Cubs

Cubs believe Jason Heyward still has room to grow as a power hitter

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Cubs believe Jason Heyward still has room to grow as a power hitter

If you thought fans were excited when Jason Heyward chose to sign in Chicago, just imagine how the Cubs must be feeling.

Joe Maddon called Heyward "a beautiful man," throughout the 2015 season when he watched the dynamic 26-year-old outfielder star for the St. Louis Cardinals.

Theo Epstein's front office took note of the way Heyward played against the Cubs all year, but it was a particular at-bat in the National League Division Series that really caught Epstein's eye.

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In Game 3 at Wrigley Field, Heyward got a breaking ball from Jake Arrieta - the best pitcher on the planet at the time - off the plate outside and drove it to the left-field bleachers.

"It was a swing I hadn't seen from him up close in person before," Epstein said. "It shows a real sophisticated approach and an ability to make and adjustment like that against one of the best pitchers in the game.

"A lot of our players and staff were buzzing about that swing in the clubhouse after the game. You couldn't help but envision maybe some of the damage he could do playing at Wrigley Field on a consistent basis."

Heyward has had success at Wrigley Field throughout his career, sporting an .898 OPS (on a .311/.376/.522 line) in 25 games at "The Friendly Confines."

He also enjoyed playing in Chicago during the postseason, going 3-for-6 with a double, that homer off Arrieta and a pair of walks in a limited sample size.

That being said, Heyward only hit 13 homers in the regular season, after hitting 11 in 2014. In fact, he's only topped 18 homers one time in his career - clubbing 27 with the Atlanta Braves in 2012.

The Cubs are paying Heyward like a middle-of-the-order slugger ($184 million), but the fact of the matter is, he may never develop into more of a power hitter.

[SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

That doesn't mean the Cubs can't hope, however.

"I think it's in there," Epstein said. "He has hit 27 home runs before. There are a lot of players who don't find their consistent power stroke until they get to this age - 26, 27, 28."

Epstein then compared Heyward to another right fielder - Dwight Evans - who didn't find his consistent power stroke until his late 20s with the Boston Red Sox.

Up until age 26, Evans managed just 65 homers over six seasons in the big leagues, topping out at 17 in 1976 at age 24.

However, Evans hit 24 homers in his age 26 season, launching a 12-year run where he hit 301 longballs, averaging 25 per season and hitting at least 20 in every year but one during that stretch.

"Obviously for Jason, it's in there," Epstein said. "But his frame and his batspeed, how far he does hit the ball when he gets ahold of one and his ability to manipulate the barrel and opposite field home runs in parks that allow it like Wrigley Field, I think there's more power in there.

"But the beautiful thing about this is he doesn't have to hit for more power than he already has to really help us win a lot of games because of what he brings to the table defensively, on the bases and his on-base skills.

"Now, you add consistent power production into the mix and you're talking about one of the true, true elites in the game. We'll see how his career evolves.

"But he doesn't have to do more than what he's already done. His approach and how hard he works and wants to get better and the growth mindset that he has, he could put it all together."

Heyward was an interesting free agent, given that most players who hit the open market are on the wrong side of 30. But he is a young player with his prime years ahead of him and even though he isn't a consistent power threat yet, he was still considered the top position player in the free agent class.

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

Heyward appreciates the way this game has developed and everybody can understand there's more to a player's skillset than just batting average, home runs and RBI.

But he also believes - like the Cubs - that there's room for his game to grow.

"I feel like I'm not done," Heyward said. "I feel like there's more in there. I said that at the beginning of spring training in 2015.

"I feel like I took some strides going forward and getting back to some things that I used to do when I was 19, 20 years old. I want to see what I can do to make the most of that and continue to build off this past year."

Feeding off their defense, Cubs starting to feel those 2016 vibes

Feeding off their defense, Cubs starting to feel those 2016 vibes

A year ago, the Cubs were struggling to float above .500, sitting 1.5 games behind the first-place Brewers.

Two years ago, the Cubs were10.5 games up on the second-place Cardinals in the division and already in cruise control to the postseason.

As they entered a weekend series in Cincinnati at 42-29 and in a tie for first place, the Cubs are feeling quite a bit more like 2016 than 2017.

The major reason? Energy, as Joe Maddon pointed out over the weekend.

That energy shows up most often on defense.

The 2016 Cubs put up maybe the best defensive season in baseball history while last year they truly looked hungover.

After a big of a slow start to 2018, the Cubs are feelin' more of that '16 swag.

If you watched either of the wins against the Los Angeles Dodgers this week at Wrigley Field, it's clear to see why: the defense.

"I like the defense," Maddon said of his team last week. "I'm into the defense. There's a tightness about the group. There's a closeness about the group. Not saying last year wasn't like that, but this group is definitely trending more in the '16 direction regarding interacting.

"If anything — and the one thing that makes me extremely pleased — would be the continuation of the defense. We've fed so much off our defense in '16. We've been doing that more recently again. We do so much good out there, then we come in and it gets kinda electric in the dugout. I'd like to see that trend continue on defense."

The Cubs scored only 2 runs in 10 innings in the second game against the Dodgers Tuesday night and managed just 4 runs in the finale Wednesday. Yet their gloves helped hold the Dodgers to only 1 run combined between the two games.

Wednesday's game was a defensive clinic, with Jason Heyward throwing out Chris Taylor at home plate with an incredible tag by Willson Contreras while Javy Baez, Albert Almora Jr., Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber all hit the ground to make sprawling/diving plays.

"[Almora] comes in and dives for one and I'm just like, 'OK, I'm done clapping for you guys,'" Jon Lester, Wednesday's winning pitcher, joked. "It's expected now that these guys make these plays. It's fun on our end. It's the, 'Here, hit it. Our guys are really good out there and they're gonna run it down.'"

The Heyward throw, in particular, jacked the team up. 

Maddon compared it to a grand slam with how much energy it provided the Cubs. Almora said he momentarily lost his voice because he was screaming so much at the play.

There was also Baez making plays in the hole at shortstop, then switching over to second base and turning a ridiculous unassisted double play on a liner in the 8th inning.

"That's what we're capable of doing," Maddon said. "In the past, when we've won on a high level, we've played outstanding defense. It never gets old to watch that kind of baseball."

The Cubs are back to forcing opposing hitters to jog off the field, shaking their head in frustration and disbelief.

"It could be so dispiriting to the other side when you make plays like that," Maddon said. "And also it's buoyant to your pitchers. So there's all kinds of good stuff goin' on there."

A lot of that is the play of the outfield, with Almora back to himself after a down 2017 season and Schwarber turning into a plus-rated defensive outfield.

After finishing 19th in baseball in outfield assists last season, the Cubs are currently tied for 6th with 14 outfield assists this year.

Schwarber has 7 alone, which is already as many as he tallied in the entire 2017 season.

"I feel like they'll learn quickly on Schwarber, if they haven't yet," Heyward said. "You gotta earn that respect. You gotta earn that sense of caution from the third base coach.

"But please keep running on me in those situations. I want it to happen."

Brandon Morrow has a healthy sense of humor about his pants-related injury

Brandon Morrow has a healthy sense of humor about his pants-related injury

Brandon Morrow's body may not be healthy, but his sense of humor sure isn't on the disabled list.

The Cubs closer had to go on the DL Wednesday after he injured his back changing out of his pants early Monday morning when the Cubs returned home to Chicago after a Sunday night game in St. Louis.

The story made national rounds, not only in the baseball world, but resonating with non-sports fans, as well. After all, it's not every day a guy who gets paid millions for his athletic endeavors injures himself on a mundane every day activity.

But it's all good, because even Morrow can find the humor in the situation, Tweeting this out Thursday afternoon:

Morrow's back tightened up on him and didn't loosen up enough the next two days, making him unavailable for the Cubs doubleheader Tuesday at Wrigley Field.

The team decided to put him on the shelf Wednesday morning so an already-gassed bullpen wouldn't have more pressure during this stretch of 14 games in 13 days.

The Cubs are in Cincinnati this weekend for a four-game series with the Reds. Morrow is eligible to return from the DL next Wednesday in Los Angeles as the Cubs once again take on the Dodgers — Morrow's old team.

The 33-year-old pitcher is 16-for-17 in save chances this year while posting a 1.59 ERA, 1.15 WHIP and 25 strikeouts in 22.2 innings. He's only given up a run in 2 of his 26 outings as a Cub.