Cubs

Now what? One year after Rain Delay Speech, Cubs still waiting for Jason Heyward’s next breakthrough

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AP

Now what? One year after Rain Delay Speech, Cubs still waiting for Jason Heyward’s next breakthrough

One year after The Rain Delay Speech, the Cubs have enormous respect for Jason Heyward as a clubhouse leader and a Gold Glove defender — while still facing questions about if he will ever again be an offensive presence, whether or not that still makes him an everyday player and how to salvage their $184 million investment.

The hitting coaches who supervised Heyward’s swing overhaul last offseason in Arizona are gone, with John Mallee fired, assistant Eric Hinske taking the lead job with the Los Angeles Angels and Chili Davis and Andy Haines now overseeing an all-or-nothing lineup that scored 822 runs during the regular season and then posted a .530 OPS in 10 playoff games.

With team president Theo Epstein signaling that the hard-to-find prototypical leadoff hitter is probably more of a luxury than a necessity with this group — and admitting trading big-league talent to get much-needed pitching is a real possibility — the Cubs need Heyward to be the well-rounded player they envisioned when they gave him the biggest contract in franchise history.

“It’s good that we have an opportunity to have a lot of the same guys in this room on this team, because that goes a long way,” Heyward said inside the Wrigley Field clubhouse after the Los Angeles Dodgers dominated the Cubs in the National League Championship Series. “You look at teams in history that have done well in the postseason, they make it known they expect to be in October. That’s an awesome thing.

“But I personally am looking forward to having another opportunity to go to work in the offseason and do more to help. I feel like if I get some more done, it’s a different result for this team as a whole.”

Heyward’s uptick in production only left him with a .715 OPS, or 35 points below the big-league average this season. It still represented an 84-point boost from last year’s offensive spiral. He also put up more homers (11) and RBI (59) this season, even while getting 111 fewer plate appearances than he did in 2016.

During these last two postseason runs combined, Heyward went 7-for-65 (.108 average) with zero homers, one RBI and 16 strikeouts, becoming more of a part-time player/defensive replacement than a lineup fixture.

“I definitely see an improvement,” manager Joe Maddon said. “I am absolutely seeing more hand action in his swing. There’s less push in his swing. I think he’s done a lot of really good work and it’s going to keep getting better. The guy’s so committed to getting better.

“His willingness to adjust — to understand or believe that he needed to do something differently — it starts with that. Some guys may be so hardheaded that they’re unwilling to adapt or adjust.

“He was looking for some new answers, and he found some new things. When you make adjustments like that, you’re always wanting to see that instant gratification, and there was some, I thought.

“Give it some time, and this could really continue to get better, because he’s so committed. He’s such a good athlete. He’s so strong, and now he’s starting to feel his hands in a way that he had not for a while. That’s what I’m seeing.”

A big idea behind the Heyward megadeal was that even if he bombed in the first year, he would not have to reinvent himself in his mid-30s and scramble to make up for declining physical skills and health issues. Maddon talks about Heyward being in that sweet spot for a big-league player in terms of ability, knowledge and experience — age 28 — but eventually time won’t be on their side anymore.

“I would like for him to stay on the same path,” Maddon said. “I think he’s growing into the adjustment that he’s made. I think next year’s going to be a pretty good indicator of where he’s at. From where he was last year – to the adjustments he made in the offseason into this season – and now he’ll have another offseason to really fine-tune that.

“When you see him next year, you’ll find out exactly where he’s at developmentally as a hitter.”

Heyward, a finalist this year for his fifth Gold Glove, is still a game-changer in right field, and someone who runs the bases with an alertness and an aggressiveness that can shape an entire team’s mentality.

Though Heyward doesn’t really like to talk about it or promote himself as a leader, the meeting he led in a Progressive Field weight room during last year’s epic World Series Game 7 win over the Cleveland Indians is another sign of the calming, energizing influence he has on teammates.

Epstein wants to believe Heyward can still be the 6-WAR force you saw during four of his first six seasons in the big leagues with the Atlanta Braves and St. Louis Cardinals.

“That’s really the standard,” Epstein said. “By definition, I think he can improve more than marginally from where he is right now, because he’s done it in the past.

“That’s what we want to get him back to – being a six-win player. And in order to do that, he’s got to continue to play his great defense, continue to run the bases really well, (plus) the added benefit of everything he does in the clubhouse and with his leadership and professionalism.

“But to be that type of player again, there needs to be some improvement with the bat to get back to that level. We’d love to see that, which means driving the ball more consistently to all fields and getting on base more and being a little bit more of an extra-base threat.

“He’s done it before, so you’re never going to give up (the idea) that could come back. This is a guy who has a ton of pride and understands that he has contributed to a lot of wins and to a World Series title and to another successful season this year, but that there’s more he can do and wants to do.

“I have no doubt. He’s a proud guy. He’s a talented player. And there’s some room for improvement offensively.”

Heyward, who has no-trade rights through 2018 and an opt-out clause after that season, didn’t take the same victory lap many of his teammates did after the World Series, moving close to the team’s Mesa complex and going back to work in the cage. That attitude won’t change now after a disappointing NLCS that quieted the dynasty talk around Wrigleyville.

“Once you get a taste of it, you want to have it again,” Heyward said. “When you fall short, absolutely, it gives you some more motivation, new perspective.”

Cubs are still without Kris Bryant, but insist there's no need to worry

Cubs are still without Kris Bryant, but insist there's no need to worry

CLEVELAND — The Cubs will play a second straight game without Kris Bryant, but that doesn't mean fans should start panicking.

Bryant hasn't played since getting hit in the head in the top of the first inning in Sunday's game with a 96 mph fastball.

Bryant has been cleared by doctors in Colorado and Cleveland and will meet with the Cubs team doctor Thursday in Chicago. 

The Cubs kept their MVP third baseman out of the lineup Tuesday to give him an extra day of rest, initially hoping he'd be back Wednesday before deciding Tuesday night they should give him another day.

"He's not bad, he's fine," Joe Maddon said. "It's just one of those things. He's been seeing the doctors. There's nothing awful. It's just a matter of getting him ready to play.

"I'm not hearing anything bad. Not at all. I really anticipate good soon. If anything went the other way, I think we'd be surprised."

Head injuries are very tricky and sometimes symptoms can show up days after the initial trauma. That doesn't appear to be the case here with Bryant, but the Cubs also don't want him to rush back until he's ready physically, mentally and emotionally.

The key word there is "trauma," because it was a traumatic experience for Bryant and something he'll have to come to terms with mentally before he can step back in that batter's box.

"Sometimes that's necessary," Maddon said. "Again, he got hit, I didn't. I'm listening to him right now. So whatever he says, I'm very amenable to right now. 

"I could sense [Tuesday] he wasn't quite ready. ... I don't anticipate any long delay."

The Cubs started Tommy La Stella for a second straight game Wednesday in Bryant's place. La Stella played third base Tuesday and was originally slotted for the same spot Wednesday before a last-minute change moved him to second with Javy Baez playing the hot corner.

Cubs hope starting rotation showing signs of thawing as wild first month comes to an end

Cubs hope starting rotation showing signs of thawing as wild first month comes to an end

CLEVELAND — The Cubs offense has looked unstoppable the last week and the bullpen still ranks among the best in the National League.

Now it's time for the starting pitching to step up.

In a rotation packed with the resumes and reputations of Jon Lester, Yu Darvish, Kyle Hendricks and Jose Quintana, it was Tyler Chatwood who became the first Cubs starter to throw a pitch in the seventh inning this season when he did so in the Cubs' 10-3 win over the Indians Tuesday night at Progressive Field.

It took until the 20th game of the year, on Chatwood's fourth start in a Cubs uniform. It also was the team's 8th quality start of the campaign, tied with the Cincinnati Reds for the worst mark in the National League and only the Seattle Mariners, Toronto Blue Jays and Chicago White Sox have fewer in the AL.

However, Chatwood didn't even get an out in that seventh inning as Cleveland's Tyler Naquin reached on an infield single to lead off, prompting a pitching change to Steve Cishek.

The Cubs began the day ranked 17th in MLB in starter's ERA, a far cry from where they thought they might be after signing Darvish and leading a lot of people (myself included) to boldly claim this as the best rotation in baseball.

It obviously hasn't played that way, despite some terrible hitting conditions in frigid weather in the season's first month.

The weather has actually been working against the Cubs pitching staff thus far, which Chatwood used to explain the fact he has walked 19 hitters in 21.2 innings in 2018, with three separate starts of at least 5 free passes.

"There's really no excuses, but we haven't really had ideal weather yet. I think that was the best start I've had for weather-wise," Chatwood said after he pitched in a constant light drizzle throughout Tuesday's game.

"I think it's just a matter of clicking. We've had a lot of rest; it's tough to get into a routine, but I think once we get rolling, I'll clean that up. I need to."

Chatwood went a week in between starts the last two times out and before that, it was 8 days. All these rain/snowouts has really done a number on the routines and habits of the Cubs starting pitchers. Lester admitted the same thing last week.

The Cubs are currently in a stretch of 8 games in 8 days and — knock on wood — it appears the snow and wintry weather is gone from Chicago until far later this year. So every member of the Cubs rotation is on track to throw on regular rest for the first time all year.

That being said, the weather hasn't been the reason behind Darvish's fifth-inning meltdowns and the walks are troublesome with Chatwood, who has a history of control issues. He walked 4.7 batters per nine innings with the Rockies last season and sits at 4.3 per nine for his career.

"I don't think it's a good recipe for success any time you let free baserunners on," Chatwood said. "Throughout my career, I don't really get hit around. It's whenever I walk guys and give up the basehit is when I get hurt.

"Obviously clean that up and I don't think there's any doubt in my mind that I will."