Cubs

Cubs have Jason Heyward on their radar at winter meetings

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Cubs have Jason Heyward on their radar at winter meetings

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – The Cubs have envisioned Jason Heyward batting leadoff and playing center at Wrigley Field, according to a source familiar with the team’s thinking, but it will take several steps to turn that dream into a reality.

Heyward’s appeal is obvious as the rare free agent who’s only 26 years old. Beyond age, he checks so many other boxes for the Cubs as a Gold Glove defender, a left-handed hitter with a .353 career on-base percentage and a professional clubhouse presence.  

Heyward’s market hasn’t really defined itself yet as teams splurged on pitching before the winter meetings began on Monday at the Opryland in Nashville, Tennessee. It’s hard to put a price tag on defensive metrics and a prime-age player who’s hit 20-plus homers only once, never coming close to driving in 100 runs in a season.

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But there’s no doubt the Cubs have had Heyward on their radar for a long time, and they wouldn’t have to try to turn him into something he’s not with a lineup already anchored by Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant.  

Jed Hoyer wouldn’t get into specifics when asked about the Cubs pursuing a top outfielder now, but the general manager did say: “We have some available resources. That much is clear.”

The Cubs don’t have all that much financial flexibility – or even a big-market payroll – but if enough pieces fall into place maybe they can steal Heyward away from the St. Louis Cardinals.

It already started with John Lackey’s two-year, $32 million agreement, a reasonable investment at a time when the Boston Red Sox and Arizona Diamondbacks sunk nearly half a billion dollars into David Price and Zack Greinke.

Hoyer said the Cubs don’t feel a sense of urgency to add another established starter to their rotation at this point and can instead focus on overall pitching depth.

President of baseball operations Theo Epstein has talked about creatively structuring long-term contracts – which would essentially be borrowing against the next TV deal – while working with the business side to free up more funds for 2016.

While Hoyer dismissed most of the rumors on Twitter – “It’s like an alternate universe half the time with some of the stuff that comes up” – he did say the Cubs are in active talks with 10 or 12 teams after narrowing their focus for pitching. Infielder Javier Baez and outfielder Jorge Soler appear to be the most obvious trade chips.

[NBC SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

But to really compete for Heyward – and beat a St. Louis franchise that appears ready to spend big in free agency – the Cubs would also probably have to move some salaries. Between infielder Starlin Castro, catcher Miguel Montero and pitcher Jason Hammel, that’s almost $80 million in future commitments.

With five seasons left on Jon Lester’s six-year, $155 million megadeal – and Jake Arrieta only two years away from free agency – the Cubs had concerns about going to the absolute top of the pitching market. Epstein’s front office has also been much more comfortable spending capital on hitters, and Heyward is seen as a solid long-term investment.  

“When it comes to pitching, we are always thinking about the length of deals and who’s coming up at what time,” Hoyer said. “You want to have a balance of dollars available for hitting – and dollars available for pitching – and not get too locked in.

“That was a consideration. We’d be lying (if we didn’t) say that as we thought through the really, really huge pitching contracts, of course, we were thinking about not only Jon’s contract, but who we might want to extend, or who we might want to add in the future. Those things have to come into play.”

Glanville: Fall to Spring - A player’s offseason changes meaning with each changing season

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USA TODAY

Glanville: Fall to Spring - A player’s offseason changes meaning with each changing season

A few weeks after the we (the Cubs) were eliminated from the 2003 playoffs, I got a phone call from my college professor. Since it was officially the off-season, I was in the early stages of a break from following a pocket schedule to tell me where to be every day for nearly eight months.

But this was a man I could not refuse. I chose my college major to go into his field of transportation engineering and he was calling because he needed a teaching assistant to accompany him on his trip to South Africa.

One minute I could barely move off of my couch in my Chicago apartment after losing Game 7 against the Marlins. The next minute, I would be standing within miles of the Southern most point in Africa at the Cape of Good Hope. Why not? I needed the distraction so I agreed to go.

The offseason is its own transition. Leaving the regimen of routine, of batting practice and bus times, to an open ended world that you have to re-learn again. When I finished my first full major league season in 1997, I lived in Streeterville at the Navy Pier Apartments.

That offseason, I decided to stay an extra month in Chicago only to wake up panicked for the first two weeks because I thought I was missing stretch time for a home day game. A major league schedule becomes etched in your DNA after a while.

It is also a time that you get to reflect. The regular season does not give you a moment to really get perspective on what was just accomplished, what it all means, what you would change. I always joked about the T-shirt I wanted to a sell that listed all of the things a major league player figures out during the off-season. From the perfect swing to the ex-girlfriend you need to un-break-up with next week.

It all becomes so clear when a 96 MPH fastball isn’t coming at you.

For years, I would arrange a training program to follow, but I quickly learned that I had to mix it up. There was only so much repetition I could stand in the off-season. So some years, I moved to the site of spring training and worked out early with the staff, other years I found a spot at home where I grew up or wherever I played during the season, to train.

I was single when I played, but now with a family, I have a better understanding of the challenges my teammates would express as they were re-engaging as a daily father again after this long absentee existence.

To keep it fresh and spicy, when I got older in the game, I enrolled in a dance studio and took a winter of dance lessons. Salsa, Foxtrot, Rumba, you name it. On Thursdays we had to dance for an hour straight, changing partners in the room every song change. Dancing with the Stars had nothing on me.

Of course, not every offseason is fun and games. There were years when I wasn’t sure I would have a job the next year, or I was in the throes of a trade rumor. In 1997, I was traded from the Cubs to the Phillies two days before Christmas. In 2002, my father passed away on the last game of the season, leading the offseason to be a time of mourning.

By my final season in 2005, I thought I was officially on my couch forever. I was going to fade away into oblivion like many players do. No fanfare, the phone just would stop ringing and I would just let the silence wash over me. The Yankees had called earlier in that off-season, acting like they were doing me a favor which I turned down, then they called back later with a more open tone, seeing me as a potential key piece in their outfield with Bernie Williams slowing down quite a bit at that point.

I did get off that couch for that call, only to get released the last week of camp, so I was back on the couch, with a fiancé and some extra salt in the wounds after that final meeting with Brian Cashman and Joe Torre, who boxed me into the coaches office to tell me I was released. Released? Come on. Never had that happen before.

The Cubs players will go through all of this if they have the good fortune of playing a long time. The wave of uncertainty, the meaning of age in this game spares no one. Each offseason is a time to reset, a period where you get away, seemingly adrift from the game, then as spring gets closer, the shoreline comes up in the horizon once again, magnetically drawing you to its shores for another season.

Amazingly, you don’t always know your age and what it has done to your body. 34 can’t be that old, right? I can still run, or throw 95. Then those 23-year-olds in camp are the wake up call, or maybe you are that 23-year-old and can’t believe your locker is next to Ryne Sandberg’s.

Then you blink, and you are advising Jimmy Rollins about etiquette and realize you have become that guy, the seasoned vet, preaching about locker room respect.

For the 2018 Cubs, they fell short of their goal to repeat their 2016 magic. Failed to meet their singular destination that meant success over all else. Yet, those who come back for 2019, will not be the same player, the same person, that left the locker room at the close this season. They will have grown, changed, aged, wizened up, rehabbed, hardened. All of which means that new perspective is the inevitable part of this time off, whether you like it or not.

Baseball is a game that has this unique dynamic. The highest intensity rhythm of any sport. Every day you are tested. You are pushed to the brink by sheer attrition. According to my teammate Ed Smith, who was playing third base at the time when Michael Jordan reached third, Jordan, after playing well over 100 games in a row, said to him “Man, I have never been this tired in my entire life.”

The grind.

Then it stops on a dime. Season over. Only on baseball’s terms.

But you may be granted another spring. Another crack at it. Until one day, the baseball winter never ends and its time for you to plant your own spring.

Remember that guy? Former Cubs shortstop Ricky Gutiérrez

Remember that guy? Former Cubs shortstop Ricky Gutiérrez

Ricky Gutiérrez played in the Majors from 1993-2004. He played shortstop for the Cubs from 2000-01 and later signed with them again in June 2004. 

However, Gutiérrez never got back to the Majors with the Cubs, who sent him to the Red Sox the following month. His final Major League game was with the Red Sox on Oct. 3, 2004, the final game of the 2004 regular season; he didn’t play in the 2004 postseason. Gutiérrez was subsequently signed and released by a few other teams, including the White Sox in 2005.

Gutiérrez holds the distinction of being the first Cubs player to hit a regular season grand slam against the White Sox (July 12, 2001). In his two seasons with the Cubs, he tied for the Major League lead in sacrifice bunts both years (16 in 2000, 17 in 2001) which was odd since he had a grand total of 18 sacrifice bunts in his 847 career games NOT in a Cubs uniform. He also had uncharacteristic power with the Cubs:  21 home runs for Chicago in 272 games, 17 home runs with everyone else (847 games).

What Cubs fans probably remember most is what Gutiérrez did against them. On May 6, 1998 he had the lone hit (many dispute it should have been ruled an error) for the Astros off Kerry Wood in Wood’s 20-strikeout masterpiece at Wrigley Field (Gutiérrez was responsible for two of the strikeouts). 

Later that season, on June 26, the number 20 and Gutiérrez were again connected when he had a 20-pitch battle against Bartolo Colón, which ended in a strikeout. It remained the last plate appearance in the Majors of at least 20 pitches until Brandon Belt flew out on the 21st pitch of an at-bat against the Angels' Jaime Barria on April 22, 2018.

Gutiérrez’s nephew, James Jones, played 14 seasons in the NBA for the Pacers, Suns, Trail Blazers, Heat and Cavaliers.