Joe Maddon feels like Cubs won baseball lottery again with Jason Heyward


Joe Maddon feels like Cubs won baseball lottery again with Jason Heyward

HAZLETON, Pa. — Joe Maddon compared signing Jon Lester to winning the baseball lottery at last year’s winter meetings. The Cubs manager now feels like he hit another Powerball jackpot with Jason Heyward.

“We won two years in a row,” Maddon said Tuesday. “I believe he’s one of the top five players in the National League.”

Almost 700 miles from the fancy Michigan Avenue restaurant where the Cubs staged Heyward’s welcome-to-Chicago press conference, Maddon imagined the possibilities while back in his blue-collar hometown in Pennsylvania, preparing for his annual “Thanksmas” events at the Hazleton One Community Center.

This is the ideal player for a manager who digs run prevention, thinks batting average is overrated and understands baseball’s new aging curve in an era of tougher testing for performance-enhancing drugs: a three-time Gold Glove outfielder with a career .353 on-base percentage and a 1989 birth certificate.

No doubt, Maddon loves the Cubs gambling on Heyward with the biggest contract in franchise history, an eight-year, $184 million megadeal that comes with a World Series-or-bust mandate.

“Somebody’s got to be that guy, so it might as well be him,” Maddon said. “I really believe he’s going to handle it well.

“I believe he believes he’s earned the right to be in this position. (He’s) 26. He’s worked hard to get here. This is his third organization, so he knows what it’s like to be around a little bit. He’s not going to be wide-eyed.

“He just played in St. Louis on a 100-win team. He played on some really good teams in Atlanta. So I would hope that money should not change this dude at all. If anything, it would just provide motivation to play as well as he can.”

[MORE CUBS: Cubs buy championship influence with Lackey, Zobrist, Heyward]

Maddon’s message to Heyward could be boiled down to the same thing he told Lester after the All-Star lefty signed a six-year, $155 million contract: Be yourself. Don’t change anything. Just go play.

The Cubs don’t need Heyward to live up to the hype that followed him as Baseball America’s No. 1 overall prospect heading into the 2010 season.

The Cubs aren’t crossing their fingers hoping Heyward can match his numbers from the 2012 season, the only time he’s put up 20-plus homers and more than 80 RBIs.

The Cubs can live with Heyward still being a .268 hitter in this monster lineup, as long as he keeps seeing pitches, saving runs with his defense and putting pressure on the other team with his speed and instincts.

“Everybody gets hung up on batting averages all the time,” Maddon said. “Believe me, I do not. This guy is a really good baseball player. First of all, he comes to play every day. He plays both sides of the ball. I think he’s a top-three defender at any position. Great arm.

“He’s a top-three, top-five baserunner. And I think him and Kris Bryant together give you two of the best baserunners in the National League, maybe all of baseball.

“The sky’s the limit, man.”

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Heyward reminds Maddon of another corner outfielder he once worked with in the Angels system who developed into an eight-time Gold Glove winner in the big leagues.

“I think he can absolutely play center,” Maddon said. “I had Jimmy Edmonds in the minor leagues. Jimmy was a right fielder in the minor leagues. People were afraid to put him in center field because he wasn’t fast enough. He just wasn’t the prototypical-looking centerfielder. But Jimmy had this incredible, innate ability to be on line with his first step after a baseball.

“Jimmy was always in motion. I’m really eager to see Jason play center field. Because he’s big, he’s lanky, I think there’s the assumption that he can’t play in the middle. I’m curious. I think his instincts for the game are that good.

“Watching him in right field, going back on the baseball, he’s really good. Coming in on the baseball, he’s really good. Arm accuracy is fantastic. I think his makeup permits him to play there, too, because he seems like a take-charge kind of a dude. He’s not afraid to say what he thinks. I’m eager to see this.”

The entire baseball world will be watching to see how Heyward fits into a team that won 97 games and two playoff rounds and won’t be satisfied with anything less than a World Series title in 2016.

“I couldn’t believe we had that opportunity to sign him,” Maddon said. “It’s really exciting, man. And then when you talk to him, his head’s obviously in the right place. And to be that young with that many years ahead of us and him — it’s pretty cool.”

Javy Baez should be the frontrunner for NL MVP heading into the All-Star Break

Javy Baez should be the frontrunner for NL MVP heading into the All-Star Break

If the season ended today, Javy Baez may be your National League MVP.

Of course, the season isn't ending today, only the first half of the 2018 campaign is.

He flashed his skills again over the weekend — scoring the game-winning run Friday, posting a 5-RBI game Saturday and then drove in the Cubs' first run in their 7-4 victory Sunday to close out a sweep of the Padres.

Entering the All-Star Break, Baez should be the frontrunner for Most Valuable Player.

For starters, he's the best player on the best team in the league.

Thanks to a recent hot surge by the Cubs and an ugly weekend for the Brewers (who have lost 6 straight), Baez and Co. will go into the break with the best record in the NL. 

Baez, meanwhile, leads the Cubs in WAR and nearly every offensive category — OPS, slugging percentage, homers, RBI, runs scored, doubles, triples, total bases, stolen bases and hits.

And that's not even saying anything about his glovework at any position on the infield or dynamic baserunning.

He's on pace to become the first Cubs player to drive in 125 runs since Sammy Sosa in 2001.

Baez also is on track for a 30-30 season — something only Sosa accomplished in a Cubs uniform in 1993 and 1995. 

El Mago will enjoy his week in the Home Run Derby and as the NL's starting second baseman in the All-Star Game, but those shouldn't be the end of his accolades this year if he can find a way to keep this pace up in the second half.

What other NL candidate would be a better choice for the MVP right now?

Baez is tied for the league lead in RBI. Brewers first baseman Jesus Aguilar is just behind Baez with 70 RBI, but he also has 70 fewer at-bats than the Cubs star due to a platoon to begin the year. 

Eugenio Suarez and Scooter Gennett are also having great years, but the Reds are nowhere close to a playoff spot. 

Nolan Arenado, Freddie Freeman and Paul Goldschmidt are also having very good seasons on teams that are currently in the playoff hunt, but how do you deny the best player on the league's best team?

After all, where would the Cubs be without Baez this season? 

Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo have battled through injuries and bouts of ineffectiveness, the pitching staff has had all kinds of consistency/health woes and Willson Contreras has yet to find his power stroke at the plate.

At the very least, "El Mago" has been the most important player on the North Side of Chicago during the first 3.5 months of 2018.

Nico Hoerner makes great catch in first game with South Bend

Nico Hoerner makes great catch in first game with South Bend

Cubs first-round pick Nico Hoerner made his debut with the Class-A South Bend Cubs, and he did not disappoint.

The 23-year old shortstop showed off impressive hops during an acrobatic grab in the topf of the second inning in his first game with the South Bend Cubs. Hoerner will surely be an exciting defensive prospect with ability like this.

As far as offense goes, through four at-bats at South Bend, Hoerner is batting .500, and this comes after he hit .318 with a home run and two RBI through seven games with the Eugene Emeralds, the Cubs Class A short-season affiliate.

Here is to hoping we continue to see big-time plays from Hoerner.