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Why Jason Heyward chose Cubs over Cardinals

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Why Jason Heyward chose Cubs over Cardinals

Jason Heyward will be the polarizing figure in the Cubs-Cardinals rivalry for at least the next three years.

Heyward will be a constant reminder of what could have been for the Cardinals and their St. Louis fanbase, representing something of a changing of the guard as the big-name free agent opted for a franchise that hasn't won a World Series in 107 years over an organization that is consistently among the MLB's elite.

[RELATED - Joe Maddon feels like Cubs won baseball lottery again with Jason Heyward]

The 26-year-old outfielder left money on the table (the Cardinals reportedly made an offer close to $200 million) to sign with the Cubs for the most lucrative contract in franchise history (eight years, $184 million).

"As everyone may have seen from the numbers that came out, I didn't take the highest offer," Heyward said in his introductory press conference in Chicago Tuesday afternoon. "But for me, a winning attitude and culture and the fact that this was such a young group that I could grow myself with and be 26 years old.

"I would rather grow up with a bunch of guys and make them family and be able to cherish that for the rest of the day without feeling like I had to restart."

At several points during his "Welcome to Chicago" presser, Heyward cited the Cubs' young core as a huge reason for choosing the corner of Clark and Addison as his home for at least the next three years (his contract includes opt-outs after the third and fourth seasons).

The Cubs have Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant, Addison Russell, Kyle Schwarber, Javier Baez and Jorge Soler all under team control through at least the 2021 season.

Meanwhile, the Cardinals have several aging veterans - Heyward mentioned Matt Holliday, Yadier Molina and Adam Wainwright by name - as part of their core.

"I felt like if I were to look up in three years and see it's a completely different team, that would be kind of be different for me," Heyward said. "Chicago really offers me an opportunity to come in, get introduced to the culture by a young group of guys.

"I'll grow up with them and watch them grow and have some fun with some familiar faces for a long time."

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Heyward also liked how loose the Cubs kept things during a surprising run to contention in 2015, experiencing playoff baseball at Wrigley Field firsthand during the National League Division Series.

"You saw those guys having fun over there just like I was doing on the other side of the field," Heyward said. "We all brought out the best competition in each other. With the young group that [the Cubs] have here, they didn't shy away from it. And that's special to see.

"It says a lot about the leadership, coming down from ownership to the front office to Joe [Maddon] and the things he's instilling with them on a daily basis to let them know that they're good and they belong."

Heyward said playing for a manager like Maddon is just "icing on the cake."

Cardinals fans were seen burning Heyward jerseys on social media and his mentions on Twitter over the last few days are not for the faint of heart.

Heyward took the high road and said he doesn't have one bad thing to say about the Cardinals, but immediately went back to his decision and the desire to go to the best environment for him long-term.

It also helps that Heyward could be immortalized in baseball lore if he is a part of the team that finally - finally - wins a championship for the Cubs.

With last season's run to the NLCS fresh in everybody's mind and a young core that now has a full season in the big leagues under its belt, a run to the World Series isn't just a pipe dream anymore. "The Plan" Theo Epstein's front office has talked about for years looks like it has finally come to fruition for the Cubs.

[SHOP CUBS: Get your Cubs gear right here]

"Good team or bad team, this city gets behind the Chicago Cubs," Heyward said. "Playoffs, of course, helped me see that firsthand. ... But the Cubs being so young, having a great core of guys and the intelligence of everybody involved saying they want to be able to put that kind of core group together going forward for a long time, for me, that sold it.

"It's a beautiful thing, to win a World Series. I'm a baseball player and that's what I strive to do every year. To do it in this city, it's a no-brainer that you'd be making history. That would be awesome.

"You see what Theo did with the Red Sox in 2004 and reversed the curse and kinda set the country upside down with that. It would be much like that here. I feel like it would be a much greater impact.

"My mindset is always to win a World Series and I feel like I have a great opportunity to do so with this group we have here."

The Cubs believe they made the right investment in Heyward, even if they don't yet have a new TV deal and needed to get creative to make the financials work.

"We want to add players who are going to help us win the World Series," Epstein said. "Jason Heyward, I think everyday that he comes to the park - in some form or another - contributes to winning baseball.

"And we believe will ultimately contribute to a World Series title."

Javy Baez can do anything defensively, but what's next for him at the plate?

Javy Baez can do anything defensively, but what's next for him at the plate?

MESA, Ariz. — You don’t need to spend long searching the highlight reels to figure out why Javy Baez goes by “El Mago.”

Spanish for “The Magician,” that moniker is a fitting one considering what Baez can do with his glove and his arm up the middle of the infield. The king of tags, Baez also dazzles with his throwing arm and his range. He looks like a Gold Glove kind of player when you watch him do these amazing things. And it’s no surprise that in his first media session of the spring, he was talking about winning that award.

“Just to play hard and see what I can do. Obviously, try to be healthy the whole year again. And try to get that Gold Glove that I want because a lot of people know me for my defense,” he said Friday at Cubs camp. “Just try to get a Gold Glove and stay healthy the whole year.”

Those high expectations — in this case, being the best defensive second baseman in the National League — fall in line with everything the rest of the team is saying about their own high expectations. It’s been “World Series or bust” from pretty much everyone over the past couple weeks in Mesa.

Baez might not be all the way there just yet. Joe Maddon talked earlier this week about his reminders that Baez needs to keep focusing on making the easy plays while staying a master of the magnificent.

“What I talked to him about was, when he had to play shortstop, please make the routine play routinely and permit your athleticism to play. Because when the play requires crazinesss, you’re there, you can do that,” Maddon said. “But this straight up ground ball three-hopper to shortstop, come get the ball, play it through and make an accurate throw in a routine manner. Apparently that stuck. Because he told me once he thought in those terms, it really did slow it down for him. And he did do a better job at doing that.”

But the biggest question for Cubs fans when it comes to Baez is when the offense will catch up to his defense. Baez hit a game-winning homer run in his first major league game and smacked 23 of them last season, good for fifth on a team full of power bats. But arguably just as famous as Baez’s defensive magic is his tendency to chase pitches outside of the strike zone. He had 144 strikeouts last season and reached base at a .317 clip. Seven Cubs — including notable struggling hitters Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist — had higher on-base percentages in 2017.

Baez, for one, is staying focused on what he does best, saying he doesn’t really have any specific offensive goals for the upcoming season.

“I’m not worrying about too much about it,” he said. “I’m just trying to play defense, and just let the offense — see what happens.”

Maddon, unsurprisingly, talked much more about what Baez needs to do to become a better all-around player, and unsurprisingly that included being more selective at the plate.

“One of the best base runners in the game, one of the finest arms, most acrobatic, greatest range on defense, power. The biggest thing for me for him is to organize the strike zone,” Maddon said. “Once he does that, heads up. He’s at that point now, at-bat wise, if you want to get those 500, 600 plate appearances, part of that is to organize your zone, accept your walks, utilize the whole field, that kind of stuff. So that would be the level that I think’s the next level for him.”

Will Baez have a season’s worth of at-bats to get that done? The versatile Cubs roster includes a couple guys who split time between the infield and outfield in Zobrist and Ian Happ. Getting their more consistent bats in the lineup might mean sacrificing Baez’s defense on certain days. Baez, of course, also has the ability to slide over to shortstop to spell Addison Russell, like he did when Russell was on the disabled list last season.

Until Baez learns how to navigate that strike zone a bit better, it might make Maddon more likely to mix and match other options, rather than considering him an everyday lock like Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant.

But like Russell, Albert Almora Jr. and Willson Contreras, Baez is one of the young players who despite key roles on a championship contender the last few years still have big league growth to come. And Maddon thinks that growth is right around the corner.

“I want to believe you’re going to see that this year,” Maddon said. “They’ve had enough major league at-bats now, they should start making some significant improvements that are easy to recognize. The biggest thing normally is pitch selection, I think that’s where it really shows up. When you have talented players like that, that are very strong, quick, all that other stuff, if they’re swinging at strikes and taking balls, they’re going to do really well. And so it’s no secret with Javy. It’s no secret with Addy. Addy’s been more swing mode as opposed to accepting his walks. That’s part of the maturation process with those two guys. Albert I thought did a great job the last month, two months of getting better against righties. I thought Jason looked really good in the cage today. And Willson’s Willson.

“The natural assumption is these guys have played enough major league at-bats that you should see something different this year in a positive way.”

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.