Pressure? Expectations? Cubs send message to Jason Heyward: Just be yourself


Pressure? Expectations? Cubs send message to Jason Heyward: Just be yourself

Joe Maddon will have a simple message for Jason Heyward in spring training: Just be yourself.

No one around the Cubs will be asking Heyward to “step up and be a leader” or become “the face of the franchise” or whatever other buzzwords hover around a new free agent with a huge contract.

The Cubs have the National League’s reigning Cy Young Award winner (Jake Arrieta), Rookie of the Year (Kris Bryant) and Manager of the Year (Maddon). 

Anthony Rizzo is already a two-time All-Star first baseman, MVP candidate and clubhouse spokesman. Until two months ago, $155 million lefty Jon Lester had the richest contract in franchise history. 

As part of a $276 million spending spree this offseason, the Cubs also added two World Series champions to set an example for their young hitters (Ben Zobrist) and bring an edge to their pitching staff (John Lackey). 

[RELATED - John Lackey will push Cubs to be ‘100 percent’ focused on World Series]

“I don’t know about a final piece,” Heyward said. “I’m happy to be a part of it, though. I know, as a baseball player showing up every year in spring training, we’re only as good as the cards we’re dealt. 

“Our job is to show up every day, go to work and try to make the most of what we have. It’s just a great thing to be a part of an organization that says they want to do something – and then they follow through with it.”

The marketing department doesn’t have to force Heyward onto billboards or use him as a distraction from the rest of the on-field product. Coming off a 97-win season, the Cubs reported a 98-percent renewal rate for season tickets. This team also drove TV ratings, with Comcast SportsNet Chicago posting a 121-percent increase from 2014 to 2015. 

Heyward will be surrounded by corner outfielders who will turn 24 this month (Jorge Soler) and 23 in March (Kyle Schwarber) and a shortstop who turned 22 last month (Addison Russell).

“Bringing in Jason is sort of a perfect solution for us,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “We get a guy that is an impact player right now, but we also get a guy that fits in perfectly with our young core. The fact that it could serve both masters was something that was incredibly important to us. 

“We could get younger and also get better. Jason said it several times and he’s totally right: We play in an environment in the NL Central that was incredibly competitive. Trying to win the division – and trying to avoid the one-game playoff – is something that’s really important to us. 

“The rest of the National League is going to get better. We felt, in order to compete, we had to continue to get better as well. And I think we did that with our offseason.”

[RELATED - Jon Lester ready for Year 2 after taking leap of faith with Cubs]

Heyward isn’t Hank Aaron, a player he was compared to while coming up with his hometown Atlanta Braves. But Heyward also doesn’t have to be a middle-of-the-order force at Wrigley Field. Led by Rizzo (31) and Bryant (26), the Cubs had nine players finish last season with double-digit homers.  

The Cubs guaranteed Heyward eight years and $184 million because of his prime age, patient approach at the plate (.353 career on-base percentage) and Gold Glove defense.

“It’s very unique to see a free agent at 26 years old with the kind of career he’s already been able to have,” Arrieta said. “He can hit the ball out of the yard. He can be a .280-to-.300 hitter (and) he plays incredible defense in the outfield. 

“That’s something for me (where) I understand with my stuff I can go out there and pitch to contact knowing I have a guy like that out there behind me.”

Heyward’s 27-homer, 82-RBI season with the Braves in 2012 might wind up being the total outlier on the back of his baseball card. He may never become the superstar predicted when Baseball America named him the game’s No. 1 overall prospect heading into the 2010 season. But the St. Louis Cardinals still wanted him to stay so much they reportedly offered him $200 million.

[SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

“He’s got all the potential to hit balls in the seats,” Maddon said. “He’s done it (before), so the big thing is to get in a count and not miss your pitch. That’s where power really comes from. So I think as he continues to understand what he’s doing in the batter’s box – (with) age on his side (and) physicality on his side – eventually you’re going to see the ball go in the seats. 

“But that’s still not my concern. He’s going to hit whatever he hits home runs. I want him to come ready to play, work the at-bat, get on base 36 percent of the time or better (and) play that defense and throw like he can. (Because) he’s a winner.”

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.