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.”

Podcast: Bold predictions for the Cubs offseason


Podcast: Bold predictions for the Cubs offseason

With the MLB offseason about to kick off, we run down the boldest predictions for the Cubs winter from around the NBC Sports Chicago Cubs content team. Topics include where Bryce Harper and Manny Machado will sign, how much money they’ll get, what the Cardinals will do this winter, Cubs offseason trades and how Theo Epstein’s front office may add to the pitching staff.


One topic we could all agree on was David Ross' potential as Cubs bench coach if the incumbent Brandon Hyde ends up taking a job as manager for another team around the league.


Listen to the entire podcast here and check out all of our bold predictions below:



David Kaplan


—Anthony Rizzo and his new wife, Emily, will adopt Manny Machado, change his last name and see Manny Rizzo playing third base for the 2019 Cubs.

—Because of the Rizzo move, the Cubs will move Kris Bryant to a full-time outfielder.

—The Cubs will trade away Jose Quintana and sign Patrick Corbin.

—The Cubs will sign a pair of former Indians relievers for the back end of the bullpen in Andrew Miller and Cody Allen.

—The Cubs will trade Kyle Schwarber to the Royals for Whit Merrifield, who will start 155 games in the leadoff spot in the order.

—Joe Maddon will be a lot more consistent with the Cubs' lineup and batting order all season.


Kelly Crull


—Anthony and Emily Rizzo will receive more wedding gifts from Cubs fans than Kris and Jessica Bryan received.

—Anthony Rizzo will train this offseason so he will be able to sing — or play the piano — for the National Anthem at Wrigley in 2019.

—The Cubs will have no money left to remodel the media room at Wrigley Field.


Luke Stuckmeyer


—The Captain Morgan Club at Wrigley Field is going to be replaced by Kap's Kryo & Keto Korner.

—The Cubs will finally find a solution to the leadoff hitter issue.


Tony Andracki


—The Cubs sign Bryce Harper for less than $250 million. (He follows 23 people on Twitter)
—Manny Machado does not get a contract for more than $250 million, either.
—The Cardinals will sign Craig Kimbrel and either Machado or Josh Donaldson to play 3B. 


Rationale: St. Louis could really use the bat and closer and they have a sense of urgency in the division this winter we haven't seen from them in at least a decade. The Cubs and Brewers have clearly been better for two seasons now and look to have a better chance at contending than the Cardinals in 2019, as well. That can't be sitting well with the "Best Fans in Baseball." 


Jeff Nelson, producer


—The Cubs will trade 2 of the following players:  Kyle Schwarber, Ian Happ, Addison Russell, Albert Almora Jr.

—The Cardinals will sign Manny Machado to play third base.

—Because of construction delays, the visitors’ clubhouse will not be ready for the home opener, forcing the Pirates to dress at their hotel and come to the ballpark in full uniform.

Mike Piff, social media manager

—Cubs sign Nick Markakis.
—Cubs sign Tyson Ross.

Eric Strobel, producer

—The Cubs 2019 saves leader is not currently on the roster.

Rationale: We saw what happened to the bullpen in Brandon Morrow's absence; it got the job done by and large, but was not longer truly feared. Deep 'pens are the norm in October now with lockdown relievers being counted on more and more. The front office knows they can't truly entrust that kind of workload to Morrow with his injury history - Theo admitted as much in his end-of-season press conference. While they probably will not make a big splash, a huge focus of the offseason will be to surround Morrow/Strop/Edwards/etc. with as many talented arms as possible. The Cubs could very well enter next season without a designated closer, but if they do, it will not be Brandon Morrow.

Scott Changnon, multi-platform producer

—The Cubs will sign Bryce Harper.

Rationale: "I dunno, maybe."

Nate Poppen, producer

—Cubs sign Andrew McCutchen, plug him into CF and make Almora a 4th OF (or expendable)
—Bryce Harper signs with Yankees.
—Manny Machado signs with Angels.

Matt Buckman, producer

Non-roster prediction: The Cubs will welcome Sammy Sosa back to Wrigley Field. Sammy turns 50 this winter, and fueled by our wonderful documentary on 1998, the Cubs will finally mend their broken bond with Sammy and bring him back to Wrigley.

Roster prediction: The Cubs will trade Kyle Schwarber for a leadoff hitter. Joe has had to get very creative with the top of his order since Dexter Fowler left. Though the front office has downplayed the importance of a lead-off hitter the last two off-seasons, they will look to add one for 2019 so that Joe doesn’t have to be so creative. They won’t have a place to play Schwarber after they sign Harper so they will swap his power for a new “you go, we go” guy. Look at KC or TB as AL teams that need to add power and also have guys who could potentially lead off for the Cubs. Mallex Smith (TB) or Whit Merrifield (KC) would be interesting options.

Cubs Talk Podcast


No-brainer: The Cubs should absolutely bring back Jesse Chavez in 2019 bullpen

No-brainer: The Cubs should absolutely bring back Jesse Chavez in 2019 bullpen

Should the Cubs bring Jesse Chavez back for the 2019 bullpen?

This question shouldn't have anywhere near the polarizing effect the Daniel Murphy query had earlier this week, and for good reason.

It's hard to find any real downside for the Cubs working Chavez back into the fold next season. 

Sure, he's 35 and he'll turn 36 in August, but Chavez just had far and away the best season of his 11-year career and all signs point to it being legit.

He won't have a 1.15 ERA forever, of course, but he clearly found something with his mechanics that helped lead to the remarkable consistency he showed in a Cubs uniform (4 saves, 4 holds, 1.15 ERA, 0.79 WHIP, 42 Ks in 39 IP). 

The Cubs will be looking to add some reinforcements to their bullpen this winter and Chavez fits the bill in many areas.

When asked about how to address the bullpen this winter, Theo Epstein said his front office will be "looking for guys who can throw strikes and execute a gameplan and take the ball and pitch in big spots."

The Cubs have publicly placed an emphasis on "strike-throwers" out of the bullpen over the last two winters now and that is right up Chavez's alley.

He threw 68.5 percent first-pitch strikes while with the Cubs, which would've ranked near the top of the league in 2018, right up there with aces like Miles Mikolas, Clayton Kershaw, Aaron Nola and Justin Verlander. Among all relievers, Chavez ranked 5th in baseball in first-pitch strike percentage in the second half.

Expanding further (since the first pitch isn't the only one that matters): Chavez threw the fourth-most strikes in baseball among all MLB relievers after the All-Star Break. Since the day Chavez put on a Cubs uniform, Philadelphia's Tommy Hunter (70.5 percent) was the only reliever in baseball (minimum 30 innings) to throw a higher percentage of pitches for strikes than Chavez (69.8 percent).

If you want strikes, there's no better reliever on the market right now than Chavez.

He also shouldn't be all that expensive at age 35, even despite the breakout and high level of importance placed upon relievers these days. A similar deal to the one Brian Duensing got last winter - $7 million over 2 years - seems appropriate and would be a steal if Chavez can continue to find even a modicum of the success he had since putting on a Cubs uniform.

Speaking of the Cubs uniform, Chavez reportedly doesn't want to wear another logo in 2019, saying this after the NL Wild-Card Game:

That was an emotional time, but Chavez repeatedly raved about the Cubs clubhouse and culture throughout his time in Chicago and really appreciated the way his teammates made him feel comfortable from Day 1.

When the Cubs first acquired Chavez in that under-the-radar trade, they touted his versatility which has become a valuable asset, especially in today's game where relievers are often asked to pitch multiple innings. If necessary, he could also represent depth for the starting rotation, having made 70 starts over his MLB career. 

Unless there's a surprising market that develops for Chavez, bringing him back to the North Side of Chicago on a 1- or 2-year deal is a no-brainer.