Cubs

Can Jason Heyward handle the pressure of largest contract in Cubs history?

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Can Jason Heyward handle the pressure of largest contract in Cubs history?

There's no question Jason Heyward makes the Cubs a better team.

But is he worth $184 million?

It's a question plenty of people will try to answer throughout the length of Heyward's eight-year, $184 million deal - the largest contract in Cubs history.

[SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

There's plenty of pressure for Heyward to "live up" to that megadeal, but he's not focusing on the dollars and cents.

"Every time money comes up, I feel like the media talks about it way more than I'm thinking about it," Heyward said at his introductory press conference in Chicago last week. "I'm just happy to have the opportunity to play this game for at least eight more years, hopefully more than that.

"That's the most important thing for me. There's the business side that as players, we don't like at times. But that's also the side that rewards you for staying healthy and being a good person in the clubhouse and bringing things to the game on a daily basis.

"You just want to be appreciated for that at the end of the day. ... For me, nothing's going to change."

The Cubs haven't yet cashed in on the ridiculous sum of money coming from all the new TV deals around Major League Baseball, but it was clear this was a move Theo Epstein's front office wanted to make, regardless of the contract.

The Cubs know all about what Heyward can do after seeing him up close and personal on a member of the St. Louis Cardinals in both the regular season and postseason in 2015.

"Every game after we played the Cardinals," Cubs GM Jed Hoyer said, "I'd go down to talk to [Cubs manager Joe Maddon] and he was always just buzzing about Jason after the game and how much he impacted the game.

"Every time you looked at something on the field, Jason was a part of it. That's the kind of player we want."

Epstein also spoke highly of how the 26-year-old fits in so well with a young Cubs core that is expected to mature and grow together.

[MORE - Theo Epstein believes Cubs are selling themselves now]

The Cubs believe he personifies their brand of baseball and even though Heyward is getting paid like a middle-of-the order hitter, in reality, he doesn't have to become anything more than what he already is as a player.

Heyward may never develop 30-homer power or drive in 100 runs or become the most feared bat on the North Side of Chicago. But he does just about everything on the diamond really well and takes particular pride in his work in the outfield.

"On defense, I can affect the game every pitch," he said. "But on offense, I only get one at-bat or the at-bat comes around only so many times a game. On defense, there's 27 outs you need to make in nine innings to win a ballgame and I'm not asleep for any of those.

"I try and do what I can to help my team, whether it's cutting a ball off, throwing somebody out, making a nice diving play. You can score 10 runs, but if you can't stop somebody from scoring 11, you're not going to win."

Heyward is a natural right fielder - probably the best defensive right fielder in the game right now - but he's all for moving to center field for 2016, allowing the Cubs to keep the bats of Kyle Schwarber and Jorge Soler in the lineup at the corner outfield spots.

Heyward said his final contract would not just be about money and he proved it when he left offers of at least $200 million on the table to sign with the Cubs for less overall money.

But part of the reason why Heyward chose the Cubs as a destination was not just because of the young core, but the opportunity to do something historic, the chance to go down forever in baseball lore.

[RELATED - Cardinals don't appreciate Jason Heyward's reason for signing with Cubs]

Whoever is on the Cubs team that finally ends the championship drought will never be forgotten and that kind of glory is enticing for any competitive person.

However, being a Cub also comes with a different kind of pressure - that of curses and Billy Goats and black cats and Steve Bartmans.

Heyward knows that history, but he doesn't seem to care, immediately brushing off the "curse" talk when a Chicago reporter asked him about it following the opening press conference.

"I'm going to blame you for keeping that going," Heyward said to the reporter before moving on to discuss how he believes this is a franchise that can now move past all the talk of curses. "You see changes in the culture here.

"You see them getting younger. You see them spending a lot of time and detail in the young players coming up as well as the players that you bring in via free agency. Taking those strides, I feel like, go a long way.

"That's how you change a culture within a team. You see the Dodgers, Royals, Giants do it. ... I feel like Theo and Jed and the Ricketts family have done an outstanding job of being hungry in the sense of they want to take those strides to go win.

"They're not just talking about it; they're doing it."

There's more change coming for the Cubs this offseason, but in what form?

There's more change coming for the Cubs this offseason, but in what form?

David Kaplan said it best on the most recent CubsTalk Podcast:

"I think it's gonna be the most impactful offseason since Theo and Jed have been here."

He's not wrong, which is saying something given the Cubs have had plenty of impactful offseasons in the tenure of Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer. This is a group that added Joe Maddon and Jon Lester ahead of the 2015 season and then the next winter, added Jason Heyward and surprised everybody by bringing back Dexter Fowler a couple days into 2016 spring training.

Anytime a team sets World Series or bust expectations and instead is going home just one day into the MLB postseason, change is coming. That may be especially true with HOW the Cubs got knocked out — leading the division and boasting the best record in the National League from the All-Star Break all the way through Game 162...yet they didn't even make it to the NLDS.

It's impossible to predict exactly what changes will be coming for the Cubs because as of this writing, three teams still remain and some of the winter's biggest names (Manny Machado, Clayton Kershaw, Craig Kimbrel) have yet to begin their offseason. There's still so much that can change even before free agency opens.

So if you're looking for a bunch of predictions or projections about what is going to happen in the Cubs world this winter, you're in the wrong spot. But here's where change MAY take place over the next couple months:

Coaching staff

We'll start with the area that will probably have a resolution the soonest. Teams typically prefer to have their coaching staff settled as early as possible into the offseason so they can fill out the roster from there. An added bonus is the new coaches can start reaching out to players on the roster earlier in the offseason if they choose to, as well.

With the Cubs coaching staff, there very well may be more shakeup coming this fall even after Chili Davis was let go last week. All we know for certain is Anthony Iapoce will be the team's new hitting coach in 2019 on Joe Maddon's staff. Beyond that, the Cubs have not publicly confirmed that Jim Hickey or any the other coaches will 100 percent be back next spring. 

Lineup

There's a potential the Cubs' 2019 Opening Day lineup will be far different from not only the 2018 Opening Day lineup, but also even the NL Wild-Card lineup. 

Like their fans, the Cubs were unhappy with the way the offense performed in the second half, particularly in three of the final four games (the penultimate regular season contest, Game 163 and the Wild-Card game). 

So much has been made of the Cubs' young core of position players over the last few years, but the evaluation has to change after a bunch of the members of "The Core" took steps back in 2018 (Willson Contreras, Addison Russell, Ian Happ, Albert Almora Jr.). 

Kyle Schwarber enjoyed a bit of a resurgent season as he cut down on strikeouts, walked more and boosted his batting average while improving as a defender, but also saw a dip in power and still hasn't taken that big step forward toward one of the league's most feared run producers.

Kris Bryant also obviously experienced a dip in offensive production, but so much of that can be tied into the left shoulder injury that clearly affected his swing.

After a disappointing end to the season that highlighted the offensive shortcomings, Epstein was blatantly honest about how the evaluation of these players has to evolve:

"It has to be more about production than talent going forward," Epstein said. "And that includes our own assessments. Beyond that, it's also trying to understand why we're not where we should be with some individual players. In other words: If you look back, players who do certain things at 22 and 23 should be progressing into a better, more productive phase of their career at 24, 25 and 26.

"I'm the first one to talk about how development and progress — those aren't linear things all the time. There are a lot of ups and downs. But I think there's a trend where Javy took the big step forward, but there are other guys who went the opposite direction or have been trending the opposite direction a little bit. We have to get to the bottom of that.

"It's our job not just to assemble a talented group, but unearth that talent and have it manifest on the field. Because that's ultimately all that matters. It's an assessment on those two fronts. The talent that we have and who's going to be productive, who's not or where we can find that production. And then also understand the environment and are we doing everything that we can in creating just the right situation to get the most out of these guys."

And therein lies a perfect transition into the next category...

Potential trades

With that aforementioned core of young position players, the only former members of "The Core" that have been traded away are Jorge Soler and Starlin Castro. Year after year of trade rumors and yet as of this writing, guys like Schwarber and Russell and Happ remain in Cubs uniforms.

Will that change this winter? Obviously we don't know for sure, but it seems as likely as at any other point in the last few offseasons.

Reading the tea leaves, it would make sense for the Cubs to deal away at least one of those core members this winter to either bolster the bullpen or restock the farm system. 

For starters, the offensive dip in the second half could portend the need for change. It's very hard for a big group of young hitters to all develop on the same path at the same pace, which means the learning curve can lead to prolonged slumps that occur all at the same time — which we've seen often the last few seasons. 

Epstein was also candid about how the players aren't quite as happy with Maddon's ever-changing lineup as they once were which also means the Cubs probably have to shed some of their depth at some point if they truly want more stable playing time. Almora or Happ can't sit on the bench five times a week without completely inhibiting their development path.

The Cubs also showed exactly how they feel about this group of hitters when they went out and acquired Daniel Murphy in August, stressing the need for his "professional at-bats" in the lineup on a consistent basis at the most important time of the season.

Free agency

The Cubs will have World Series expectations in 2019, so once again, they figure to be big players in free agency. Even if they don't wind up with Bryce Harper or Manny Machado, they will at least kick the tires on the two superstars since they're clearly in the market for improved offense.

But beyond the big fish, the Cubs need to add to the bullpen, bolster the lineup, acquire some more shortstop depth and potentially even add a veteran backup catcher to help give Contreras more regular rest. All those moves could come from the free agent market.

Addison Russell

Will he be back? Even if he is still on the Cubs roster at the start of next year, would he make it through the year? The Cubs may eventually trade him, but why give up on him at a time when Epstein said it's important for the organization to support Russell and his value is also the lowest it's ever been? Strictly thinking in a baseball sense, he could be a perfect midseason trade piece.

Regardless of what happens with Russell, there is some change for the Cubs in that for the first time ever, Javy Baez will enter the official offseason as the clear starter at shortstop next year (at least for the first month). 

Defensive puzzle

Whoever the Cubs add this offseason to help the lineup and subtract from the roster that ended 2018 will still have to fit in the same defensive puzzle somehow. For example, if the Cubs signed Machado, they could slot him in at shortstop a bunch, which opens up Baez to float and play second a bunch or third, which moves Bryant to the outfield, which moves Schwarber to the bench. And on and on with any potential move the Cubs make this winter.

On the other hand, taking guys away from the current defensive puzzle also would have ripples throughout the rest of the roster. For example, if Happ is traded away, that also removes a switch-hitter and a guy with a ton of defensive versatility away from the roster. What does that do to the depth chart in the outfield or at third base? 

Starting Rotation

There might not be any change in terms of additions to the Cubs' rotation ahead of 2019, but that's not to say there won't be any movin' and shakin'.

Assuming the Cubs pick up Cole Hamels' $20 million option — which they should and probably will — that will leave them with Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks, Hamels, Jose Quintana, Yu Darvish, Tyler Chatwood, Drew Smyly and Mike Montgomery all under contract for next season and all projected to be healthy enough to pitch by the start of spring training. (Before you ask: yes, the Cubs are planning on Smyly as a starter right now; Epstein said as much in September.)

Lester, Hendricks and Quintana are locks for the Opening Day rotation, as is Hamels if that option is picked up. Darvish will surely be in the rotation, too, assuming he's fully over the elbow/triceps issue that limited him to only 40 innings in his first year in Chicago.

So what will the Cubs do with Smyly, Chatwood and Montgomery? Smyly will be on an innings limit in 2019 after missing the last two years due to Tommy John, so it's possible the Cubs opt to switch gears and just throw him in the bullpen to start the year. They may do the same with Montgomery, but will the veteran lefty be OK with that after publicly admitting he wants to start at various points over the last year-plus? Would Chatwood be OK in moving to the bullpen or would the Cubs just move him if he is still having command woes? 

Epstein and Hoyer often remind you can never have too much pitching, but in a way, the Cubs may have too much starting pitching on their roster for 2019 taking up a big part of the team's payroll. Is it possible we'd see a guy get moved this winter as a result? You never know.

40-man roster

This is the most mundane area, as every team makes pretty significant changes on their 40-man roster each offseason — even under the radar. There will always be shakeups with players getting DFA'd to create room for new additions, prospects added to the 40-man roster so as to be protected from the Rule 5 Draft, etc. 

Kyle Hendricks takes in a Blackhawks game with... Bastian Schweinsteiger?

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NBC Sports Chicago

Kyle Hendricks takes in a Blackhawks game with... Bastian Schweinsteiger?

A Cubs pitcher taking in a Blackhawks game in a suite is nothing special, but doing so with a World Cup winner is... different.

Kyle Hendricks was spotted by the cameras of Thursday's Blackhawks-Coyotes broadcast on NBC Sports Chicago. The guy he was standing next to was none other than Chicago Fire midfielder Bastian Schweinsteiger, a World Cup with Germany and Champions League winner with Bayern Munich.

Hendricks is known for being reserved on the mound and in his interviews with the media. Meanwhile, Schweinsteiger was filmed yelling "Bear Down" in the hallway of Toyota Park after a Fire practice earlier in the day.

There's no telling what inspired Schweinsteiger to do this, but he has definitely embraced Chicago sports teams since joining the Fire in March of 2017.

Makes you wonder what Hendricks and Schweinsteiger were talking about. Best places to get brats in Chicago?