Cubs expect Jason Heyward to hit the reset button and produce in 2017

Cubs expect Jason Heyward to hit the reset button and produce in 2017

Jason Heyward is the type of guy who paid for season-long hotel-suite upgrades for farewell-tour catcher David Ross and assistant hitting coach Eric Hinske, thanking them for all their help when he broke into the big leagues with the Atlanta Braves.

Heyward is someone with enough stature inside the clubhouse to get benched throughout the playoffs — and still organize a players-only meeting during Game 7 of the World Series.

Maybe what was said in that Progressive Field weight room will forever justify Heyward’s eight-year, $184 million megadeal. The Cubs paid for his intangibles when they gave him the biggest contract in franchise history — and he was on the field for the final out when they beat the Cleveland Indians and finally ended the 108-year drought.

But that decision in free agency revolved around the rest of Heyward’s career, a young core growing up together and how the Cubs would be positioned against the St. Louis Cardinals in the future.

In the same way that the 2016 team regrouped during that 17-minute rain delay, the Cubs expect Heyward to bounce back from the worst offensive season of his career, a nosedive that left him as one of the least productive hitters in the majors.

“Most guys who struggle hide,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “He never asked out of the lineup. He’s helping the team defensively and on the bases and doing all the little things well. He never shied away from that.

“But, obviously, he wanted to be doing better offensively. I just think it’s hard in-season to make significant changes. We sort of needed the reset button of the offseason to be able to do that.”

Heyward is making Arizona a home base this winter, to be near the team’s Mesa complex and process a season that saw him post career lows in homers (seven) and OPS (.631), hit .213 after the All-Star break and go 5-for-48 during the playoffs.

“He’s got a great attitude about everything,” team president Theo Epstein said. “It’s just hard to make the kind of adjustments for some players in-season, because things are going so fast and you’re trying to compete.

“But the offseason is a great opportunity to take a deep breath, slow things down, look at video, work with your coaches, really think about the swing. Think about the bat path and make some adjustments and develop some muscle memory, work on your feel and then take it into games.

“We believe in Jason Heyward and his ability to tackle things head-on and make the necessary adjustments. And I think you’re going to see a much different offensive player next year.”

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The Cubs never could have said something like this during Heyward’s welcome-to-Chicago press conference last December at Spiaggia, the fancy Italian restaurant on Michigan Avenue. But if a big-name free agent is going to be a bust offensively in Year 1, at least he's still only 27.

It’s not like Heyward hit the wall and can feel his body breaking down physically and sense his career sinking into a decline phase. In nearly 600 plate appearances, he drew 53 walks and struck out 93 times, or remarkably similar numbers to what he did in 2015, when he hit .293 for a 100-win St. Louis team and showed up in the National League MVP voting.

“The basic ingredients remain there,” Epstein said. “He hasn’t lost any of that. He sees the ball extremely well. He recognizes pitches extremely well and extremely early. He’s got really good hand-eye coordination.

“It really boiled down to certain things going on with his swing that made it difficult for him, even when he recognized the pitch and even when he made a good decision on whether to swing. And (then) when he made contact, he made it hard for himself to barrel up the ball and put backspin on the ball and hit it hard with carry.

“But that’s all just swing mechanics. That’s something you can adjust. It’s hard to develop better recognition or better hand-eye coordination. He has those things.”

You have to watch Heyward play every day to appreciate some of the subtleties to his game, how his alert, aggressive nature on the bases rubbed off on teammates and spectacular defense in right field made life easier for pitchers. All those highlight-reel throws and catches added a fourth Gold Glove to his collection.

But with Dexter Fowler now in Cardinal red and Albert Almora Jr. and Jon Jay taking over in center field, the Cubs are already sacrificing offense for defense and trying to fill a void at the top of their lineup.

Heyward might never live up to those unfair Hank Aaron comparisons he once got as Baseball America’s No. 1 prospect — or hammer 27 homers again like he did for the Braves in 2012 — but the Cubs are banking on an offensive breakthrough.

“He’s been a six-win player four times in his career — I would classify that as impact,” Epstein said. “He doesn’t need to do anything more than what he’s already done in his career to be a great player, because of everything that he contributes defensively and on the bases.

“Cub fans haven’t seen the type of hitter that Jason Heyward is — and can be — yet. But I think they will.”

Reds acquisition of Sonny Gray is the latest notable addition to the NL Central


Reds acquisition of Sonny Gray is the latest notable addition to the NL Central

The NL Central keeps getting better this offseason.

According to multiple reports, the Reds have traded for pitcher Sonny Gray from the Yankees.

The Reds have been active this offseason and adding a former all-star to their rotation would be another big step towards turning the Reds into contenders in what is shaping up to be a very tough NL Central in 2019. They already added Alex Wood, Yasiel Puig and Matt Kemp in a blockbuster deal with the Dodgers.

Gray is 29 and has a career ERA of 3.66, but isn't coming off a good year. With the Yankees he had a 4.90 ERA, the second-highest of his career, and didn't pitch in the postseason. The last time Gray had a bad year, he bounced back. Gray had a 5.69 ERA in 2016, the year after his breakout all-star campaign in 2015, but was solid in 2017 with the A's and Yankees.

Coming off a 95-loss season, the Reds had a long way to go, but look to be improved on paper with those additions.

Elsewhere in the division, the Cardinals already added Paul Goldschmidt and Andrew Miller and the defending division champion Brewers added marquee free agent catcher Yasmani Grandal.

Meanwhile, it has been mostly crickets for the Cubs this offseason. Owner Tom Ricketts recently defended the team's financial situation, which has led to the team appearing to be less aggressive this winter.

It looks like the Cubs will face increased competition in the division this season. Will that force the team's hand to be more aggressive before spring training?

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Cole Hamels is healthy and ready to be the ace of the 2019 Cubs

Cole Hamels is healthy and ready to be the ace of the 2019 Cubs

Ask any Cubs player about 2019 and it's hard not to notice the urgency in their voice. 

After just about the least-enjoyable summer that 95 wins and a playoff appearance can buy, the normal winter platitudes that they tend to reel off have taken on additional weight. Rosters with as much potential as the Cubs don't come around often, and most of those players aren't going to get any cheaper down the road. Things can change quickly in baseball. 

Perhaps no one on the Cubs knows this quite like Cole Hamels, a World Series champion who has been a part of multiple different playoff-caliber rosters. Hamels revived his career after a disappointing tenure in Texas ended with a late-July trade, posting a 2.36 ERA over 76 innings on the North Side. The lefty went 4-0 with a 0.78 ERA in his first five games here (all of which they won), a far cry from the dreadful performances he was putting up with the Rangers. Sometimes a change of scenery is needed, but getting healthy always helps too. 

"I had a really tough time with the oblique injury I had two years ago and trying to get my mechanics back on track," Hamels said. "I just don’t think I was able to identify and correct what was going on. I was fighting it the whole season, until I kind of looked at a little bit deeper film and then really just made some more drastic changes, and went with it."

His oblique injury in 2017 derailed Hamels for the better part of a calendar year. The strain originally landed him on the 15-day DL, but he actually ended up missing eight weeks of games. In the 19 starts after, Hamels posted a 4.42 FIP with a 1.22 WHIP, walking over three batters per nine innings. He admitted to pitching through lingering discomfort at times, instead choosing to try and grit through a game - even if that meant ignoring how it would derail his healing process. As a result, the start of 2018 didn't treat him much better. It wasn't until a longer-than-usual film study with the Cubs that Hamels found his fix. 

"Basically, I was coming out of my whole front side," he added. "My hips - you know I was really landing open. I don’t do that - I’m a closed-off guy that really kind of hides the ball. It also maintains my distance down the mound and allows me to have a little bit more velocity. So I think that was really the big change and what I’ve been focusing on this offseason." 

Looking at the numbers, the adjustment is clear as day:

Adding three miles an hour to your fastball, midseason, is pretty significant. The reinvention of his fastball was one of the driving forces behind his turnaround last season, and there's no reason to believe Hamels -- now with a full offseason of healthy workouts under his belt -- can't be that type of pitcher for an entire season. If he can, the Lester-Hamels-Darvish rotation the Cubs dreamed of might be one step closer to fruition. 

As it stands now, however, there are *plenty* of questions about the Cubs' rotation. Their youngest starter is 29. Lester had his worst season in almost a decade and the year-by-year trends don't look great. Health AND regression have dogged Yu Darvish. Jose Quintana's been fine, but is a 4.05 FIP and 1.25 WHIP in 258 innings worth losing Eloy Jimenez and Dylan Cease?

"I think we all know how to get ready for a game and what’s expected out of us," Hamels said. "We know how to get good results and if we have a bad game we have guys that will pick of the pieces the next day and that’s comforting. I don’t think there are going to be too many bad stretches because we have guys that are going to be able to take care of business and stop streaks and we’re going to see some pretty fun winning streaks because of what we’re going to be doing as a pitching staff." 

Being an ace certainly wouldn't hurt, but if Hamels wants to live up to the $20 million option the Cubs picked up, he'll need to fill a larger void as one of the team's leaders. ("I think in general, MLB is doing pretty well for themselves," he replied when asked if the decision financially hamstrings the Cubs. "So I don’t necessarily buy it as much, but I understand people have to work within the certain system that they set.") Though this is still a tightly-knit clubhouse, many players and coaches admitted that there needs to be a new approach to leadership in 2019. Hamels, a World Series MVP and four-time All Star, fits the bill. It can be uncomfortable for players of even his pedigree to come into a new team and immediately be a leader, and Hamels knows how far a full spring around the same group of guys will go towards fixing that. 

"I’m 35, I’ve been in this game a long time, so I think that’s where I need to be. That’s sort of the role that’s directed towards you if you’ve played the game long enough. That’s kind of where you fit. I understand that, I’ve had a couple years to really do what I need to do in order to be that leader, and I guess now that means be a little more vocal instead of just letting the play out on the field be the leader."