouse with David Ross now in the broadcast booth and Cubs front office. Maddon has even called Jay his sidekick.

"It's very important when you get that kind of support," Maddon said. "Jon Jay is a pro. I do lean on him a little bit talking to some of the younger guys. I'll say things to him and I know that he'll take the message properly to the player.

"He has influence. There's no question. Who works better at-bats than he does right now? Who works harder than he does? Watch him in the outfield shagging fly balls when we take batting practice. He wears his little beanie and his hoodie and he goes out there and he works his butt off and I love it.

"In the weight room, he's always on the treadmill or on the bike or doing something to stay ready. Just has a great method about him. He's got a good way with the guys about him also. They kinda gravitate toward him."

Jay has never been an All-Star. He's only notched more than 500 plate apperances once in his eight seasons. His career high in homers is 10 and has never driven in or scored more than 75 runs in a season.

But he also doesn't try to do too much. He's not up there swinging for the bleachers, choosing instead to spray the ball from sideline to sideline with a line-drive approach.

His teammates love him. To a man, when asked about Jay, each guy in the Cubs clubhouse immediately goes to his work ethic and preparation. 

You'd think the phrase, "he's a true professional" might have actually been invented for Jay the way his teammates and coaches keep coming back to it.

Just ask John Lackey about Jay (the two played together in St. Louis in 2014-15). Lackey often spends his post-start media sessions giving reporters short answers or calling teammates out for not turning enough batted balls into outs, but his face lit up when asked about Jay.

"Man, just a pro," Lackey said. "He's prepared, he's ready to play every day whether he's in the lineup or not. He does his work, he puts together a professional at-bat every time he's up there.

"He knows what he's trying to do. He knows who he is as a player. He's a guy you can trust, for sure."

Jay has always been this way, according to Almora, a Miami-area native who watched Jay play with the University of Miami.

Jay has really taken Almora under his wing this season, helping the young outfielder handle a reduced role and staying ready for any opportunity in the game, whether as a pinch-hitter, defensive replacement or pinch-runner.

"His work ethic's off the charts ever since I've known him," Almora said. "He came into the University of Miami, he had his own gameplan and workout. He knew what he had to do to get ready and maintain for a whole baseball season. 

"Now being with him day in and day out, just the preparation work, the mental part of the game. He loves the game. He's a student of the game and every time he sees an opportunity to tell me something for me to learn, he's always there."

Cubs Talk Podcast: Takeaways from Cubs Convention and players primed for a 2018 breakout

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USA TODAY

Cubs Talk Podcast: Takeaways from Cubs Convention and players primed for a 2018 breakout

On the latest edition of the Cubs Talk Podcast, Kelly Crull, Tony Andracki, Jon Graff, Matt Buckman and Scott Changnon rattle off their main takeaways from the weekend’s Cubs Convention, including the funniest moments and how the players engaged with fans and each other throughout the three days at the Sheraton Grand Chicago.

Plus, which players — besides Kyle Schwarber — made the most of the offseason and are primed for a breakout in 2018? The crew gives its take, with options including Albert Almora Jr., Ian Happ and Jason Heyward.

Take a listen below:

Why Kyle Hendricks is excited to have Tyler Chatwood in the Cubs' starting rotation

Why Kyle Hendricks is excited to have Tyler Chatwood in the Cubs' starting rotation

Everyone wants to know when the Cubs are going to add another starting pitcher. Fewer folks want to talk about the one they've already signed this offseason.

Kyle Hendricks, though, is happy to talk about Tyler Chatwood.

Chatwood might not be a big name like Jake Arrieta, Yu Darvish or Alex Cobb, and the former Colorado Rockie wasn't brought on to fill the Arrieta-sized hole in the Cubs' rotation, instead projected to slide behind the current top three of Jon Lester, Hendricks and Jose Quintana.

But whether he's the fourth starter or the fifth starter — depending on what kind of starting pitcher the Cubs add to the roster before spring training — how Chatwood performs could go a long way in determining what kind of season it is for the Cubs.

Hendricks, talking Friday during the Cubs Convention at the Sheraton Grand Chicago, thinks Chatwood will thrive on the North Side.

"Chatwood, I think, is going to be really big for us," Hendricks said. "We grew up in the same area, so I played summer baseball with him senior year, and he wasn't even pitching then, he was a shortstop, great hitter. But he's just a baseball guy, baseball mind, and that's kind of what this team's about. It's a bunch of guys who love playing the game, love being together. I think he's going to fit in great, personality-wise.

"And the stuff he has, I know it's going to play really well. He's only had a couple starts at Wrigley, but he's obviously pitched well there. That's going to bode well for him in the future. And being able to pick guys' brains, like Lester and these older guys that have been around. I think they're going to help him like they've helped me."

Depending on how much they trust Hendricks' scouting eye, that might ease the concerns of Cubs fans nervous about the prospect of replacing Arrieta and John Lackey with Chatwood and Mike Montgomery in the starting rotation. Last season, Chatwood's 15 losses were the most in the National League, and he finished the season with a 4.69 ERA. But the numbers were dramatically different thanks to Coors Field being his home ballpark. In Denver, his ERA was 6.01. On the road, it was a far more respectable 3.49.

"It's not easy. I'll leave it at that, it's not easy," Chatwood said Friday of pitching in the Mile High City. "I enjoyed my time there, but I'm excited to be here."

As Hendricks mentioned, Chatwood's transition to Wrigley seems promising. Chatwood has started a pair of games on the North Side and fared really well, surrendering just one run with 11 strikeouts in his 13 innings of work.

The Cubs have made it to three straight NL Championship Series — and won that curse-smashing World Series championship in 2016 — thanks to elite starting pitching. Arrieta was the Cy Young winner in 2015. Lester and Hendricks were Cy Young finalists in 2016. And Quintana has extraordinary promise if he can replicate what he did on the South Side in a Cubs uniform. If Arrieta lands anywhere but the North Side by the time this slow-moving offseason finally wraps up, Chatwood will be leaned on to help keep the Cubs' starting staff among the most formidable in the game. If he does, then 2018 could end like 2016 did. And that's what Chatwood wants.

"Obviously it's a great organization and a great team that I want to be a part of. I want to be on a winning team, so it was a pretty easy decision," Chatwood said. "I want to win one of those and be a part of that parade they had two years ago. I'm excited and hoping we've got a chance to do that."