Cubs

Racist taunts or not, Cardinals fans won't bother Jason Heyward

Racist taunts or not, Cardinals fans won't bother Jason Heyward

ST. LOUIS — “Welcome to Baseball Heaven,” the public-address announcer told the crowd before Tuesday night’s game at Busch Stadium.

Jason Heyward didn’t want to stay here — not for more guaranteed money or full no-trade protection or whatever opt-out clauses the St. Louis Cardinals could build into the megadeal. But Heyward said switching sides in a heated rivalry and signing an eight-year, $184 million contract with the Cubs wasn’t connected to how he was once treated in St. Louis.

That question became relevant after the New York Daily News posted a thin story on its website, picking up a few tweets and claiming Cardinals fans had yelled racial slurs at Heyward during his return to Busch Stadium.

That created a storm on social media. ESPN reviewed its audio feed from Monday’s national broadcast and didn’t find any damning evidence. No incriminating videos have so far surfaced from WGN and Fox Sports Midwest, which showed the game within those local markets.

That also doesn’t necessarily mean it didn’t happen. Heyward got booed throughout a 5-0 victory and still showed the poise, focus and skills that convinced the Cubs to give him the biggest contract in franchise history.

“No,” Heyward said, he didn’t hear any racist taunts. “But honestly I wasn’t really listening. Have (I) heard it before? Yes, but it’s not something that you pay a lot of attention to. Just play the game.”

Dexter Fowler — who plays center field next to the Gold Glove defender in right — didn’t hear any specific racial slurs yelled in Heyward’s direction on Monday night.

“If it happened, it happened,” Heyward said. “If it didn’t, it didn’t. I’m not surprised one way or the other. But it doesn’t really matter. Some people are going to say what they’re going to say. There are people saying other things. There are people cussing, swearing around women and children and drinking and all that stuff. To point out one thing to me is whatever.”

The Cardinals have 11 World Series titles and The Best Fans in Baseball. That carefully projected image created a sense of schadenfreude beyond the Gateway Arch once the FBI’s investigation into the Ground Control data breach went public last year, implicating the Cardinals in a cyberattack against the Houston Astros.

But Wrigley Field doesn’t exactly have a pristine reputation either. Cubs fans feeling smug should remember that the Department of Justice is investigating the Chicago Police Department. A task force appointed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel just released a report blasting the systemic racism built into the city’s police work.

“It’s nothing unique to a baseball stadium,” said Cubs manager Joe Maddon, who idealized St. Louis as “The Mecca of Baseball” while growing up as a Cardinals fan in Pennsylvania’s coal-mining region. “It’s nothing unique to a particular city.

“It’s every city. We’ve come a long way, but then again, we haven’t. So none of it surprises if in fact it was true. That’s something we have to continually attempt to fight against.

“But there’s small-minded people everywhere, man. There are stupid people everywhere. It’s not unique to one spot and one ballpark.”

Heyward said his off-the-field experience in St. Louis didn’t tilt his decision to move to Chicago as a free agent.

“I didn’t have any issues,” Heyward said. “When I started slow last year, there was some boos a little bit, but I’ve done that before. It’s kind of part of the game. Fans are going to let you know when they’re not happy with how you’re performing.”

This comes after last week’s Jackie Robinson Day celebration, when players across Major League Baseball wore No. 42 jerseys to remember the breaking of the color barrier in 1947.

“You always think we’re past that,” Fowler said, “but obviously we’re not.”

This comes at a time when the industry worries about losing African-American talent to football and basketball, becoming an expensive country-club sport at the youth levels and failing to connect with the next generation of sports fans.

“It’s something I dealt with my whole life,” Heyward said. “This is still the world we live in. It’s part of it. Nobody’s perfect. Everybody’s not moved on. Everybody’s not a certain way. Everybody’s different.

“That’s what makes it a special place as well, because you have the freedom of speech to say what you want to say. And that’s that. Nobody physically harmed me — or my family or (any) of my teammates. So for me, all is well.”

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.