Cubs

Jason Heyward: Nothing shocking about Adam Jones hearing racist taunts at Fenway Park

Jason Heyward: Nothing shocking about Adam Jones hearing racist taunts at Fenway Park

Jason Heyward understands what it’s like to be Adam Jones, standing alone in the outfield, trying to concentrate on your job and hearing the racist taunts from the Fenway Park stands.

“Nothing really shocks me,” Heyward said. “I’m not saying that you expect it to happen, but you’re not surprised, I guess, just growing up African-American, growing up playing baseball.”

Heyward didn’t say this in anger or with any hesitation. The media crowded around his locker on Tuesday inside Wrigley Field’s clubhouse wanted a reaction to the Boston Red Sox apologizing to Jones, an All-Star center fielder for the Baltimore Orioles who represents so many of Major League Baseball’s best qualities.      

The night before, USA Today quoted Jones saying that “I was called the N-word a handful of times” and a fan threw a bag of peanuts at him in the dugout, dredging up bad memories from Boston’s divisive past. 

The Cubs had just enjoyed their weekend at Fenway Park, playing in front of sellout crowds and a national TV audience in a potential World Series preview. Heyward – the Gold Glove outfielder respected throughout the game for his sense of professionalism – didn’t have an edge to his low voice and spoke in a matter-of-face tone. 

“It’s not the only park I’ve been in where I’ve heard it,” Heyward said. “So that’s why I would say I’m not too surprised. And, again, when I say ‘not too surprised,’ I don’t mean it like ‘of course there.’

“It happens. I’ve heard it my whole life, so it is what it is.”

Joe Maddon – who made regular trips to Fenway Park with the Tampa Bay Rays – remembered the searing experiences as a minor-league manager in the mid-1980s in places like Little Rock, Arkansas, and Beaumont, Texas. 

“I’m coaching third base and there was some stuff coming out of the stands that I couldn’t believe,” Maddon said. “I went to the GM and I complained about it loudly and I wanted more security behind our dugout and he told me: ‘That’s just the boys having a little fun.’

“Then one time we had a situation in Beaumont where a fellow went out to the parking lot to get a gun and come back in (for) one of my black players, the right fielder. So you lived it – that’s 30 years ago – it’s even worse before that. 

“At some point, you’d like to believe it’s going to change, but who knows when?”

Jones is a Gold Glove/Silver Slugger performer, a leader for Team USA during its World Baseball Classic championship run, someone willing to speak his mind and engage in social issues. The players’ union recognized Jones as the 2015 Marvin Miller Man of the Year, an award that combines on-field excellence and community service.

In targeting Jones, Cubs outfielder Kyle Schwarber said, “It’s a shame that happened on a baseball field. It’s a shame that happens anywhere. It kind of leaves a pit in the stomach that we’re still at that point.”

“It’s just awful,” Maddon said. “But then again, what is the percentage? It is a small percentage of idiots that are going to let that come out of their mouths. And then it permeates an entire fan base in a negative way, (even though) you really know that (perception’s) not true, but that’s how we operate.”           

Red Sox owner John Henry and president Sam Kennedy met with Jones, who received a standing ovation before his first at-bat on Tuesday night at Fenway Park. The Red Sox are considering a lifetime ban for fans caught yelling racial slurs. But this isn’t only a Red Sox issue or a Boston problem. 

“It’s a part of sports,” Heyward said. “People are going to say whatever they think is going to help their team win and try and get under somebody’s skin. And then they’ll start drawing a line somewhere.

“It’s something I feel like a lot of people would just like to not hear anymore ever, but it’s part of life.”

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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