Cubs hoping to change offensive identity with Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist


Cubs hoping to change offensive identity with Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist

The Cubs guaranteed $184 million to a player who has never hit 30 homers or driven in 100 runs in a single season, paying for Jason Heyward’s age-26 upside and Gold Glove defense.

The Cubs also gave a four-year deal to a guy who will turn 35 in May, betting $56 million on Ben Zobrist’s intangibles and versatility all over the field.

Heyward and Zobrist each turned down bigger offers somewhere else, reinforcing the idea that both players will be good influences within the clubhouse and completely focused on winning a World Series at Wrigley Field. 

The Cubs also wanted their lineup to evolve. Whether or not they make another significant move this winter, the offensive identity is already beginning to change for a boom-or-bust team that led the majors with more than 1,500 strikeouts and hit .236 with runners in scoring position (or 18 points below the league average).  

President of baseball operations Theo Epstein identified that weakness in the immediate aftermath of getting swept by the New York Mets in the National League Championship Series.

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Zobrist handled New York’s power pitching in the next round, lengthening Kansas City’s lineup and vindicating Royals hitting coach/ex-Cubs manager Dale Sveum with a World Series celebration.

“We’re never going to turn into the Royals,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “That’s not going to happen. The nature of our team, somewhat, is we’re going to strike out. But I think there’s room for improvement. Hopefully, we can get out of the 30-spot and move up a little bit.

“We’re never going to be a contact-based team. We have some (hitters and) strikeouts are part of their game. They also have a ton of power.”

The Cubs didn’t overreact to October or try to copy Kansas City’s World Series blueprint. But the Cubs did try to trade for Zobrist at various points last year, never finding the right match with the Tampa Bay Rays in the offseason or the Oakland A’s before the July 31 deadline.

“He helps really kind of shape our offense a little bit more (to) the way we needed it going forward,” Epstein said. “We have a lot of swing-and-miss (guys). We need contact. We need on-base skills.

“We have some free-swingers. And I think we can really benefit from another guy – especially a switch-hitter – who really knows how to manage an at-bat, get on base and can hit different kinds of pitching and good pitching. He obviously plays the entire game and is a winning-type player.”

[MORE: How Cubs rebuilt their pitching staff without a David Price]

Zobrist has put up a .751 OPS in 148 career plate appearances in the playoffs. The Cubs hope he can set an example for Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber, Addison Russell and Jorge Soler. 

“We have to get better situationally,” Hoyer said. “Some of that is probably things that we can work on in spring training and during the season. And some of it is probably just experience.

“Starting four rookies, you can’t really expect to be amazing with guys at third and less than two outs. That’s part of it. But we can get better.”

Heyward may never again match his 27-homer, 82-RBI season with the Atlanta Braves in 2012. But the Cubs can live with that if he’s a left-handed presence who keeps getting on base 35 percent of the time.

Heyward watched the Cubs crush 10 home runs off the St. Louis Cardinals in the divisional round and decided he wanted to switch sides in the rivalry and become part of this young core.

[RELATED: Cubs prospect Dan Vogelbach can't worry about the DH or Anthony Rizzo]

The exact order doesn’t really matter. Heyward and Zobrist will be setting the table for All-Star sluggers Anthony Rizzo and Bryant, who generated 57 homers and 200 RBI combined last season. The Cubs have given manager Joe Maddon everything he could have possibly wanted when filling out a lineup card. Now will it play in October?

“I think our offense has a chance to be really explosive and dangerous for a long time,” Hoyer said. “The St. Louis series really showed all the best attributes of our offense – getting on base and hitting homers. But plenty of other times we realize – especially when it’s cold in our ballpark or the wind’s blowing in – you’ve got to be able to scratch out runs here and there. That hasn’t been our strength. And we need to get better at that.”  

A series to forget: Facts and figures from Cubs' rough weekend in Cincinnati

A series to forget: Facts and figures from Cubs' rough weekend in Cincinnati

The Cubs and their fans may want to invent and use one of those Men In Black neuralyzers because the four-game series in Cincinnati was one to forget.

The Reds finished off a four-game sweep of the Cubs on Sunday with an 8-6 win. The way the Reds won the finale will be especially painful for the Cubs considering they led 6-1 after six innings. Mike Montgomery appeared to tire in the seventh inning and Pedro Strop got rocked out of the bullpen to lead to a seven-run seventh for the hosts.

The Reds have now won seven in a row and 10 of 12, but still sit 13 games under .500. Bizarrely, the Reds also swept the Dodgers, the Cubs’ next opponent, in a four-game series in May. Duane Underwood will start for the Cubs Monday against the Dodgers and make his major league debut.

Here are some other wild facts and figures from the series:

  • The last time the Reds swept the Cubs in a four-game series was back in 1983. That was the first week of the season and three weeks before the infamous Lee Elia rant.
  • One positive for the Cubs from the game was Montgomery’s start. Through six innings he allowed one run on three hits and two walks. However, he gave up a single, a double and a single in the seventh before Strop relieved him. Montgomery had gone six innings and allowed one run in each of his last four outings.
  • Strop was definitely a negative. On his first pitch, Strop gave up a home run to pinch-hitter Jesse Winker, the second home run for a Reds pinch-hitter in the game. Then Strop allowed a single, a walk, a single and a double before getting an out. Strop’s final line: 2/3 inning pitched, four runs, one strikeout, three walks, four hits.
  • The Cubs led in three of the four games this series, including two leads after five innings.
  • The Cubs were 5-for-23 (.217) with runners in scoring position in the series. On the season the Cubs are hitting .233 with RISP, which is 22nd in the majors and fourth-worst in the National League (but ahead of the division-rival Brewers and Cardinals).
  • The Reds outscored the Cubs 31-13 and scored at least six runs in every game. The Reds are now 6-3 against the Cubs this year after going a combined 17-40 against the Cubs from 2015-2017.

Summer of Sammy: Sosa's 31st homer in 1998

Summer of Sammy: Sosa's 31st homer in 1998

It's the 20th anniversary of the Summer of Sammy, when Sosa and Mark McGwire went toe-to-toe in one of the most exciting seasons in American sports history chasing after Roger Maris' home run record. All year, we're going to go homer-by-homer on Sosa's 66 longballs, with highlights and info about each. Enjoy.

Sosa's 18th homer of June and 31st of the season came off the Tigers in the Cubs' brief 2-game Interleague series in Detroit. 

Sosa connected in the first inning off Tigers starter Seth Greisinger, going back-to-back with Mickey Morandini. 

The Cubs wound up getting out to a 5-0 start in the game but still lost 7-6 on a Gabe Alvarez single in the bottom of the 11th.

The aforementioned Morandini homer was only the 3rd of the season for the Cubs second baseman. He finished with 8 homers on the year and 224 total bases on 172 hits in what was a very good offensive season. Yet it paled in comparison to Sosa, who had nearly 200 more total bases (416) and a slugging percentage nearly 200 points above Morandini's (.647 to .471), a testament to how truly incredible Sosa's season was.

Fun fact: Tony Clark was the Tigers' cleanup hitter that day. Clark is now the head of the MLB Players Union.

Fun fact No. 2: Paul Bako was the Detroit catcher in the game. He later became the Cubs backup catcher in 2003 and 2004, when he posted a .611 OPS in 119 games over the two years.