Jason Heyward will be an X-factor in Cubs-Cardinals rivalry


Jason Heyward will be an X-factor in Cubs-Cardinals rivalry

Jason Heyward could become the next Cub killer. This also looks like a free agent who would check all the boxes for Theo Epstein’s front office. That left-handed swing and Gold Glove defense would also be perfect for Yankee Stadium.

The St. Louis Cardinals acquired Heyward with the hope that he would be their next great core player, planning for the future and eventually life after Matt Holliday and Yadier Molina.

Otherwise, the Cardinals wouldn’t have done that four-player deal last November, watching Shelby Miller (2.07 ERA) blossom into an All-Star with the Atlanta Braves.

Either way, Heyward should be an X-factor in the Cubs-Cardinals rivalry. In leaving Atlanta — the city he grew up around and the organization that made him a first-round pick in 2007 — Heyward almost sounded like Jon Lester after signing that six-year, $155 million megadeal.

[MORE CUBS: 'A loss is a loss': Cubs feel sting after Cards deal gutting defeat]

“Everyone here did their part — more than their part — to make me feel at home and welcome,” Heyward said Wednesday, sitting at his locker inside Wrigley Field’s cramped visiting clubhouse. “But I still had to do my part as far as just feeling adjusted and becoming accustomed to everything.

“It’s kind of like the monkey on your back. You have the added element every day (where) there’s something to go along with the natural preparation of getting ready for a game.

“But I’ve had a blast. And it’s been nothing but positive things for me to say about my experience.”

If the Cubs really can afford to hand out a nine-figure contract next winter, you would think they would prioritize pitching, a frontline guy like David Price or Jordan Zimmermann to go with Lester and Jake Arrieta.

[MORE CUBS: Jason Hammel injury shows how much Cubs need more pitching]

But Heyward will turn 26 in August and should have his best years in front of him, though it’s hard to put a price tag on that potential, the flashes of patience, speed, power and defense.

Heyward has already been a top-10 National League position player in terms of WAR — a metric that weighs defense heavily — in three of his five seasons. He gets on base around 35 percent of the time. He stole 20-plus bases in 2012 and 2014. He has exceeded the 20-homer, 80-RBI marks only once (in 2012).

The Cubs have questions marks in the outfield — especially if Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber stay at third base and catcher — and 2016 is too soon to count on the Albert Almoras and Billy McKinneys in the farm system.

“They’re a good team in a really good division,” Heyward said. “That’s plain and simple. They can go out and win any night. They have a good enough team to do so. They have new leadership (and that) can go a long way.”

[MORE CUBS: Maddon comfortable with Bryant, Rizzo in Home Run Derby]

The chain of events that led Heyward to St. Louis began with Atlanta’s decision to promote a hometown, homegrown player and put him in their 2010 Opening Day lineup — and not gain the extra year of club control the Cubs got when they stashed Bryant at Triple-A Iowa to start this season.

Heyward hit a three-run homer off Carlos Zambrano in his first big-league at-bat as the Braves gave the Cubs a 16-5 beatdown at Turner Field. Atlanta won 91 games that season and made the playoffs as a wild-card team.

“You don’t think about it at that time,” Heyward said. “It’s a business. Certain things you can never control. Just try to control what you can. Don’t take anything for granted.

“You understand that trades and things like that are part of it. Growing up in Georgia, I’ve seen the Braves make plenty of moves like that, and you always wonder why they’re letting go of certain guys, and it just happened time after time after time. So for anybody that was surprised — I wasn’t.”

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The Cardinals wanted to use this season as a recruiting pitch and a chance to get to know Heyward, who’s hitting .278 with nine homers and 30 RBIs and slowly heating up from April (.611 OPS) through May (.783 OPS) and into June (.881 OPS) and what should be a huge platform in the playoffs.

“I want to go for a winning attitude, a winning-mindset organization,” Heyward said. “After that, let everything else take care of itself. I’d just like to try to win as many games as possible and know that’s the reason you show up every day for work.

“When the time comes to make decisions, we’ll see what happens. Just tackle it then. Right now, I’m in a perfect place.”

What the Cubs can learn from the 2019 MLB postseason so far


What the Cubs can learn from the 2019 MLB postseason so far

For the 10 teams that qualify for MLB’s postseason, October represents a chance to climb baseball’s mountain and secure a championship. For the 20 other teams sitting at home, though, October is a chance to evaluate those in the Big Dance.

Less than two weeks into the postseason, here’s some things that the Cubs can take away from the action thus far.

1. Starting pitching matters

With bullpens being relied on more than ever, starting pitchers aren’t used the same way as just a few seasons ago. The Brewers rode their bullpen all the way to Game 7 of the NLCS last season, while the Rays used an “opener” (a reliever who starts a game and pitches 1-3 innings) in Game 4 of the ALDS this season – beating the Astros 4-1.

And yet, the Astros and Nationals are proving how important it is to have a difference-making rotation. The bullpening method can work, but being able to throw Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole and Zack Greinke at an opponent in a single postseason series is downright unfair.

The Nationals have Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin in their rotation, as formidable of a trio as any in the National League. They also have Anibal Sánchez, who took a no-hitter into the eighth inning of Game 1 of the NLCS against the Cardinals on Friday. No big deal...

And despite getting eliminated, the Rays — Blake Snell, Tyler Glasnow, Charlie Morton — and Dodgers — Clayton Kershaw, Walker Buehler and Hyun-Jin Ryu — have talented rotations, as do the Cardinals and Yankees.

Meanwhile, the Cubs rotation didn’t have as big of an impact this season as they expected, a contributing factor to the team not making it to October.

“We had really high hopes for our starting group this year," Theo Epstein said at his end-of-season press conference. "You looked at it 1-through-5, we had a chance to roll out a really quality starter on a nightly basis, and that might be an area that was a separator for us versus some of the teams we were competing with. While we had a couple guys who had really good years and all our starters had their moments, it didn't prove to be a separator.

"There was some injury and regression (especially after injury) that led us to be closer to the pack certainly than we had envisioned. It’s an accomplished and experienced group, but with experience means that we could stand to add some younger talent, refresh the group as well. We certainly need to add depth and we need to add some youth and a little bit of a different look to the staff, as well, going forward.”

Yu Darvish, Kyle Hendricks and Jon Lester are under contract for 2020, while Jose Quintana has an $11.5 team option. The Cubs don’t have an Astros or Nationals-esque trio, but their rotation can still be good enough to lead the charge in 2020. They’ll need them to do just that if they are to return to the top of the NL Central.

2. Manager decision-making is far more important in October than regular season

The Dodgers’ season came to an abrupt close in Game 5 of the NLDS, with manager Dave Roberts being smack dab in the spotlight.

With the Dodgers leading 3-1 in the seventh inning, Roberts called Clayton Kershaw’s number to get Los Angeles out of a two on, two out jam. Kershaw did just that, but the Nationals opened the eighth with home runs from Anthony Rendon and Juan Soto (on consecutive pitches) to tie the game.

Kershaw is one of the best pitchers in his generation, a three-time Cy Young Award winner and one-time NL MVP. However, his postseason woes are real (4.43 ERA, 32 games/25 starts), and therefore, Roberts made a questionable decision going with Kershaw in that moment. 

Where was Kenta Maeda to face Rendon? Maeda had allowed just a single hit in 3 2/3 innings at this point in the postseason. He took over for Kershaw after Soto’s home run, striking out three-straight Dodgers to end the eighth. 

Roberts also didn't bring in closer Kenley Jansen to start the 10th inning, when the game was still tied 3-3. Instead, he left in Joe Kelly, who allowed a decisive grand slam to Howie Kendrick. Only then did Jansen come in, but the damage was done. Not bringing in your closer in an extra-inning postseason game is inexcusable, and while it may be outcome bias, this game proves why.

Roberts has 393 wins in four seasons as Dodgers manager, leading them to World Series appearances in 2017 and 2018. Even with that experience, though, he made a bad decision at a terrible time. The postseason is a different animal, not only for players, but the coaches in the dugouts, too.

Of the known candidates the Cubs have interviewed for manager — David Ross, Joe Girardi, Mark Loretta and Will Venable — only Girardi has big-league managing experience. And while Epstein noted at his press conference that it isn’t everything, he added that experience is important.

"Lack of experience - and I'm speaking broadly for the group, not necessarily [about Ross] - is always a factor,” Epstein said. “It's not a determining factor, but it's a significant factor. I always have greater comfort level hiring for roles in which the person has done the role before. Especially with manager.

“But I think there are ways for that to be overcome - there are a lot of different ways to get experience in this game - beliefs, skills, personal attributes, those can outweigh a lack of experience, but experience certainly helps.”

3. Winning in the postseason is tough

After the Cubs won the World Series in 2016, there was a feeling that baseball’s next dynasty was underway. After all, the Cubs had a talented, young position player group that reached the promised land early in their time together. It made sense.

Those talks have died down, of course, as the Cubs haven’t even appeared in the World Series since 2016. And while they've had plenty of success since 2015, it feels like they could’ve had more.

The thing about baseball, though, is that it’s extremely hard to sustain those high levels of success. A few teams (Red Sox, Cardinals, Giants) have won multiple World Series this century, none have repeated as champions since the Yankees, who won three-straight from 1998-2000.

The Twins won 101 games this season and were swept out of the ALDS. The Braves won 97, only to lose Game 5 of the NLDS in brutal fashion at home to the Cardinals.

The Dodgers made it to the World Series in 2017 and 2018 and came up empty both times. They won 106 games this season, a franchise record, only to be eliminated in the NLDS by the Nationals — a Wild Card team, nonetheless.

Does that make last few seasons even more frustrating for the Cubs and their fans? Probably. October is a crapshoot, meaning as long as a team gets in, they have a shot at winning it all, no matter their record.

At the same time, the Cubs made things look easy in 2016. They had brilliant injury luck, a historic defense, a deep position player group, a loaded starting rotation and the right manager for their young core. Even so, it took erasing a 3-to-1 series deficit against the Indians to win it all, not to mention a dramatic Game 7 win that nearly didn’t go their way.

This isn’t an excuse for the Cubs shortcomings in 2019, but merely a reminder: they won the 2016 World Series, and that's no small feat. This offseason offers the chance to improve as a team for 2020, when they’ll set out to win again.

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Cubs Talk Podcast: Kap breaks down the Cubs managerial search

USA Today

Cubs Talk Podcast: Kap breaks down the Cubs managerial search

David Kaplan shares his thoughts on the Cubs, the decision to move on from Joe Maddon (0:50), the process in hiring a new manager (2:40), and who should be in the dugout next season (4:05).

Listen here or in the embedded player below. 

Cubs Talk Podcast