Jon Jay: The underrated hero the Cubs need


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."

Would trading Kyle Schwarber begin to solve pitching issues that run much deeper than Chris Bosio?


Would trading Kyle Schwarber begin to solve pitching issues that run much deeper than Chris Bosio?

The Cubs now apparently believe they are a stronger organization without Chris Bosio, firing a pitching coach known for his strong convictions, brutal honesty and bottom-line results in a move that doesn’t seem like an actual solution.

Hiring Jim Hickey – who has a good reputation from his years with the Tampa Bay Rays, a close friendship with Joe Maddon and what looks like a slam-dunk interview lined up for Monday – might make the manager feel more comfortable and less isolated.

But the new-voice/different-direction spin doesn’t fundamentally address the pitching issues facing a team that needs to replace 40 percent of the rotation and find an established closer and has zero expectations those answers will come from within the farm system.

This is an operation that won a seven-game World Series last year without a homegrown player throwing a single pitch.     

If the Cubs can say thanks for the memories and dump “Boz,” what about “Schwarbs?”

Advancing to the National League Championship Series in three straight seasons doesn’t happen without Bosio or Kyle Schwarber. But the fastest way for the Cubs to dramatically improve their pitching staff isn’t finding someone else who thinks it’s important to throw strikes. It could mean breaking up The Core and severing another emotional attachment.   

Theo Epstein saw Schwarber play for Indiana University and used the Fenway Park frame of reference, envisioning him as a combination of David Ortiz and Dustin Pedroia with his left-handed power and energizer personality.

Epstein wasn’t the only Cubs official to develop a man-crush on Schwarber, but he’s the only one with ultimate control over baseball operations. Epstein’s style isn’t pounding the table as much as the ability to frame questions in the draft room, gather as many opinions as possible before the trade deadline and at the winter meetings, trying to form a consensus.

“I will say that it’s really an organization-wide evaluation of this player, but I’m not skirting responsibility,” Epstein said. “I’ll happily endorse him as the type of player that we want to win with here at the Cubs, and have won with. I don’t know, the fact that he hit 30 bombs in a bad year is a good start.

“But power is not everything. I think he fell into this year becoming more of a slugger and less of a hitter than he really is. It’s important for him to get his identity back as a dangerous hitter. Honestly, I think we feel he has the potential to be an all-around hitter on the level of an Anthony Rizzo. When he reaches his prime, that’s what he could be.”

Where will that be? As a designated hitter in the American League? That’s obvious speculation, but Schwarber has improved as an outfield defender – his strong throw at Dodger Stadium led to another NLCS Maddon Moment where the manager compared the Buster Posey Rule to the Chicago soda tax.      

A 43-45 record at the All-Star break also exposed some of the weaknesses in the clubhouse and downsides to Maddon’s methods. The Cubs flipped a switch in the second half, got hot in September and had the guts to beat the Washington Nationals in the playoffs. But that doesn’t completely wipe away the concerns about a group that at times seemed too casual and unfocused and didn’t play with enough edge. For better or worse, Schwarber approaches the game like a blitzing linebacker.

“He’s got a certain toughness and certain leadership qualities that are hard to find,” Epstein said, “and that we don’t necessarily have in surplus, in abundance, running around in this clubhouse, in this organization.

“A certain energy and grit and ability to bring people together – that’s important and we rely on it. But the biggest thing is his bat. We think he’s the type of offensive player that you build around, along with a couple other guys like him.”

Maddon would never admit it, but was the Schwarber leadoff experiment a mistake?

“I’ll judge that one based on the results and say yeah,” Epstein said. “I think we can talk about the process that went into it. Or in an alternate universe: Does it pan out? But those are just words. It didn’t work.

“Everything that went into Kyle’s really surprising and difficult first half of the season, we should look to correct, because that shouldn’t happen. He’s a way better hitter than that. What he did after coming back from Iowa proves it.”

In the same way that Maddon should own what happens with the next pitching coach, Epstein will ultimately have to decide Schwarber’s future.

Schwarber didn’t complain or pout when he got sent down to Triple-A Iowa this summer, finishing with 30 homers, a .782 OPS, a .211 batting average and a 30.9 strikeout percentage.    

Trading Schwarber would mean selling lower and take another team having the same gut instincts the Cubs did in the 2014 draft – and offering the talented, controllable starting pitcher that sometimes seems like a unicorn.

Is Schwarber still the legend from last year’s World Series? An all-or-nothing platoon guy? An intriguing trade chip? A franchise player? Eventually, the Cubs are going to find out.

“We have to look to do everything we can,” Epstein said, “and more importantly he has to look to do everything he can to get him to a point where he’s consistently the quality hitter and tough out and dangerous bat in the middle of the lineup that we know he can be.

“He wasn’t for the first half of this year – and he knows it and he feels awful about it. He worked his tail off to get back to having a pretty darn good second half and getting some big hits for us down the stretch.”

And then the offseason was only hours old by the time the Cubs showed they will be keeping an open mind about everything this winter, not afraid to make big changes.

Jake Arrieta shaved his beard again and he keeps looking younger


Jake Arrieta shaved his beard again and he keeps looking younger

It's become a tradition that Jake Arrieta shaves his beard after the season ends.

The 31-year-old did it again days after the Cubs were eliminated from the 2017 postseason, and it's still a sight we'll never be used to seeing.

Check it out:

Weird, right?

Here's how he looked following the Cubs' World Series win in 2016:

And again in 2015:

It's crazy how much younger he looks.