Cubs

Jason Heyward explains what Jackie Robinson Day means to him and why black kids aren't pursuing baseball

Jason Heyward explains what Jackie Robinson Day means to him and why black kids aren't pursuing baseball

Jackie Robinson Day is one of the best annual Major League Baseball traditions where everybody around the league dons a No. 42 uniform.

Jason Heyward held court at his locker Saturday before the 2017 iteration of Jackie Robinson Day and explained what the event means to him.

"It's great to be able to have it every year," Heyward said. "Some things, the game won't let you forget, which is awesome. It brings people together for a common reason.

"We love to play; we love to watch as fans. It's awesome to be able to put differences aside and have that common ground, share that passion for one game. It's a step in the right direction, I feel like, to be reminded of things like that."

Heyward is going throwback with his look for Saturday, wearing high socks as homage to the style of the trailblazer who helped bust down the color barrier in professional baseball.

It's also notable for Heyward he gets to experience Jackie Robinson Day at Wrigley Field, the only current MLB stadium Robinson played at (he hit .295 with a .400 on-base percentage in 93 career games at "The Friendly Confines").

"To get to do it here, at this stadium," Heyward said. "The history that's here, as well. It's just really cool. I feel like it takes you back and it makes you feel like you get to be playing in that time for a day.

"It's one of the fun things about this game is you get to pay homage to a historic moment like this, especially for off the field, the impact it had as well."

Heyward also spent a lot of time discussing his thoughts on why black players are not more prevalent in baseball.

Only 7.7 percent of MLB players are black in 2017, which is only up a tick from the 6.7 percent in 1956, Robinson's final season.

Major League Baseball is more diverse than it's ever been with 34.6 percent of active players on the 2017 Opening Day roster registering as non-white.

But why aren't there more black players in the game? 

For starters, five black players began the year on the disabled list, which skews the numbers.

Heyward offered other ideas:

"As far as college, I feel like any household that says, 'Get an education, try to do better for yourself, start a family,' those kinds of things — the scholarship numbers in baseball are really low," Heyward said. "There's not a lot of opportunity there. You look at trying to go to college and hopefully get a job and set yourself up for a career — even outside of sports — football has a lot higher numbers.

"I feel like seeing more people in a direction where there's more opportunity. It's hard to make it in baseball regardless."

So what can baseball do?

"I don't know," Heyward said. "Talk about people trying to have a job after school. As far as playing a sport, guys want to go to college and have sports pay for their education some. Everybody's family can't afford to take out a loan. People still have to pay back loans well after they're out of school.

"I couldn't tell you where to being as far as getting guys into college. As far as kids playing in the inner cities and in general, they're playing. Especially in Georgia, where I grew up. A lot of African-Americans are playing baseball. 

"It's all about pursuing that dream and having the means to do it and also being lucky and being able to make it."

Heyward's passion for baseball originated as a kid. His father outlawed football in the household because of the violent contact involved in the sport, but baseball was always the favorite of Heyward's dad, who was a Mets fan in the 1980s in the heyday of Dwight Gooden and Daryl Strawberry.

Heyward himself said he really got into the game traveling around the country playing as a kid and watching Ken Griffey Jr., Alex Rodriguez and Randy Johnson.

"Once I saw that, I thought, 'I wanna try and do this forever,'" he said. "It stuck and here we go."

Cubs free agent focus: Will Harris

Cubs free agent focus: Will Harris

With Hot Stove season underway, NBC Sports Chicago is taking a look at some of MLB’s top free agents and how they’d fit with the Cubs.

The Cubs are looking for bullpen help this offseason. Enter Astros free agent right-hander Will Harris.

Harris has quietly been one of the game’s best relievers since 2015. In 309 games (297 innings), the 35-year-old holds a 2.36 ERA and 0.987 WHIP. Over that same period, his ERA ranks third among relievers with at least 250 innings pitched, trailing Zack Britton (1.89) and Aroldis Chapman (2.16).

2019 was one of Harris' finest seasons yet, as he posted a pristine 1.50 ERA and 0.933 WHIP in 68 appearances. Of the 60 innings he pitched last season, 49 2/3 of them came in innings 7-9, an area the Cubs bullpen needs the most help.

Cubs relievers posted a 3.98 ERA last season (No. 8 in MLB), but that number is deceiving. The bullpen was OK in low and medium-leverage spots — as defined by FanGraphs — posting a 3.19 ERA (tied for No. 2 in MLB). But in high leverage spots, they sported a woeful 7.92 ERA (No. 24 in MLB) and a 15.4 percent walk rate (tied for last in MLB).

"It was a real interesting year in the 'pen," Cubs president Theo Epstein said at his end-of-season press conference. "Our inability to pitch in high-leverage situations was a clear problem and was a contributing factor — we had the third-worst record in all of baseball behind just the Tigers and Orioles in combined 1 and 2-run games.

"Our inability to pitch in high-leverage moments kind of haunted us throughout the year, and that’s something that I have to do a better job of finding options for."

Those walks often spelled doom for the Cubs. Fans remember all too well the three-straight free passes Steve Cishek handed out on Sept. 10 against the Padres, the final of which was a walk-off (literally). David Phelps and Cishek combined to walk three-straight Cardinals on Sept. 20, two of whom came around to score. The Cubs lost that game 2-1; there are plenty more similar instances.

Harris, meanwhile, walked 14 batters (6.1 percent walk rate) in 2019 — 15 if you count the one he allowed in 12 postseason appearances. His career walk rate is 6.2 percent.

Four Cubs late-inning relievers are free agent this winter in Cishek, Brandon Kintzler, Brandon Morrow and Pedro Strop. Cishek and Kintzler had solid 2019 seasons, while Strop had his worst season as a Cub. Morrow hasn’t pitched since July 2018, but he and the Cubs are working on a minor league deal, according to WSCR’s Bruce Levine. Strop has expressed his desire to return next season.

Harris regressing in 2020 is a concern. Relievers are the most volatile players in baseball, and Harris could see his performance sag in 2020 after pitching an extra month last season. Teams will have to trust his track record and assume a regression isn't forthcoming.

But assuming Cishek, Kintzler, Morrow and Strop all won’t return in 2020, the Cubs have a couple late-inning relief vacancies. Harris is one of the better available options, and he’d help the Cubs cut down on the walks dished out by their bullpen.

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Cubs add reliever Daniel Winkler in another low-risk, high-reward move

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USA TODAY

Cubs add reliever Daniel Winkler in another low-risk, high-reward move

The Cubs have reportedly made another low-risk gamble on a bullpen arm.

According to MLB Insider Robert Murray, the Cubs have reached an agreement with right-hander Daniel Winkler on a one-year deal.

Winkler, an Effingham, Ill. native holds a career 3.68 ERA, 3.65 FIP, 1.176 WHIP and 10.3 K/9 in 117 games (100 1/3 innings). He spent 2015-19 with the Atlanta Braves, undergoing Tommy John surgery in June 2014 and another elbow surgery in April 2017. The Braves dealt him to the San Francisco Giants at the 2019 trade deadline for closer Mark Melancon.

Winkler posted a 4.98 ERA in 27 big league games last season and a 2.93 ERA in 30 minor league games. His best MLB season came with the Braves in 2018, as he made a career-high 69 appearances and posted a 3.43 ERA, striking out 69 batters in 60 1/3 innings.

The Cubs entered the offseason in search of bullpen upgrades following a rough 2019. That search includes finding pitchers who may not have long track records, but qualities demonstrating their ability to make an impact at the big-league level. In this case, Winkler possesses solid spin rates on his cutter, four-seamer and curveball, meaning he induces soft contact and swings and misses.

“We need to keep unearthing pitchers who we acquire for the right reasons, we work well with and have the physical and mental wherewithal to go out and miss a lot of bats,” Cubs president Theo Epstein said at his end-of-season press conference, “which is something we didn’t do a lot of — although we did increasingly in the second half with this pitching group — and find more guys who can go out and pitch in high-leverage spots."

The Cubs were successful in unearthing arms last season, acquiring Rowan Wick and Brad Wieck from the Padres in separate deals. They recently acquired Jharel Cotton from the Oakland A’s in a similar buy low move.

Not every pitcher will be as successful as the Wi(e)cks were last season, but the Cubs must continue making low-risk bullpen moves. At the best, they find a legitimate relief arms; at the worst, they move on from a low-cost investments.

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