Cubs: Why Jon Lester thinks Year 2 will be different for Jason Heyward

Cubs: Why Jon Lester thinks Year 2 will be different for Jason Heyward

MESA, Ariz. – Jon Lester has already noticed a difference in Jason Heyward. It’s not some magical swing adjustment or best-shape-of-his-life hype or simply the bounce from the Cubs finally winning the World Series.

Lester already experienced this, signing the biggest contract in franchise history and reporting to Arizona for Year 2 in a different state of mind. The Cubs hope that helps Heyward recover from the worst offensive season of his career and round out his Gold Glove defense, baseball IQ and clubhouse intangibles. 

“He’s a little bit more comfortable,” Lester said before Friday’s workout at the Sloan Park complex. “That’s just human nature. You come into a situation with everything else that you’re bringing along. You’re coming into a place where you don’t know a lot of guys. You’re trying to prove that you’re worth something.

“You’re trying to prove (it) to the city, to your teammates, to your family, to everybody else, all this stuff. So I think now it’s a matter of: He can just go out and play.”

A dead arm slowed down Lester during his first spring training in a Cubs uniform. The $155 million ace then got diagnosed with the yips in front of a national TV audience on Opening Day 2015. That April, the lefty went 0-2 with a 6.23 ERA in four starts before closing with double-digit wins, a 3.34 ERA and another 200-inning season for a playoff team.

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Lester had perhaps the greatest season of his life in 2016, going 19-5 with a 2.44 ERA, earning his fourth All-Star selection, finishing second in the Cy Young Award voting and becoming the National League Championship Series co-MVP.  

“That’s kind of how I felt coming into my second year,” Lester said. “OK, we got that one over with. We did some things that we weren’t expected to do. Now it’s time to take that next step.

“You just feel more comfortable. You feel like you can come in and kind of let your shoulders down and let your guard down and just worry about playing baseball and getting your work done.”

Like Lester, Heyward wanted to play at Wrigley Field and live in Chicago and didn’t necessarily grab the biggest offer when he signed his $184 million megadeal. Heyward had also grown up around winning teams and understood that number would follow him for the rest of his career. Both players got the benefit of the doubt by being good teammates, holding themselves accountable and not hiding from the media.

The Cubs will run through their first full-squad workout in Mesa on Saturday, but Heyward has been hitting at the facility throughout the offseason, trying to rediscover what once made him a 27-homer threat for the 2012 Atlanta Braves.

“It seems like he’s a little more relaxed,” Lester said. “People told me the same thing two years ago. But when you’re going through it, the 3-for-4 days or the days you pitch seven innings and give up two runs still aren’t good enough. You feel like you have to do more. That second year just feels like you get back to kind of being yourself.”

As he decides what's next, it's clear Ben Zobrist has something left in the tank

As he decides what's next, it's clear Ben Zobrist has something left in the tank

When Ben Zobrist rejoined the Cubs active roster on Sept. 1, it was fair to wonder how much he could provide offensively. After all, he spent the previous four months on the restricted list while tending to a family matter, last playing a big-league game on May 6.

Zobrist did no baseball activities from May to mid-July, only working out to stay in shape. Although he eventually ramped things up, he played in just 12 minor league rehab games in August before returning to the Cubs, a small number compared to the length of his absence.

Even Zobrist admitted upon his big-league return that his timing at the plate wasn’t where he wanted it to be. And yet, what he did in September was nothing short of impressive. In 21 games, he posted a .284/.377/.388 slash line, performing at a level many couldn’t have expected, considering the circumstances.

Zobrist's impact on the Cubs' lineup goes beyond what you see in the box score, however. Not only is he a switch hitter with some pop, but he has a keen eye for the strike zone and frequently puts together professional at-bats.

On a Cubs team that tends to expand the zone, Zobrist’s presence mattered. In his second game back, for example, he went 3-for-3 with two walks, helping the Cubs beat the Brewers 10-5. After the game, Brewers starter Chase Anderson pointed out how different the Cubs' lineup looks with Zobrist in it.

"They play the matchups really well and Zobrist makes that team so much better," Anderson said on Sept. 5. "Just bringing his presence to the top of the lineup, it changes their dynamic a little bit."

Where Zobrist stands entering 2020, though, is currently unclear.

Zobrist is set to hit free agency after the World Series and will turn 39 next May. Therefore, it’s possible that he’s played his last game in the big leagues, as he has little, if anything, left to prove at this stage in his career.

Ahead of the Cubs’ season finale on Sept. 29, Zobrist told reporters in St. Louis that he hasn’t thought about how much time he’ll take before deciding what’s next for him. His family situation will obviously play a big role in his decision, but if September showed anything, it's that he still has something left in the tank.

“I’m 38 but I got that feeling all over again,” Zobrist said following the Cubs’ season finale, a 9-0 loss to the Cardinals in which he pitched a scoreless inning. “Just really fun, you know? It’s a fun game. Sometimes you don’t come out on the winning end, but you still gotta have fun with it and enjoy it. I enjoyed it today."

The Cubs roster is expected to undergo changes this offseason, with center field, second base and the leadoff spot being just a few areas the team will look to address. The latter two spots became revolving doors during Zobrist’s absence, as the Cubs struggled to replace what he brought offensively.

Zobrist is past the point in his career of being an everyday player. However, he still could be a useful asset for the Cubs in a supporting role, bringing his veteran approach to the lineup when he plays while still offering an experienced voice in the clubhouse.

“I take a lot of joy in that role, just being a supporting guy and being a part of winning clubs and part of winning atmospheres and cultures,” Zobrist said on Sept. 29. “The Chicago Cubs have been that since I’ve been around. This year we didn’t make the playoffs — we still have a winning record — (but) the kind of relationships that are built here and the culture that’s been built here is definitely a winning one.”

After the Cubs announced that they wouldn’t retain Joe Maddon for 2020, Zobrist acknowledged that more changes were likely coming in the offseason. Only time will tell what that means for the veteran utilityman — should he continue playing.

Whether he retires or joins a different team for 2020, though, Zobrist will look back on his four seasons with the Cubs fondly.

“(They’re) just the most passionate fans I’ve ever met,” he said of Cubs fans. “They’re very loyal, very passionate and it’s been such a pleasure to be a part of that team that beat the curse back in ’16, so I feel that still, when I see Cubs fans, there’s a lot of them that hug me and thank me for being a part of that.

“I’ll always look back at [my] time here — I don’t know what’s going to happen in the offseason — but look back at these four years and [be] very grateful to be able to be part of a group like this and be able to do what we did while I was here.”

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Cubs Talk Podcast: An ode to Joe Maddon and looking to the next era

USA Today

Cubs Talk Podcast: An ode to Joe Maddon and looking to the next era

On the latest Cubs Talk Podcast, Tony Andracki, Kelly Crull, Scott Changnon and Jeff Nelson give us their memories of Joe Maddon's time with the Cubs and discuss David Ross and Joe Espada's candidacy to be the next manager.

01:30 Kelly's memories of Joe from the perspective of a reporter

06:00 Going back to Hazleton with Joe

07:45 Joe's legacy as manager of the Cubs

16:00 How Joe impacted Javy Baez' career

18:00 David Ross and Joe Espada may be the leaders to replace Joe Maddon.

Listen here or via the embedded player below:


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