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 adding catching depth that may help them out in the Yu Darvish sweepstakes

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AP

Cubs adding catching depth that may help them out in the Yu Darvish sweepstakes

Chris Gimenez, come on down.

The 35-year-old catcher isn't exactly a household name, but he's been signed by the Cubs to add backstop depth, according to Chris Cotillo and Ken Rosenthal:

The Cubs didn't have much depth in the catching department beyond Willson Contreras and inexperienced rookie Victor Caratini and while Gimenez doesn't light up the stat column, he's a link to Yu Darvish that could give the Cubs a unique advantage in that domain:

Darvish and Gimenez played together with the Texas Rangers in 2014-15 (though Darvish was hurt in 2015) and Gimenez has been shedding some light on what the free-agent pitcher may be thinking this winter. Is this Part II of a David Ross-Jon Lester personal catcher situation?

That may be reading a bit too much into things, as the Cubs were always going to sign a veteran catcher to provide depth beyond the unproven Caratini. They saw how important that was in 2017 when Alex Avila spent roughly a month as the starter when Contreras was hurt.

The link between Gimenez and Darvish is real, but the frontline starter has also made 48 starts over the last two seasons while throwing to a catcher not named Gimenez. And the free agent catching market is pretty thin beyond Avila and Jonathan Lucroy, both of whom should earn starter's money or close to it.

Gimenez has played 361 games in the big leagues over the last nine seasons as a journeyman, with stops in Cleveland, Seattle, Tampa Bay, Oakland, Texas, Cleveland (again), Texas (again), Cleveland (again) and then Minnesota last year. He played for Cubs manager Joe Maddon and new pitching coach Jim Hickey while in Tampa Bay.

Gimenez turned in a career season in 2017 with the Twins, notching new highs in games played (74), at-bats (186), runs (28), hits (41), homers (7), RBI (16) and walks (33).

He has a career .218 batting average with a .309 on-base percentage, .345 slugging and .654 OPS. 

But Gimenez isn't just a catcher. He's made nine appearances as a pitcher over the last few years, including six in 2017, where he allowed four runs on seven hits in five innings.

Gimenez will probably compete with Caratini for the backup catcher role in Chicago and can lend a veteran presence. He's also the best bet to take for first position player to pitch in a game in 2018.

The Brewers have emerged as a darkhorse in the race for top starting pitchers

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USA TODAY

The Brewers have emerged as a darkhorse in the race for top starting pitchers

The Milwaukee Brewers are making sure nobody forgets about them in the National League Central.

While the St. Louis Cardinals continue to make trades and the Cubs remain linked to the top starting pitchers on the market even after signing three pitchers, the Brewers have been rather quiet. All winter, the only noteworthy moves from Milwaukee came in the form of under-the-radar pitcher signings — starters Jhoulys Chacin and Yovani Gallardo plus reliever Boone Logan.

Beyond that, the Brewers have added a bunch of other low-leverage players — catcher Christian Bethancourt and relievers J.J. Hoover, Ernesto Frieri, Michael Brady and Erik Davis. (Nobody would blame you if you haven't heard of any of those players before.)

But maybe the Brewers have just been saving their cash for one of the big guys, with Ken Rosenthal confirming a report Sunday night Milwaukee is not only one of the teams in on Yu Darvish, but they've even made a formal offer:

The Brewers securing Darvish or one of the other top pitchers — Jake Arrieta or Alex Cobb — would be a huge development in their effort to keep pace with the Cubs and Cardinals in the division.

Milwaukee was a surprise contender in 2017 before they faded down the stretch. The main reason they hung around the top of the NL Central all year was a shockingly-effective pitching staff.

However, the Brewers have some serious pitching questions long-term that need to be addressed. Beyond Chase Anderson and Zach Davies in the rotation, there are no sure things. 

Jimmy Nelson underwent shoulder surgery last fall and it's currently unknown when he can be counted on again, though things are progressing ahead of schedule. Junior Guerra — the 33-year-old right-hander formerly of the White Sox — went 9-3 with a 2.81 ERA in 20 starts in 2016 but followed that up with some serious struggles in 2017 (5.12 ERA, 1.48 WHIP).

Chacin, 30, was good in 2017 (13-10, 3.89 ERA, 1.27 WHIP), but struggled with health and inconsistent performance in the five seasons prior. Gallardo, 31, has a 5.57 ERA and 1.55 WHIP over the last two seasons. 

All that adds up to a staff that doesn't inspire much confidence behind a high-powered offense led by Ryan Braun, Travis Shaw, Domingo Santana, Eric Thames plus up-and-comers Lewis Brinson and Orlando Arcia.

Adding Arrieta or Darvish would certainly go quite far in improving the Brewers' biggest weakness and even Cobb could be a serious game-changer in Milwaukee.

As an interesting footnote to the whole Darvish rumor, the minute after Rosenthal confirmed the report, the Brewers official Twitter account took a shot at the Cubs:

Cubs Twitter — never one to back down from a good-natured social media spat — responded Monday morning with a sick comeback: