Cubs

With Cubs and Cardinals heading in opposite directions, time for Jason Heyward to forget about offensive numbers

With Cubs and Cardinals heading in opposite directions, time for Jason Heyward to forget about offensive numbers

Since Jason Heyward defected from the St. Louis Cardinals, the Cubs haven’t really seen the hitter who hammered a two-run homer off Jake Arrieta during last year’s playoffs, cracking the code to the most unhittable pitcher on the planet at that time.

As advertised, Heyward is an outstanding right fielder who deserves to win his fourth Gold Glove. His intelligence, natural instincts, aggressive mentality running the bases and patience at the plate helped change this team’s identity. A low-maintenance player happens to have the biggest contract in franchise history, and a professional attitude that’s a good influence on the clubhouse.

Heyward also foresaw the decline coming for the Cardinals, switching sides in the rivalry and joining a red-hot team that’s on a 10-game winning streak after Thursday night’s wild 4-3 walk-off victory in the 11th inning at Wrigley Field, pushing the division lead to 13 games.

But for $184 million, the Cubs expected so much more offensive production from a prime-age player who just turned 27 this week. It’s on Twitter and up there across the huge video board in left field – a .227 average, five homers (one since the second weekend of June) and a .624 OPS that ranked 158th out of the 160 qualified big-league hitters at the start of the game.

“It can’t be a numbers game at this point,” Heyward said. “That’s just the nature of the beast when it comes to starting off slow and going through struggles at a certain point in time this late in the season. You can’t ever look at numbers – not that I personally ever looked at numbers, anyway – but right now they’re just not going to matter.

“It’s just going to matter (in terms of) wins and losses and what I do every night to help my team win, whether it’s get on base, whether it’s come up with a big hit or making big plays on defense. Believe it or not, that’s what I always look at trying to do.”

[SHOP: Get your own Jason Heyward jersey here]

The new-wave metrics that used to rate Heyward as one of the most valuable players in the game – without being a middle-of-the-order slugger – are harder to believe when you don’t watch him play every day. Whether it’s been a wrist issue, a hard-to-maintain swing or trying too hard to make a good first impression, Heyward hasn’t been the all-around impact player the Cubs envisioned.

“I know what he’s kind of going through,” said Jon Lester, the $155 million pitcher who’s admittedly more comfortable in the second season of that megadeal. “This year’s been tough, I’m sure, for him.

“I’m sure people check the box score and they don’t watch the game. He’s squared a lot of balls up for us this year and he hasn’t had a lot to show for it. I know that’s hard, because this game is built around results.

“Everybody’s in there rooting for each other, but especially for him, (because) he does so many other things well. (He) brings so much – other than what he does at the plate – to this team. I think (that) gets overlooked at times.”

At the beginning of a four-game series that could bury the second-place Cardinals in the National League Central, Heyward grounded into a momentum-stopping double play in the second inning and got booed after swinging at a first-pitch fastball and popping out with two runners on to end the 10th.

Heyward also put pressure on the Cardinals with a two-out infield single against Carlos Martinez in the sixth inning, loading the bases for Chris Coghlan, who tried to call timeout and then lined a two-run single into right field. Moments later, Heyward sprinted home and scored on David Ross’ bunt hit.

“The guy just works so hard,” said Ben Zobrist, the other big-name free agent signed with the idea of transforming this lineup for October. “You see him working every day to try to break through. He’s had so much bad luck this year, hitting balls hard at people and people making great plays on him.

“He’s going to come through. We know he’s one of the most talented guys in this clubhouse – and that’s saying a lot. All the work he’s putting in is going to pay off here.”

In a bottom-line game on a World Series-or-bust team, no one will remember Heyward’s OPS if all the little things he does help add up to a championship this year.

“I personally handle it by trying to come in and help my team win every day,” Heyward said.

Javier Báez joins Cubs All-Decade Team at second base, where El Mago was born

Javier Báez joins Cubs All-Decade Team at second base, where El Mago was born

With the 2010s coming to a close, NBC Sports Chicago is unveiling its Cubs All-Decade Team, highlighting the players who made the biggest impacts on the organization from 2010-19.

There may not be a player in baseball more exciting to watch than Javier Báez.

Whether at the plate, in the field or on the bases, Báez is a human highlight real. He’s one of the most powerful hitters in baseball; he has a cannon for an arm, exemplary defensive range and is a tagging maestro. He’s a dynamic baserunner who uses his elite baseball instincts to go station-to-station while magically avoiding tags along the way.

Yeah, there’s a reason Báez is known as “El Mago.” It’s not a matter of if he’ll make an incredible play each game, but a matter of when. Things come easy for the 27-year-old full of flair who makes the most difficult plays seem routine.

Báez is a career .270/.310/.484 hitter who’s hit 110 home runs in parts of six big-league seasons. One of those long balls came in his big-league debut (Aug. 5, 2014), a go-ahead blast against the Rockies in the 12th inning. The legend of El Mago was born.

Báez is the Cubs starting shortstop, though that hasn’t always been the case. Starlin Castro was the starter in 2014; Addison Russell claimed the title from Castro in the second half of 2015, holding it down until late in the 2018 season. Russell hit the injured list that August as the Cubs simultaneously acquired Daniel Murphy in an attempt to jump-start the offense.

By the time Russell returned, Báez was a clear-cut NL MVP candidate. The latter still bounced around the infield from time-to-time, but with Murphy entrenched at second, shortstop became Báez’s primary position. He’s been the starter ever since.

Báez has played 2,646 2/3 career innings at shortstop compared to 1,856 at second base (and 629 1/3 at third). He’s exclusively a shortstop these days, but the El Mago second base days aren’t forgotten.

Báez was the co-recipient of the 2016 NLCS MVP award (along with Jon Lester) and has started back-to-back All-Star Games (2018 at second, 2019 at shortstop). He was the runner-up for the 2018 NL MVP award, posting career highs across the board: .290/.326/.554, 34 homers, 111 RBIs, 129 OPS+.

And yet, it feels like Báez is only getting started. Nevertheless, his career to date has more than earned him a spot on our Cubs All-Decade Team at second base. With that, we'll leave you with this:

Anthony Rizzo joins Cubs All-Decade Team behind efforts on and off field

Anthony Rizzo joins Cubs All-Decade Team behind efforts on and off field

With the 2010s coming to a close, NBC Sports Chicago is unveiling its Cubs All-Decade Team, highlighting the players who made the biggest impacts on the organization from 2010-19.

You saw this one coming, right?

As the Cubs’ longest tenure player, Anthony Rizzo was a shoo-in for this group. He hasn’t relinquished his starting first baseman job since making his Cubs debut in June 2012. The guy’s longevity alone is impressive.

But besides that, Rizzo has been a model of consistency during his time on the North Side. Since 2012, he’s hit 217 home runs (averaging 27 per season) and hit 32 three times from 2014-17. The lone exception? 2015, when he hit 31. So close…

As a Cub, Rizzo is a .277/.376/.496 hitter with a 132 OPS+. He produces at a high clip each season, whether he’s hitting third, cleanup or leadoff, all while simultaneously playing stellar defense. The 30-year-old is a three-time Gold Glove Award winner (2016, 2018-19).

Rizzo is the guy who comes up huge in key moments but will be there to address the media after tough losses. He’s the de facto captain of the Cubs, the guy who suffered a nasty ankle sprain in September that could have ended his regular season. Instead, he returned four days later for a key series against the rival Cardinals, as the Cubs were fighting to keep their October dreams alive.

When he’s not leading his team on the field, Rizzo is giving back to the community off of it. He’s one of the most charitable athletes in the world and recently raised $1.3 million for children’s cancer research at his “8th annual Walk-off for Cancer” in his home state of Florida.

Rizzo was the first building block of the Cubs core which snapped their infamous 108-year championship drought, but he’ll be remembered for more than that. He’s a leader on and off the field, the clear choice for starting first baseman on our Cubs All-Decade Team.

Also considered: Derrek Lee, Bryan LaHair