Cubs

Future GM Jason McLeod plans to finish the job with Cubs

Future GM Jason McLeod plans to finish the job with Cubs

Jason McLeod sat next to Theo Epstein on Tuesday night as the Fox Sports 1 camera zoomed in on the Cubs president behind home plate at AT&T Park. A laser-focused, stressed-out Epstein gulped while watching his team trail the San Francisco Giants, perhaps thinking about Johnny Cueto and Madison Bumgarner in an elimination Game 5. 

It became the perfect reaction shot on national TV, an image made for Twitter GIFs, something general manager Jed Hoyer could laugh about after that stunning ninth-inning comeback that ended a National League Division Series: “Yeah, I got a lot of screen shots from various friends…you never know what position you’re going to be in or where your hand’s going to be. You try to tell yourself the cameras might be on. And then you forget every time.”

It framed McLeod on the edge of the picture, but the senior vice president of scouting and player development has been a central figure to the Cubs becoming just the third team in major-league history to win at least 100 games within four years of a 100-loss season.

With the Cubs heading back to the NL Championship Series for the second year in a row, McLeod should be in position to run his own baseball-operations department someday. “No question,” Hoyer says, McLeod is ready to be a GM. McLeod’s name usually surfaces in Internet speculation whenever a top job opens up, but his recent sit-down with the Minnesota Twins has been his only formal interview for a GM job.

Leaving Chicago would have been a difficult decision for McLeod on personal and professional levels, but the Twins ultimately offered the job to Derek Falvey – a 33-year-old administrator who just finished his first season as an assistant GM with the Cleveland Indians – and gave him the elevated title of chief baseball officer.

“If the opportunity presents itself again at some point in the future, then we’ll talk about it then,” McLeod said. “But I just couldn’t be more grateful to be here.” 

By the end of September, chairman Tom Ricketts announced a five-year extension for Epstein, a market-setting deal believed to be worth in the range of $50 million. Hoyer also signed a five-year extension, with McLeod getting two more years tacked onto his deal, keeping the band together (on paper) through the 2021 season.

[SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

That executive timeline matches up with a spectacular array of on-field talent: Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant, Addison Russell, Javier Baez, Kyle Schwarber, plus rookies like Willson Contreras and Albert Almora Jr. who are already gaining valuable playoff experience now. 

“I’m exceptionally grateful,” McLeod said. “All of us are. Look at where we are at this moment in time with this team. I can’t imagine a better environment, a better culture to work at in baseball. We’ve been together a long time. We’re friends. We’re good. We embrace the fact that we are good. And we challenge ourselves to be even better.”

Epstein’s style is to listen to a cross-section of voices and mine as many sources of information as possible, but he goes way back with McLeod, to the beginning stages of their careers in the 1990s with the San Diego Padres. At a ground zero for the rebuild, Epstein memorably put it this way during an introductory press conference in the fall of 2011: “Jason McLeod is the rarest commodity in the industry. He’s an impact evaluator of baseball talent.”

McLeod’s first draft with the Boston Red Sox produced Dustin Pedroia, a 2007 American League Rookie of the Year and 2008 MVP, a back-to-back feat that Bryant might replicate in the NL. McLeod also became involved in the drafting of pieces – for Boston’s 2007 World Series team or elsewhere – like Rizzo, Jacoby Ellsbury, Jed Lowrie, Clay Buchholz and Josh Reddick.  

McLeod, a former minor-league pitcher, isn’t some propeller-head. He comes across as someone you would have a beer with, an easygoing personality that meshes with scouts and staffers. But he can also speak to an ownership level, talking the corporate language of systems, processes and analytics. Working in Boston and Chicago has made him comfortable around the media.

McLeod withdrew his name from consideration while his hometown Padres searched for a GM in the middle of the 2014 season, saying he didn’t want to leave with unfinished business and miss being part of a World Series blowout in Wrigleyville.

San Diego hired A.J. Preller, who is currently serving a 30-day suspension after a Major League Baseball investigation into how he mishandled the medical information during the Drew Pomeranz trade with the Red Sox. The Arizona Diamondbacks – a franchise that can match the Padres in terms of dysfunction and instability – are now looking for a new baseball boss after firing Dave Stewart and sidelining Tony La Russa.    

McLeod isn’t seen as a fit in Arizona. For now, McLeod plans to watch the scouting-and-player-development machine Epstein promised to build on the North Side, seeing how all these magnificent talents grow up, while staying close to his family in the Chicago area. But someday, the TV cameras might be looking for McLeod in the stands during an emotionally draining playoff game.

Jason Heyward has changed everything for the Cubs lineup

Jason Heyward has changed everything for the Cubs lineup

Who needs Bryce Harper when the Cubs are set with Jason Heyward in right field for the next half-decade?

OK, that might be a little extreme, but Heyward has actually turned a major corner in his Cubs career, as evidenced by this stat:

And it's not just the numbers. It's how Heyward has turned things around at the plate and who he's gotten his hits off of.

Start with the walk-off grand slam against the Phillies on the last homestand. That pitch was a 97 mph fastball up and Heyward hammered it into the right field bleachers.

He also turned on a 99 mph Jordan Hicks sinker over the weekend in St. Louis for a 2-run homer. Then there was the single Heyward hit at 107 mph off Josh Hader to tie the game in Milwaukee last week — which was the first hit by a left-handed hitter off Hader all season. And the single Heyward had off the Pirates' dominant left-handed closer Felipe Vazquez in Pittsburgh last month. 

Suddenly, Heyward is able to catch up to elite velocity. And not only that, but he's PULLING these balls.

In his first two years with the Cubs, Heyward had just 1 homer off a pitch 95 mph or faster. He already has 3 this season.

"He looks confident at the plate," Cubs GM Jed Hoyer said. "I feel like he's swinging with aggressiveness, swinging with a purpose. ... I'm happy for him that he's been delivering those [big] moments and I feel like as he does, his confidence is only gonna grow."

That refrain — "I'm happy for him" — is commonly heard around the Cubs these last couple of weeks. Inside the clubhouse, Heyward is absolutely beloved for his professionalism, work ethic and leadership. 

Heyward is a guy that's easy to root for, whether you're his teammate, a fan, a media member or part of an opposing team. Case in point:

It's been a really rough couple of years at the plate, but these last few weeks, Heyward has transformed the Cubs lineup as Joe Maddon has moved him back up to the 2-hole, where he began his Cubs career in the early part of the 2016 season.

"He's the guy that's really ascended among the group," Maddon said. "He's made all the difference by being able to hit second and providing some really big hits in the latter part of the game."

If the Cubs had a playoff game tomorrow, Maddon's lineup for that contest would probably feature Ben Zobrist leading off and Heyward hitting second (which would've sounded crazy even a month ago). Maddon loves how they set the tone and example for the rest of a young lineup that is still developing.

As Maddon and the Cubs coaching staff are trying to drill into the heads of the team's stable of young hitters the importance of putting the ball in play with two strikes, Heyward is sporting the lowest strikeout rate of his career (11.5 percent), which ranks 11th in MLB behind Buster Posey. Heyward is on pace for only 56 strikeouts in 441 at-bats this year.

And believe it or not, it was actually a concussion that got Heyward on the right path. 

During the Cubs' first trip of the season to St. Louis in early May, Heyward went into the stands to try to rob Dexter Fowler's walk-off homer on the final game of the series. The Cubs right fielder smacked his head on the wall on that play and wound up on the disabled list for nearly two weeks.

But he didn't waste any time while he was on the shelf.

"Oh I know I made strides [while on the DL]," Heyward said. "Can't waste any days. That's how hard this game is. When you're going through things, just naturally in the season, it's hard to slow it down. It's hard to break everything down, to pay attention. But I just try to use my time wisely."

Thanks to that time off, Heyward now has his hands "free" and more involved in his swing than at any other point in his Cubs career.

That's all he worked on while he was on the shelf with Cubs hitting coaches Chili Davis and Andy Haines.

"Literally, my hands," Heyward said. "Using my hands, keeping that simple. It's way easier to make adjustments on the fly when I'm really just throwing my hands at the ball instead of just arms and muscle the ball over.

"... It's hard to catch everything wheren you're just going at it day in and day out. But I was just able to see that here and work on that and feel it and here we go."

Since he's returned from the disabled list on May 18, Heyward is hitting .307 with a .347 on-base percentage and .489 slugging percentage, good for an .836 OPS. In that 24-game stretch, Heyward has 16 RBI and 10 extra-base hits (6 doubles, 2 triples, 2 homers).

To put that in perspective, that's as many extra-base hits for Heyward as he had in the previous 40 regular season games (48 games if you include playoffs) dating back to last September.

Neither the Cubs nor Heyward are getting ahead of themselves here and guaranteeing this offensive hot streak to continue. 

This is the same guy who walked into the visiting clubhouse at Miller Park last week and flipped off MLB Network because they were discussing how the Cubs are the best team in the league when facing a starting pitcher the third time through the order. He didn't want his team to get complacent or too caught up in the past and think they've already accomplished something this season when the goal is another World Series.

There was actually a clue earlier in the season that an offensive breakout could be on the way for Heyward, but he then fell back into a slump before making a major adjustment with the time off.

"No one should get ahead of themselves with grand declarations, but he deserves so much credit," Theo Epstein said. "He made such good use of his time when he was on the DL. In a difficult spot — the concussion DL — once he felt good enough to work, he worked really hard.

"Clearly found something in his swing — his hands, the feel of creating some lag and some whip in his swing. That's huge for him because with all that he's been through the last couple years, he never lost the ability to recognize pitches early, the ability to manage a really good at-bat and never lost his hand-eye.

"Now that he's got that whip going, you see the ball coming off the bat totally differently. He's driving the ball through the gaps, he's hitting with some backspin or the pull side. The ball's coming out hot when he gets it deep to the opposite field.

"Just really happy for him that all the work has led to the better feel for his swing and how he can take advantage of that great brain and eye that he has at the plate."

Cubs honor sweet swingin’ Billy Williams on 80th birthday

billy_williams_story.jpg
AP

Cubs honor sweet swingin’ Billy Williams on 80th birthday

After Mother Nature washed out the Cubs and Dodgers Monday at Wrigley Field, the Cubs recognized one of their Hall of Famers.

In honor of outfielder Billy Williams’ 80th birthday on June 15, the Cubs painted Williams’ No. 26 behind home plate. Cubs players are also wearing shirts with his number featured on the front.

On the Cubs Twitter page, there is also a glass case of pictures and Williams’ old jersey with other memorabilia. 

In his illustrious 16-year career with the Cubs, Williams, known as sweet swingin’ Billy from Whistler, hit .290 with 392 home runs, 1353 RBIs, 2510 hits and 911 walks.

His best offensive season came in 1970 when he hit 42 home runs and 129 RBIs, both career bests.

Williams also played with the Oakland Athletics for two seasons after he was traded by the Cubs after the 1974 season.

Williams was a guy you’d see on the field a lot during his day, starting all 162 games four times. In 1970 he eclipsed 161 games.

He was inducted in the Hall of Fame in 1987. Williams appeared in six All-Star Games, he was the 1961 Rookie of the Year and the 1972 NL MVP. He also won the NL batting title that year.