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.”

Why did Kris Bryant get a first-place vote in this year's National League MVP balloting?

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USA TODAY

Why did Kris Bryant get a first-place vote in this year's National League MVP balloting?

Kris Bryant was the 2016 National League MVP. And despite having what could be considered an even better campaign this past season, he finished seventh in voting for the 2017 edition of the award.

The NL MVP was awarded to Miami Marlins outfielder Giancarlo Stanton on Thursday night, a fine choice, though it was nearly impossible to make a poor choice, that's how many fantastic players there were hitting the baseball in the NL this season.

After Stanton, Cinicinnati Reds first baseman Joey Votto finished second, earning the same amount of first-place votes and losing out to Stanton by just one point. Then came Arizona Diamondbacks first baseman Paul Goldschmidt, Colorado Rockies third baseman Nolan Arenado, Rockies outfielder Charlie Blackmon and Washington Nationals third baseman Anthony Rendon ahead of Bryant.

But there was someone who thought Bryant deserved to repeat as the NL MVP. Yes, Bryant earned a first-place vote — as did everyone else mentioned besides Rendon, for that matter — causing a bit of a social-media stir considering the Cubs third baseman, despite his great season, perhaps wasn't as standout a candidate as some of the other guys who finished higher in the voting.

So the person who cast that first-place vote for Bryant, MLB.com's Mark Bowman, wrote up why he felt Bryant deserved to hoist the Kenesaw Mountain Landis Memorial Baseball Award for the second straight year.

"In the end, I chose Bryant because I believe he made the greatest impact, as his second-half production fueled the successful turnaround the Cubs experienced after the All-Star break," Bowman wrote.

"Though I don't believe the MVP must come from a playoff contender, in an attempt to differentiate the value provided by each of these three players (Bryant, Votto and Stanton), I chose to reward the impact made by Bryant, who produced the NL's fourth-best OPS (.968) after the All-Star break, when the Cubs distanced themselves from a sub-.500 record and produced an NL-best 49 wins."

It's easy for Cubs fans and observers to follow that logic, as the Cubs took off after the All-Star break following a disappointing first half. As good as Bryant was all season long, his second-half numbers, as Bowman pointed out, were especially great. He hit .325 with a .421 on-base percentage and a .548 slugging percentage over his final 69 games of the regular season, hitting 11 home runs, knocking out 21 doubles and driving in 35 runs during that span.

Perhaps the craziest thing about this year's MVP race and Bryant's place in it is that Bryant was just as good if not better than he was in 2016, when he was almost unanimously named the NL MVP. After slashing .292/.385/.554 with 39 homers, 102 RBIs, 35 doubles, 75 walks and 154 strikeouts in 2016, Bryant slashed .295/.409/.537 with 29 homers, 73 RBIs, 38 doubles, 95 walks and 128 strikeouts in 2017.

Of course, the competition was much steeper this time around. But Bryant was given the MVP award in 2016 playing for a 103-win Cubs team that was bursting with offensive firepower, getting great seasons from Anthony Rizzo (who finished third in 2016 NL MVP voting), as well as Dexter Fowler and Ben Zobrist. While the Cubs actually scored more runs this season and undoubtedly turned it on after the All-Star break on a team-wide basis, Bryant was far and away the best hitter on the team in 2017, with many other guys throughout the lineup having notably down years and/or experiencing down stretches throughout the season. Hence, making Bryant more, say it with me, valuable.

So Bowman's argument about Bryant's impact on the Cubs — a team that still scored 822 runs, won 92 games and advanced to the National League Championship Series — is a decently convincing one.

Check out Bowman's full explanation, which dives into some of Bryant's advanced stats.

Game on as Jake Arrieta, Wade Davis and Alex Cobb turn down qualifying offers

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AP

Game on as Jake Arrieta, Wade Davis and Alex Cobb turn down qualifying offers

During the middle of Jake Arrieta’s 2015 Cy Young Award campaign, super-agent Scott Boras compared the emerging Cubs pitcher to another client – Max Scherzer – in the first season of a seven-year, $210 million megadeal with the Washington Nationals.

Now don’t focus as much on the money – though that obviously matters – as when Scherzer arrived for that Washington press conference to put on his new Nationals jersey: Jan. 21, 2015.

It might take Boras a while to find a new home for his “big squirrel with a lot of nuts in his trees.” Teams have been gearing up for next winter’s monster Bryce Harper/Manny Machado free-agent class for years. Mystery surrounds Shohei Ohtani, Japan’s Babe Ruth, and the posting system with Nippon Professional Baseball. Major League Baseball’s competitive balance tax may also have a chilling effect this offseason.

As expected, Arrieta, All-Star closer Wade Davis and pitcher Alex Cobb were among the group of free agents who went 9-for-9 in declining the one-year, $17.4 million qualifying offer before Thursday’s deadline.

With that formality out of the way, if Arrieta and Davis sign elsewhere, the Cubs will receive two third-round picks in the 2018 draft.

By staying under the $195 million luxury-tax threshold this year, the Cubs would have to give up a second-round draft pick and $500,000 from their international bonus pool to sign Cobb, an obvious target given their connections to the Tampa Bay Rays, or Lance Lynn, another starter on their radar who turned down a qualifying offer from the St. Louis Cardinals.

That collectively bargained luxury-tax system became a central part of the Boras media show on Wednesday outside the Waldorf Astoria Orlando, where he introduced “Playoffville” as his new go-to analogy at the end of the general manager meetings.

“The team cutting payroll is treating their family where they’re staying in a neighborhood that has less protection for winning,” Boras said. “They’re not living in the gated community of Playoffville. Certainly, they’re saving a de minimis property tax, but the reality of it is there’s less firemen in the bullpen. There’s less financial analysts sitting in the press boxes.

“The rooms in the house are less, so obviously you’re going to have less franchise players. When you move to that 12-room home in Playoffville, they generally are filled with the people that allow you to really achieve what your family – your regional family – wants to achieve. And that is winning.”

Boras also represents four other players who rejected qualifying offers – J.D Martinez, Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas and Greg Holland – another reason why this could be a long winter of Arrieta rumors, slow-playing negotiations and LOL metaphors.