Cubs

Jason Heyward megadeal reinforces World Series expectations for Cubs

jason-heyward-cubs-insider-1211.png

Jason Heyward megadeal reinforces World Series expectations for Cubs

The Jason Heyward megadeal reinforces the World Series expectations at Wrigley Field, the gigantic exclamation point to what’s already been a frenetic offseason for the Cubs.

Heyward chose the Cubs over the St. Louis Cardinals and agreed to an eight-year, $184 million contract, sources confirmed Friday, reigniting what should be a great rivalry and showing the baseball world this team is absolutely serious about winning it all in 2016.

In Heyward, the Cubs get a 26-year-old outfielder with three Gold Gloves, a career .353 on-base percentage and a reputation for being a professional clubhouse influence. All those attributes – ideal age, elite defensive skills, an ability to grind out at-bats, off-the-field presence – made the Cubs see Heyward as a sound long-term investment.

It’s the targeted approach that led Theo Epstein’s front office to super-utility guy Ben Zobrist and big-game pitcher John Lackey, two players signed within the last week for $88 million combined.

Winning 97 games and two playoff rounds changed the equation for the president of baseball operations, who last month publicly ruled out the idea of doing two nine-figure deals this winter and didn’t say that as a smokescreen.

Working in concert with the Ricketts family and Crane Kenney’s business operations department across the last few weeks, Epstein’s baseball group got creative and freed up more money, using postseason revenues to keep the momentum going.

[NBC SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

Heyward reportedly turned down more money – the Washington Nationals were also believed to be heavily involved in the bidding – and received two opt-out clauses. Arizona Diamondbacks general manager Dave Stewart told reporters at the winter meetings that Heyward was “looking for $200 million.”

Yes, Heyward has made only one All-Star team, never driven in more than 82 runs in a season and hit 20-plus homers only once in his career. But at this point, the Cubs don’t need a middle-of-the-order basher with Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant already established as All-Stars.

Heyward is a strong foundation piece in areas where the Cubs are structurally weak, and he wanted to play for a winning team that would appreciate what he brings to the ballpark every day.

Heyward, who grew up in Georgia, debuted with the Atlanta Braves and blasted a three-run homer off Carlos Zambrano in his first big-league at-bat on Opening Day 2010. If the Braves had manipulated the service-time system the way the Cubs did with Bryant, then Heyward wouldn’t have been a free agent this offseason.

While Heyward didn’t necessarily live up to the superstar expectations drawn from that first impression at Turner Field, he’s a well-rounded athlete who’s been top-10 in WAR among National League position players in four of his six seasons.

[MORE: Zobrist brings World Series-or-bust mentality to Cubs]

The Braves traded their hometown, homegrown outfielder to the Cardinals in November 2014, with St. Louis viewing it as a one-year recruiting pitch for Heyward and seeing him as the next core player for an 11-time world champion.

But the Cubs keep selling 1908 and the chance to make history. Zobrist has already said his only goal is to win a World Series in the next four years, and those great expectations will be the same for Heyward.

While the Zobrist move had to be made in concert with the Starlin Castro trade to the New York Yankees, the belief was the Cubs didn’t have a Jorge Soler deal lined up immediately. But this obviously gives the Cubs even more options as they aggressively reshape the team that got swept out of the NL Championship Series.

The New York Mets exposed some free-swinging tendencies in October and defensive issues in the outfield. Heyward can be a left-handed presence near the top of the lineup and a short-term fix in center before moving back to a corner spot.

This comes 12 months after the Cubs gave Jon Lester what had been the richest contract in franchise history, a six-year, $155 million megadeal that accelerated the rebuild in Wrigleyville.

Lester and Lackey will be in a rotation fronted by Cy Young Award winner Jake Arrieta. Heyward can bat in front of a unanimous Rookie of the Year pick (Bryant) and perennial MVP candidate (Rizzo). Joe Maddon – now a three-time Manager of the Year – will be running the show.

After the delirium of an unexpected playoff run, anything less than a World Series title in 2016 will be a big disappointment.

Nationals fans sent Kyle Schwarber from hero to villain in monumentally entertaining Home Run Derby

0716-kyle-schwarber.jpg
USA TODAY

Nationals fans sent Kyle Schwarber from hero to villain in monumentally entertaining Home Run Derby

WASHINGTON, D.C. — How could someone like Kyle Schwarber play the villain?

The fan favorite who’s always quick with a smile — or an Uncle Sam costume on the Fourth of July — Schwarber doesn’t fit the mold of a loathsome target of boos. But he made quite the heel turn in the minds of Washington Nationals fans Monday night, and of course he knew it was coming.

Schwarber went from getting cheered by the legions in attendance at the Home Run Derby to getting booed when he took on, and eventually lost to, hometown hero Bryce Harper in the final round.

“I was down in the tunnel saying, ‘If we get to the finals, Harp, they’re all going to be against me. I think they’re all going to be against me,’” Schwarber said Monday night. “And then I went out there and got booed after they all got pumped up for me. That’s just the beauty of it, and I was happy for Bryce that he won it in front of the home crowd.”

Harper delivered an incredibly memorable baseball moment Monday night, catching up to Schwarber’s 18 home runs with a ridiculous display of repetitive power to win a Home Run Derby for the ages. The format of this event, revamped a couple years ago, made for a dramatic and hugely entertaining evening. Harper smacked nine homers over the final 47 seconds of the final round to tie Schwarber, then bested him in bonus time. Unsurprisingly, the home crowd was going ballistic for their boy.

But earlier in the night, it was Schwarber getting all the cheers, when he made his own last-second comeback to beat Philadelphia Phillies slugger Rhys Hoskins in the second round. Schwarber was pumping up the crowd, pumping his fists and screaming while putting on a show of his own to catch and pass Hoskins' 20 home runs and advance to the finals.

How quickly the locals forgot.

By the finals — during which Schwarber looked understandably exhausted — the crowd had turned on him, trying to get every advantage for Harper.

“As soon as I got done with that round, I told myself that he had it,” Schwarber said. “I knew that he had the home crowd behind him, and I knew that he was a very prolific power hitter with a great swing. For him to come in and do that and started getting down to the wire, all of a sudden he started racking them up one at a time. You kind of just accept your fate there.”

Perhaps the night could’ve ended differently for Schwarber had he listened more closely to the advice of his teammates, Javy Baez and Willson Contreras, who were quick with Gatorade, a towel and words of encouragement on Monday. Baez hit 16 home runs in his own first-round appearance, though Los Angeles Dodgers slugger Max Muncy knocked him out.

“I was just telling him to slow down,” Baez said. “He was kind of rushing a little bit, that’s why he was jumping to the ball.”

“They were actually giving me really good advice that I didn’t take because I was really dumb-headed,” Schwarber said. “‘Make sure you take some pitches and get the pitch that you want.’ At the end, I felt like I was swinging at everything. I was just running out of gas. I felt like I had to put up as many swings just to try to put a couple out.”

Schwarber was totally content with losing out to Harper’s home-field advantage. Though as his homers flew out deep into the right-field seats Monday night, you couldn’t help but wonder what it would be like if Schwarber was instead taking aim at Sheffield Avenue and getting his own home-field advantage from Cubs fans.

The North Side hasn’t played host to the All-Star Game since 1990, so perhaps Schwarber will still be slugging the next time the Friendly Confines are the site of the Home Run Derby.

“That’d be really cool one day if the All-Star Game’s at Wrigley,” Schwarber said, “and to participate in the Derby, that’d be fun.”

Summer of Sammy: Sosa's 36th homer in 1998

sosa_generic_1998_road_hr_slide.jpg
AP

Summer of Sammy: Sosa's 36th 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 went down and golfed a pitch out for his 36th homer on July 17, 1998. He smacked Marlins reliever Kirt Ojala's (who??) pitch just over the wall in center field at Pro Player Stadium for a 2-run shot that closed out the Cubs' scoring in a 6-1 victory.

 

The blast accounted for Sosa's 88th and 89th of the season. By comparison, Javy Baez currently leads the Cubs (and the National League) with 72 RBI on July 17, 2018.

 

Steve Trachsel tossed a complete game for the Cubs in the victory that day and Sosa finished with the only extra-base hits for either team (he also had a double).

 

Fun fact: Former Cub Ryan Dempster started the game for the Marlins, but lasted just 4.1 innings to run his season record to 1-4 with a 6.70 ERA.