First impressions of Jason Heyward and how he can change Cubs


First impressions of Jason Heyward and how he can change Cubs

PHOENIX — Jason Heyward is listed at 6-foot-5, 240 pounds and has the biggest contract in franchise history. Yet there are still times where he blends into the background on this Cubs team.

That’s partially by design, the Cubs investing in Gold Glove defense and on-base/contact skills after a 97-win season, plus Heyward wanting to go to a place where he could be part of a talented young core that could win for a long time.

It also says something about the subtleties to Heyward’s game, which still got him paid like a middle-of-the-order hitter. Eight years and $184 million guaranteed wasn’t necessarily even the biggest offer out there this winter.

Just watch Heyward in the seventh inning of Sunday’s 7-3 win over the Arizona Diamondbacks at Chase Field, sprinting from first base to third on a ball that skipped past shortstop Chris Owings into left field. Heyward then raced home on Jorge Soler’s sacrifice fly to right field, and plays like that are what Chicago fans can expect on Monday night when he makes his Wrigley Field debut in a Cubs uniform.

“Everybody is only going to look at batting averages all the time,” manager Joe Maddon said. “But this guy is a really good baseball player. He impacts the game in so many different ways. I just love him right where he’s at.”

What a difference between Heyward’s low-key arrival and the symbolism behind Jon Lester’s six-year, $155 million contract and how that framed his first season on the North Side.

“There should be a lot of hype around him,” said Lester, who will start the home opener against the Cincinnati Reds. “There should be a lot of hype around ‘Zo’ (Ben Zobrist). Those two guys have really elevated the young guys in the way they go about their business, which is even more impressive (considering) what they did last year.”

[MORE CUBS: Another win over D-backs sends Cubs back to Wrigley riding wave of momentum]

Lester remembered watching Kris Bryant stretch a single into a double against Zack Greinke on Saturday and turning to assistant hitting coach Eric Hinske: “I told ‘Ske: ‘This isn’t a knock on you, (but) my favorite part about this team is the way we run the bases.’”

“That’s a testament to J-Hey,” Lester said. “He brought that over. That’s what he’s known for — playing really good defense, running the bases with — I don’t want to say reckless abandon, because he knows what he’s doing — but he makes other guys better. He makes guys want to get better and take that extra base and do that sort of thing.”

To be clear, Bryant was a polished, heads-up, instinctual player from the moment he arrived in The Show last year. Anthony Rizzo credited Dave McKay — a Dale Sveum hire now on Arizona’s coaching staff — for helping him develop that aggressive mentality on the bases. And Maddon turned running hard to first base into a “Respect 90” catchphrase.

But the Cubs believe Heyward will be a good influence, the same way Lester stayed the same guy throughout a statistically strong season (3.34 ERA and 207 strikeouts in 205 innings) that still had plenty of ups and downs.

“Position players have it a little bit easier than pitchers do, just because our days are so much more magnified,” Lester said. “He plays every day. He goes 0-for-4, it’s like: ‘Well, I got tomorrow.’ (When) I stink — I got four more days for everybody to talk about how much I stink.

“It’s just so much easier for a position player to come in and feel more relaxed and more of a part of this team, as opposed to a guy that kind of stands out.

“Plus, he’s such a level-headed, grounded guy that you’d never know what he signed for.”

[SHOP CUBS: Get your Cubs gear right here]

Heyward wore a St. Louis Cardinals uniform the last time he played at Wrigley Field, and he will hear all about that decision when the Cubs go to Busch Stadium next week and reignite that rivalry.

Heyward — who had once been Baseball America’s No. 1 overall prospect while coming up with his hometown Atlanta Braves — didn’t feel like he needed to be The Man or a face of the franchise.

“Early in my career in Atlanta, there was a lot of focus on me,” Heyward said. “And you got guys with Hall of Fame (resumes), guys who put up some good numbers (and had) good seasons. The focus is all about what the team wants" (it to be) from ownership down to the front office down to the coaching staff.

“I feel like here, they do a great job of just letting it be about the team,” Heyward said. “It’s not one person that’s going to do it overnight. I understand that there’s marketing and things like that to promote. But as a group, you want everyone understanding this is your team — the Chicago Cubs — not just one player to look at and say: ‘We’re going to rally around this guy when he comes to the bat or when he’s on the field.’

“That’s something special, regardless of the contract you have.”

Podcast: Bold predictions for the Cubs offseason


Podcast: Bold predictions for the Cubs offseason

With the MLB offseason about to kick off, we run down the boldest predictions for the Cubs winter from around the NBC Sports Chicago Cubs content team. Topics include where Bryce Harper and Manny Machado will sign, how much money they’ll get, what the Cardinals will do this winter, Cubs offseason trades and how Theo Epstein’s front office may add to the pitching staff.


One topic we could all agree on was David Ross' potential as Cubs bench coach if the incumbent Brandon Hyde ends up taking a job as manager for another team around the league.


Listen to the entire podcast here and check out all of our bold predictions below:



David Kaplan


—Anthony Rizzo and his new wife, Emily, will adopt Manny Machado, change his last name and see Manny Rizzo playing third base for the 2019 Cubs.

—Because of the Rizzo move, the Cubs will move Kris Bryant to a full-time outfielder.

—The Cubs will trade away Jose Quintana and sign Patrick Corbin.

—The Cubs will sign a pair of former Indians relievers for the back end of the bullpen in Andrew Miller and Cody Allen.

—The Cubs will trade Kyle Schwarber to the Royals for Whit Merrifield, who will start 155 games in the leadoff spot in the order.

—Joe Maddon will be a lot more consistent with the Cubs' lineup and batting order all season.


Kelly Crull


—Anthony and Emily Rizzo will receive more wedding gifts from Cubs fans than Kris and Jessica Bryan received.

—Anthony Rizzo will train this offseason so he will be able to sing — or play the piano — for the National Anthem at Wrigley in 2019.

—The Cubs will have no money left to remodel the media room at Wrigley Field.


Luke Stuckmeyer


—The Captain Morgan Club at Wrigley Field is going to be replaced by Kap's Kryo & Keto Korner.

—The Cubs will finally find a solution to the leadoff hitter issue.


Tony Andracki


—The Cubs sign Bryce Harper for less than $250 million. (He follows 23 people on Twitter)
—Manny Machado does not get a contract for more than $250 million, either.
—The Cardinals will sign Craig Kimbrel and either Machado or Josh Donaldson to play 3B. 


Rationale: St. Louis could really use the bat and closer and they have a sense of urgency in the division this winter we haven't seen from them in at least a decade. The Cubs and Brewers have clearly been better for two seasons now and look to have a better chance at contending than the Cardinals in 2019, as well. That can't be sitting well with the "Best Fans in Baseball." 


Jeff Nelson, producer


—The Cubs will trade 2 of the following players:  Kyle Schwarber, Ian Happ, Addison Russell, Albert Almora Jr.

—The Cardinals will sign Manny Machado to play third base.

—Because of construction delays, the visitors’ clubhouse will not be ready for the home opener, forcing the Pirates to dress at their hotel and come to the ballpark in full uniform.

Mike Piff, social media manager

—Cubs sign Nick Markakis.
—Cubs sign Tyson Ross.

Eric Strobel, producer

—The Cubs 2019 saves leader is not currently on the roster.

Rationale: We saw what happened to the bullpen in Brandon Morrow's absence; it got the job done by and large, but was not longer truly feared. Deep 'pens are the norm in October now with lockdown relievers being counted on more and more. The front office knows they can't truly entrust that kind of workload to Morrow with his injury history - Theo admitted as much in his end-of-season press conference. While they probably will not make a big splash, a huge focus of the offseason will be to surround Morrow/Strop/Edwards/etc. with as many talented arms as possible. The Cubs could very well enter next season without a designated closer, but if they do, it will not be Brandon Morrow.

Scott Changnon, multi-platform producer

—The Cubs will sign Bryce Harper.

Rationale: "I dunno, maybe."

Nate Poppen, producer

—Cubs sign Andrew McCutchen, plug him into CF and make Almora a 4th OF (or expendable)
—Bryce Harper signs with Yankees.
—Manny Machado signs with Angels.

Matt Buckman, producer

Non-roster prediction: The Cubs will welcome Sammy Sosa back to Wrigley Field. Sammy turns 50 this winter, and fueled by our wonderful documentary on 1998, the Cubs will finally mend their broken bond with Sammy and bring him back to Wrigley.

Roster prediction: The Cubs will trade Kyle Schwarber for a leadoff hitter. Joe has had to get very creative with the top of his order since Dexter Fowler left. Though the front office has downplayed the importance of a lead-off hitter the last two off-seasons, they will look to add one for 2019 so that Joe doesn’t have to be so creative. They won’t have a place to play Schwarber after they sign Harper so they will swap his power for a new “you go, we go” guy. Look at KC or TB as AL teams that need to add power and also have guys who could potentially lead off for the Cubs. Mallex Smith (TB) or Whit Merrifield (KC) would be interesting options.

No-brainer: The Cubs should absolutely bring back Jesse Chavez in 2019 bullpen

No-brainer: The Cubs should absolutely bring back Jesse Chavez in 2019 bullpen

Should the Cubs bring Jesse Chavez back for the 2019 bullpen?

This question shouldn't have anywhere near the polarizing effect the Daniel Murphy query had earlier this week, and for good reason.

It's hard to find any real downside for the Cubs working Chavez back into the fold next season. 

Sure, he's 35 and he'll turn 36 in August, but Chavez just had far and away the best season of his 11-year career and all signs point to it being legit.

He won't have a 1.15 ERA forever, of course, but he clearly found something with his mechanics that helped lead to the remarkable consistency he showed in a Cubs uniform (4 saves, 4 holds, 1.15 ERA, 0.79 WHIP, 42 Ks in 39 IP). 

The Cubs will be looking to add some reinforcements to their bullpen this winter and Chavez fits the bill in many areas.

When asked about how to address the bullpen this winter, Theo Epstein said his front office will be "looking for guys who can throw strikes and execute a gameplan and take the ball and pitch in big spots."

The Cubs have publicly placed an emphasis on "strike-throwers" out of the bullpen over the last two winters now and that is right up Chavez's alley.

He threw 68.5 percent first-pitch strikes while with the Cubs, which would've ranked near the top of the league in 2018, right up there with aces like Miles Mikolas, Clayton Kershaw, Aaron Nola and Justin Verlander. Among all relievers, Chavez ranked 5th in baseball in first-pitch strike percentage in the second half.

Expanding further (since the first pitch isn't the only one that matters): Chavez threw the fourth-most strikes in baseball among all MLB relievers after the All-Star Break. Since the day Chavez put on a Cubs uniform, Philadelphia's Tommy Hunter (70.5 percent) was the only reliever in baseball (minimum 30 innings) to throw a higher percentage of pitches for strikes than Chavez (69.8 percent).

If you want strikes, there's no better reliever on the market right now than Chavez.

He also shouldn't be all that expensive at age 35, even despite the breakout and high level of importance placed upon relievers these days. A similar deal to the one Brian Duensing got last winter - $7 million over 2 years - seems appropriate and would be a steal if Chavez can continue to find even a modicum of the success he had since putting on a Cubs uniform.

Speaking of the Cubs uniform, Chavez reportedly doesn't want to wear another logo in 2019, saying this after the NL Wild-Card Game:

That was an emotional time, but Chavez repeatedly raved about the Cubs clubhouse and culture throughout his time in Chicago and really appreciated the way his teammates made him feel comfortable from Day 1.

When the Cubs first acquired Chavez in that under-the-radar trade, they touted his versatility which has become a valuable asset, especially in today's game where relievers are often asked to pitch multiple innings. If necessary, he could also represent depth for the starting rotation, having made 70 starts over his MLB career. 

Unless there's a surprising market that develops for Chavez, bringing him back to the North Side of Chicago on a 1- or 2-year deal is a no-brainer.