Chili Davis

5 bold predictions for the 2018 Cubs season


5 bold predictions for the 2018 Cubs season

With the 2018 MLB season exactly two weeks away, let's have some fun with bold predictions.

Hopping on Periscope Thursday afternoon, the NBC Sports Chicago team laid out some hot takes for each side of the city:

1. Willson Contreras will finish in the Top 10 in NL MVP voting.

Contreras already may be the most important player on this Cubs team and if he stays healthy, it's very possible he takes that next step into stardom.

Joe Maddon often cites the old scouting adage that if a player has shown you something he's capable of at one point, he can do it again. 

Contreras' superhuman stretch of games from July 14 through Aug. 9 last season could well go down as the "breakout" for the Cubs catcher. He hit .311/.280/.700 (1.080 OPS) with 10 homers and 29 RBI in 100 plate appearances in that stretch and was only slowed because he pulled a hamstring.

Last year, Contreras' walk rate increased, his strikeout rate decreased, his hard-hit percentage increased and his soft-hit percentage decreased. In other words: All the peripherals point in Contreras' favor. 

And if he spends all season hitting behind Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo, he could wind up driving in 100 runs, a heck of a feat for a catcher.

2. Brandon Morrow will not be the closer at the end of the season...and Justin Wilson will be.

Morrow has struggled to stay healthy in his career, appearing in more than 20 games in a season just once since 2012 and he's coming off a postseason in which he was run ragged, pitching in 14 playoff games (and all 7 World Series contests).

So even if Morrow is effective, he may still get Wally Pipp'd out of the closer's role.

Wilson was one of the most dominant closers in the game before being traded to the Cubs; his two months in Chicago was an aberration compared to the rest of his career.

3. Three Cubs starting pitchers will be on the National League All-Star roster.

This one's pretty nuts, I'll admit. It's very rare for a team to send three different starting pitchers to the Midsummer Classic; the 2016 Cubs with a dynamic trio of Jake Arrieta, Jon Lester and Kyle Hendricks weren't able to accomplish that.

But this Cubs rotation may be the best in baseball and any of the top four starters could wind up in Washington D.C. representing the Cubs.

The most likely would be Hendricks, Jose Quintana and Yu Darvish, but there's no reason to think Lester is out of gas in his career and Rizzo is all aboard the Tyler Chatwood train, so...

4. Ian Happ will steal 20 bases.

The Cubs don't run much at all — Rizzo and Javy Baez led the team with 10 swipes each in 2017. 

But Happ has good speed, came to camp in fantastic shape and has a track record of stealing bases. In college, he swiped 56 bags in 163 games and stole 16 bases in the minors in 2016.

He's also proved it at the big-league level. After getting his feet under him and before running into the rookie wall, Happ stole seven bases in a 35-game stretch from mid-June to early-August.

5. Jason Heyward will spend more time in the leadoff spot this year than any other Cubs player.

There's a lot going on here and they're all quite bold.

Right now, Happ appears to be the most likely option atop the Cubs order, but what if he struggles a la 2017 Kyle Schwarber? This will be only the second big-league season (and first full MLB campaign) for Happ.

Schwarber may still spend some time leading off and Albert Almora Jr. will be a great option there against left-handed pitchers, but Heyward would represent a nice veteran option if he can rediscover his swing.

Heyward figures to play more than Zobrist (another solid candidate for the leadoff spot when in the lineup) and he had a career .353 OBP before joining the Cubs. Maybe a new voice in hitting coach Chili Davis will pay off for Heyward.

Also, surprisingly, he posted the lowest strikeout rate of his career in 2017 and still sees a lot of pitches with a patient approach. 

It may seem crazy now, but a Heyward performing more in line with his career numbers might be the best fit for the leadoff spot on this roster.

What's the next step in Addison Russell's development?

What's the next step in Addison Russell's development?

For a team that ranked second in the National League in runs scored and came three wins away from making a return trip to the World Series, the Cubs had more than a couple of regulars who had down seasons.

Jason Heyward has yet to produce offensively since coming to the North Side. Kyle Schwarber got sent down in the middle of the season despite finishing with 30 home runs. Ben Zobrist was bothered by injuries and had the worst statistical season of his career.

Addison Russell was in that group, too. He dealt with injuries to his foot and shoulder as well as off-the-field issues that triggered a Major League Baseball investigation. Russell is ready to forget all about 2017. But the question still remains: Even without any of those other circumstances, what should people expect from Russell?

Just 24 years old, it seems like he's been a Cub forever. Russell drove in six of the Cubs' nine runs in Game 6 of the 2016 World Series, unleashing a rare display of emotion after he blasted a third-inning grand slam that sent the Cubs to Game 7 the next night in Cleveland.

But Russell has yet to turn in a batting average higher than .242. In two of his three big league seasons, his on-base percentage has come in just barely over .300. He drove in a whopping 95 runs during the Cubs' 107-win regular season in 2016, finishing in the top 20 in National League MVP voting. But 108 players finished with a higher OPS than Russell's .738 that season.

None of this is to suggest that Russell has been bad for the Cubs or that he doesn't deserve any recognition — his defensive capabilities alone have been good enough to keep "El Mago" (Javy Baez) at second base. It's just to wonder: What's the next step in Russell's development? How much better can he be?

Asked those very questions in the early days of spring training, Cubs manager Joe Maddon focused on both aspects of Russell's game, defense and offense, when giving a scouting report of what's next for the young shortstop.

"He’s a young man. It’s all going to come together for him," Maddon said. "I really think this is kind of his year to really blossom. He’s done so much good work over the last couple years. Last year a little more difficult in the beginning, but I thought he got it together towards the end. His game became better. The big thing is his arm, making sure that his arm strength is good, keeping him on the field where he feels comfortable making those throws. I know there’s always this controversy about the middle infield, but I really like him when he’s well because he’s so athletic, he’s so gifted, and as a shortstop he’s so fundamentally sound.

"I think his hitting — I’ve talked about this from jump street — this guy’s really strong. Watch his batting practices. At Wrigley, he’s really loud. That power a couple years ago was not a fluke, you’re going to see that again.

"So I would say a more mature approach at the plate, where if the count gets in the pitcher’s favor he’s willing to utilize the whole field. Pick up on his walks, cut down on his strikeouts by doing that. Beyond that, a more consistent approach to his arm daily, I think that’s what’s really going to be the separator. When he’s able to do that, you’re going to see this outstanding defense every day."

Russell is in a different situation than some of the other hitters mentioned above. He's young, still developing into what he'll be in his prime. That doesn't mean, though, that he can't benefit from new Cubs hitting coach Chili Davis, brought in to help young hitters like Russell and Schwarber along as much as he was to "fix" veterans like Heyward and Zobrist.

Davis worked with Russell before, when the latter was a highly rated prospect coming up in the Oakland Athletics' organization. Now the two are reunited with the Cubs, much to Davis' delight.

"I had Addy in Oakland," Davis said in an interview with NBC Sports Chicago last month in Mesa. "And we traded Addy and Billy McKinney to the Cubs for (Jeff) Samardzija and (Jason) Hammel. And I was very disappointed to see him go because I thought, 'Here's our future.' But at the time, we were trying to win, we were in a position to win and go on to the playoffs, so you do understand the trade. But it was just disappointing to see Addy go.

"But I was really happy for him because I looked up and he's in the big leagues. And not only is he in the big leagues but he's performing well in the big leagues. I remember saying to him, 'We'll be together again.' Here's a kid who you just knew, you knew he was going to be a big league player."

There are specific things that the Cubs are looking to see — and expecting to see — from Russell as the still very young player enters his fourth major league season. And while fans and observers will be looking for boosts in those offensive statistics, Maddon thinks the sky's the limit for one of the Cubs' core players.

Russell's already been to an All-Star Game, but Maddon sees something bigger than that.

"Absolutely he can win a Gold Glove," Maddon said. "A lot of our guys can win a Gold Glove. Addy’s right there. A lot of times winning a Gold Glove depends upon how well you hit, so I think he’s got enough offense to be a Gold Glove winner. He doesn’t make mistakes physically, as he goes after a ball, how his feet work, he plays through the ball really well, he turns a double play well. It really comes down to arm strength on a consistent basis, I think that will permit that to happen."

After two years of struggling at the plate, what does 2018 hold for Jason Heyward?


After two years of struggling at the plate, what does 2018 hold for Jason Heyward?

Jason Heyward's rain-delay speech that helped the Cubs to a Game 7 win and a curse-smashing World Series championship might have been worth the $184 million.

But heading into Year 3 of his franchise-record eight-year pact, Heyward's statistical contributions at the plate have been anything but worth the investment.

No one is doubting Heyward's defensive value, which Joe Maddon endlessly praises and loves so much that he keeps Heyward as an everyday fixture in the Cubs' lineup despite the lack of offensive success. Heyward has won a Gold Glove in each of his first two seasons with the Cubs, and it doesn't take an expert in advanced defensive metrics to know that Heyward is a fantastic defender.

But in two years on the North Side, here's what Heyward has done with the bat: a .243/.315/.353 slash line with 18 home runs, 42 doubles, 108 RBIs, 15 steals, 160 strikeouts and 95 walks in 1,073 plate appearances over 268 regular-season games.

And with the Cubs' outfield and lineup in general crowded with promising young position players like Ian Happ, Albert Almora Jr. and Javy Baez, the question has to be asked: Will Heyward's role be limited as the Cubs look to win their second championship in three seasons?

To get the answer out of the way early, probably not. Maddon loves Heyward's presence in right field — as he should, considering Heyward's won four straight Gold Gloves there — and believes the offense will come.

"What I expect is outstanding defense, outstanding leadership qualities, very good base runner. Offensively, I know all the expectations are — I’ve been really happy with him as he is, I have," Maddon said last month at the outset of spring training out in Arizona. "We’ve gone to the playoffs, won a World Series with him. Of course, you look for maybe a higher average, more power, whatever. I like him on the field, man. I like him in the dugout. I like him in our clubhouse.

"He’s such a skillful athlete, I think all those numbers will continue to rise as he gets up to 32, 33 years of age. It’s going to keep getting better. But he’s such a good baseball player and he’s such a force within the group. And I know hitting’s a topic of discussion, I totally concede that, but I don’t look at it that way. I think he will get the big hits when it’s necessary, but I also believe the stuff everyone’s looking for, it’s going to start showing up."

But none of that means that "fixing" Heyward isn't one of the Cubs' top priorities. New hitting coach Chili Davis arrived with a few clear missions, and getting Heyward back to what he did earlier in his career is among those at the top of Davis' list.

And it shouldn't be viewed as some impossible thing. Heyward's lack of production in his first two years as a Cub remains a head-scratcher considering how good he was leading up to his arrival on the North Side. He had a career year with the St. Louis Cardinals in 2015 that earned him that massive contract, his .293 batting average a career high, as were his 23 stolen bases and 33 doubles. His .359 on-base percentage was the second highest of his career, his .439 slugging percentage the third highest of his career, and he finished in the top 15 in voting for National League MVP honors. During his five-year tenure with the Atlanta Braves, he hit 84 home runs and reached base at a .351 clip. The Cubs saw firsthand what Heyward could do when he slashed .357/.438/.643 with an opposite-field homer in the 2015 NLDS.

Davis' solution to the problem? Get Heyward back to doing what he did before.

"He knows that there's more in the tank, and he's reaching for it. He wants to be better," Davis said in an interview with NBC Sports Chicago. "I think what happened to Jason from the Braves years to the years here ... was he probably got away from who he is. He was a natural, gifted athlete with the Braves. So we're just talking, we talk about getting back to natural, getting back to what makes him a good player.

"So it's more his interaction with me and telling me the things that he felt when he was doing well and my eyes trying to see that whenever he works, he's focused on doing those things all the time. And he's working well. We've been here since some time in November. Little baby steps. But I tell you what, you don't have to say things to him twice. He retains the information very well."

Heyward, never one to be short on confidence no matter what the numbers might say, has a different solution.

"Play. Be on the field and play. Everything else is going to take care of itself."

Heyward's referencing the fact that he played in "only" 126 games last season, a noteworthy decline for a guy who has cracked the 140-game mark five times in his eight-year career and the 150-game mark twice. He made a couple trips to the disabled list in 2017, both times with fluky hand injuries, nothing that reflected a lack of conditioning or preparation. So for Heyward, he believes that simply being healthy for a full season and staying off the disabled list will yield the results he expects to see.

Whether Cubs fans expect to see those same results at this point is a different thing entirely. But Heyward's confidence in himself and his expectations for 2018 are not at all lacking.

"If I’m coming in with higher expectations, then I feel like I’ve been tripping (for the past couple years)," Heyward said. "I feel like you always expect to do well, have high expectations. Myself, I’d like to play more games. Knock on wood, try not to be on the DL, especially a couple times, that hurts. Especially someone like myself for repetition, at-bats, just going with the flow of the game and being able to build off of that.

"I feel like when I play a lot of games in a season, I’ll do a lot of good things. I did a lot of good things last year, but missed time takes away from that a lot."

Heyward talked positively about working with Davis, who has other charges to turn around, too, in Kyle Schwarber and Ben Zobrist, who both had disappointing 2017 campaigns. But Heyward, because of his humongous contract and the benefits he could bring to the Cubs' lineup if back at full production levels, would figure to be the most important on that list.

Heyward, though, believes that no matter what Davis or any coach can contribute, it all comes down to him. And that's how fans and observers will see things, too.

"It’s important to understand that your voice needs to be the most important as a player," Heyward said. "You can hear whatever you want to hear from a coach, but if you don’t know how to put it together for yourself, it isn’t going to matter."