Cubs

Why Kris Bryant wants to be like Jason Heyward and what it means for Cubs

Why Kris Bryant wants to be like Jason Heyward and what it means for Cubs

LOS ANGELES – To get a better idea why Theo Epstein’s front office invested $184 million in Jason Heyward – and how Cubs manager Joe Maddon thinks through the lineup – just listen to Kris Bryant. 

The National League’s leading MVP candidate explained Heyward’s value to the best team in baseball late Friday night at Dodger Stadium after blasting his 34th and 35th home runs during a 10-inning comeback victory.

Bryant, a particularly gracious teammate, credited Heyward for sparking the ninth-inning rally against Los Angeles closer Kenley Jansen, hitting a leadoff double and taking advantage of a misplayed strike three and a wild pitch to score the game-tying run.   

“We all know what he can do at the plate,” Bryant said. “Everybody knows what he can do in the field. He’s a huge asset to this team. If it wasn’t for him getting us started there, we wouldn’t have won the game. Simple as that.
 
“Heads-up base-running (is) something that you really can’t teach. And he has it. It’s just awesome to see him come out and compete every day.

“It inspires me. It makes me want to be like him, always keeping your head up, always being a great teammate, being so positive. I can’t say enough about him.”

[SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!] 

Maybe a road trip that began with Heyward getting a mental break and sitting through three games at Coors Field becomes a turning point in a poor offensive season (.229 average/.629 OPS). In his first game back after that reboot, Heyward homered against the San Diego Padres, hitting his first one in almost a month. 

After sitting against Los Angeles lefty Julio Urias – with Maddon wanting to get Jorge Soler involved – Heyward came off the bench to deliver a pinch-hit RBI single off reliever Pedro Baez in the seventh inning of Saturday afternoon’s 3-2 loss at Dodger Stadium (and then get thrown out trying to steal second base).       

“He’s not hit to his level yet this year, but he plays a significant game on a nightly basis,” Maddon said. “He doesn’t cry about things. He doesn’t make excuses. He shows up and he plays. That’s why I say he’s a winner.

“The hitting’s going to be there. I’m telling you it’s going to be there. And it’s going to be there at the right time this year – and for years to come. 

“He’s just had a tough moment and he’s been digging himself out of a hole all year at the plate. But every place else, he’s among the best in the game right now.”

That’s why the Cubs can sacrifice a measure of offense in the playoffs and still thrive with Heyward’s Gold Glove defense, speed and instincts.   

“Jason does set a great example daily,” Maddon said. “Because a lot of guys going through that moment would not be the teammate that he is and pick up everybody else. 

“A lot of times when guys aren’t hitting, they go, ‘Oh, my self-worth goes down. Should I pop off? Should I say something?’ Guys who have carried their batting average on their sleeve and then react accordingly – that’s not good. Just be who you are. He has a lot to bring on a daily basis, even if he’s not 3-for-4.”   

The Cubs also remember Heyward as a tough out and a dynamic lineup presence for the St. Louis Cardinals during last year’s playoffs. And everyone will forget the numbers from the regular season if Heyward performs in the postseason. 

“Once October starts,” Heyward said, “you got to be on. That’s the way we’re trying to look at it.” 

Albert Almora's strong connection to Team USA baseball

Albert Almora's strong connection to Team USA baseball

Who was Theo Epstein’s first draft pick with the Cubs?

The answer to that trivia question will always and forever be Albert Almora Jr. picked sixth overall in the 2012 amateur draft.

In some ways, the young outfielder from Florida became the forgotten man in the stable of can’t-miss prospects that Epstein and top lieutenants Jed Hoyer and Jason MacLeod amassed since their arrival over six years ago. While players such as Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber and Ian Happ zoomed through the minor leagues on their way to the majors, Almora took a different path – one that included seven different stops over parts of five developmental seasons before he broke into the big leagues during the 2016 season.

But Almora’s road to the majors began years before he was selected by the Cubs, when he began playing for Team USA as a 13-year-old. Over the next several years, Almora played for the Red, White & Blue seven times, his final appearance coming in 2015. The seven appearances are the most in the history of USA Baseball, and Almora recognizes the impact his time with the national squad had on his playing career.

“[It was] one of the best experiences of my life," he said. "Every year I had something special to play with, unbelievable guys, went to crazy places, and out of those six years, five of them came with a gold medal so that was pretty special as well. Also, that helped me in my baseball life, how to experience things and learn from those type of experiences.

“I’m a Cubbie and that’s what’s on my chest right now, but Team USA will always have a special place in my heart.”

While Almora carries those national team experiences with him every day, his main focus coming into the 2018 season is becoming a consistent difference-maker. Almora made only 65 starts during the 2017 campaign, and 63 percent of his at-bats last year came against left-handed pitching, against which he hit a robust .342. That led to a platoon role in a crowded outfield, with Jason Heyward, Kyle Schwarber, Jon Jay, Ian Happ and Ben Zobrist all taking turns on the merry-go-round. But with the departure of Jay, Almora believes his time is near.

“I have the most confidence in myself that I can play every day, but I try not to think about that kind of stuff because it’s out of my control," Almora said. "All I control is like last year what I did; whenever I was given an opportunity, I tried to do my best and help the team win.”

Almora’s ultimate role on the 2018 Cubs remains to be seen, but there’s no question that Theo’s first Cubs pick will earn whatever role he ends up with, and the foundation of Almora’s journey to Clark and Addison was laid many summers ago during his time with Team USA.

Willson Contreras willing to pay the price for mound visits

Willson Contreras willing to pay the price for mound visits

News broke to Willson Contreras that the league will be limiting mound visits this upcoming season, and the Cubs catcher —notorious for his frequent visits to the rubber — is not having it.

“I’ve been reading a lot about this rule, and I don’t really care. If you have to go again and pay the price for my team, I will," he said.

The new rules rolled out Tuesday will limit six visits —any time a manager, coach or player visits the mound — per nine innings. But, communication between a player and a pitcher that does not require them moving from their position does not count as a visit.When a team is out of visits, it's the umpire's discretion to allow an extra trip to the mound.

But despite the new rules, Contreras is willing to do what's best for the team.

“There’s six mound visits, but what if you have a tight game? They cannot say anything about that. If you’re going to fine me about the [seventh] mound visit, I’ll pay the price.”