Cubs

While Cubs plan Wrigley celebration, Jason Heyward is on to new season and off to good start

While Cubs plan Wrigley celebration, Jason Heyward is on to new season and off to good start

MILWAUKEE – Jason Heyward projected an all-business vibe on Sunday morning when reporters gathered around his locker inside Miller Park’s visiting clubhouse. Win or lose, Heyward is always accessible, polite and thoughtful, qualities that help insulate him from the pressure of having the biggest contract in franchise history.

Even at the end of the worst offensive season of his career, Heyward had enough clout to call that team meeting inside a Progressive Field weight room and refocus the Cubs in Game 7, though he hasn’t really felt like reliving his rain-delay speech: “It’s fine, but it’s on to this season.”

Heyward’s in-the-moment attitude also knocked down a softball question about what he’s looking forward to during Monday night’s banner-raising ceremony at Wrigley Field.   

“Um, what’s our record right now?” Heyward said. “Winning two series on a road trip.”

So much for feeling the hangover or looking ahead or getting distracted: One week into defending their World Series title, the Cubs are 4-2 with two walk-off losses, heading home for the 102nd opener at their iconic ballpark and a Wednesday night ceremony where they will get their championship rings.    

There are several reasons why the 2017 Cubs might be a better team on paper. But this 7-4 win over the Milwaukee Brewers highlighted how Heyward – now hitting .333 with an .820 OPS in an admittedly small sample size – could be so much more than a good clubhouse guy and a defensive wizard in right field.

“The reaction we got after winning it all last year, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to see that again in any sport,” All-Star first baseman Anthony Rizzo said. “It’s images you’ll never forget, memories you’ll never forget. Tomorrow will be no different. People are going to be excited for that banner to go up.

“We’re excited about it, too, but everyone wants us to repeat, so we got to focus on winning today and then tomorrow.”

Heyward helped set the tone when the Cubs jumped Zach Davies in the first inning, blasting a two-run triple into right-center field and giving Jake Arrieta a 4-0 lead before he threw his first pitch.

Heyward’s 2-for-5 might have been a 5-for-5 cycle if: Ryan Braun hadn’t made a diving catch in the left-center field gap in the second inning; second baseman Jonathan Villar hadn’t made a diving stop to his left in the fifth inning; and Keon Broxton hadn’t made a leaping catch at the center-field wall in the ninth inning.    

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Heyward, a four-time Gold Glove winner, tipped his helmet to Broxton as he ran toward second base.

“Yeah, it was a good play,” Heyward deadpanned.

After a year of bad luck, bad timing and bad rhythm – at least from an offensive point of view – the Cubs watched Heyward break down his swing at the team’s Arizona complex and expect to see the returns on their $184 million investment. 

“I’m relaxed up there, not thinking a whole lot,” Heyward said. “Just really trying to focus on what the pitcher’s going to do, how they’re going to attack you, that kind of stuff. Not thinking about the swing or anything like that. It’s just where you need to be.

“Be aggressive in the strike zone. But be on time, be relaxed and go up there one pitch at a time, one at-bat at a time, the same stuff (for) anybody. Let the game take care of itself.”

Imagine how intimidating this lineup could be if Heyward resembles more of the guy who hit 27 homers for the Atlanta Braves in 2012, which became the template for his new/old swing. Heyward has already seen the blueprint for the championship rings, suggesting the Cubs feature the team’s 2016 logo when asked for his input during the design phase.  

“I don’t know how much I’ll have it on,” Heyward said. “It kind of goes without being said in Chicago, which is really cool, and for the majority of baseball fans around the world, so I don’t know how much I’ll wear it. I know I’ll cherish it and probably look at it a lot.

“It’s just going to be cool to hold it. There’s a lot of history in it, of course, and there’s a lot of our history in it, as well, with the 2016 season. It should be an awesome thing."

 

Cole Hamels is out to prove the naysayers wrong, whether that's with the Cubs or elsewhere

Cole Hamels is out to prove the naysayers wrong, whether that's with the Cubs or elsewhere

How you evaluate Cole Hamels’ 2019 performance depends on which half of the season you look at.

Hamels was the Cubs’ most reliable starting pitcher through June, putting his name firmly in the conversation to make the All-Star Game. Through his first 17 starts, he held a 2.98 ERA, with 97 strikeouts and 35 walks in 99 2/3 innings.

That 17th start – June 28 against the Reds – represented a turning point for the left-hander, however. After throwing one warmup pitch ahead of the second inning, Hamels took a beeline for the Cubs’ dugout, exiting the game with a left oblique strain.

Hamels quickly detecting the strain was key, as he avoided a more significant injury and only missed one month as a result. However, he never got back to his pre-injury level after returning. In 10 starts, he posted a 5.79 ERA, walking 21 batters in 42 innings as opponents slashed .315/.397/.506 against him.

Which of the two pitchers does Hamels more closely resemble at this point? That’s what teams will have to evaluate this offseason, when the soon-to-be 36-year-old lefty hits free agency for the first time in his career.

On top of his oblique strain, Hamels also missed a start in September with left shoulder fatigue. By the time he returned, the Cubs were eliminated from postseason contention, but he wanted one last chance to show what he’s capable of before free agency.

“I don’t want to put that in the back of teams’ heads of how I finished,” Hamels said the day before his final start of the season. “I think I’m capable of what I was able to do in the first half - that’s who I am - and I can still get those good results for hopefully [the Cubs], if they consider that.

“But also, for other teams to know that I’m not the type of player that’s on the regression. This is what we’re gonna expect. It’s more so what I was able to do in the first half - the type of player that I am and the results that I can get out on the field.”

He certainly backed those words up, shutting down the Cardinals – who hadn’t clinched the NL Central yet – in the second-to-last game of the regular season. Hamels pitched four innings, allowing no runs on just two hits.

Hamels looked stellar in that game, but it doesn’t change the fact that returning from an extended injury absence isn’t easy on pitchers. They need time to regain command of their pitches, plus any amount of arm strength lost during their time on the shelf.

Hamels made two rehab starts at Triple-A before rejoining the Cubs on Aug. 3. He was determined not to return too quickly, as he did so with the Rangers in 2017 after straining his right oblique. That wound up negatively affecting him the rest of the season.

Still, maybe one or two more starts this time around would’ve served him well, though he felt that he could compete at the majors without his best stuff. Plus, it’s not like he was guaranteed to find his groove again by pitching in more minor league games.

Results are all that matter in the big leagues, however, and they show that while the Cubs starting rotation was okay, it wasn’t the difference maker capable of leading the team to October, as anticipated. Cubs starters finished the season with a 4.18 ERA, 10th in MLB and sixth in the National League.

Hamels’ post-injury woes played into those numbers, and he’s determined to bounce back in 2020 to prove his second half performance was a fluke. His first half showed that he still can pitch at a high-level, but he may not be in the Cubs’ plans for next season, regardless.

"There was some injury and regression (especially after injury) that led us to be closer to the pack certainly than we had envisioned,” Cubs president Theo Epstein said of the team’s rotation at his end-of-season press conference. “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.”

Those comments seem to indicate that Hamels won’t be back next season. The Cubs have Adbert Alzolay, Tyler Chatwood and Alec Mills as internal rotation options for 2020 and could look outside the organization for more. Hamels also made $20 million in 2019, so freeing up his salary would help the Cubs address other roster needs.

The Cubs could do a lot worse than having a healthy Cole Hamels in their rotation, though. He’s enjoyed a resurgence since the Cubs acquired him and has had plenty of success against the NL Central and at Wrigley Field overall during his career:

vs. Brewers: 20 starts, 8-5, 3.53 ERA
vs. Cardinals: 17 starts, 5-6, 2.21 ERA
vs. Pirates: 13 starts, 5-4 record, 2.52 ERA
vs. Reds: 20 starts, 11-2 record. 2.30 ERA
at Wrigley Field: 25 starts, 7-4 record, 2.20 ERA

Granted, a large portion of those starts came earlier in his career. But with how competitive the NL Central was in 2019 and will be in 2020, the results can’t be ignored.

“Obviously I do very well at Wrigley, so I hope that’s a consideration - I love to be able to pitch there,” Hamels said about the Cubs possibly re-signing him. “For some reason, it’s just the energy and I’ve mentioned it before, it’s baseball to me. And that’s what I really feed off of and that’s hopefully what they think about.”

But if the Cubs decide to part ways with Hamels, he’ll have his fair share of suitors. The Brewers and Reds each could benefit from adding starting pitching this offseason, and Hamels would bring a ton of experience to two squads that will be competing for postseason spots in 2020.

“Otherwise, I know the other teams in the division are gonna think about it,” Hamels said with a laugh. “If you have to come to Wrigley three different times [as an opponent], I don’t pitch bad there.

“I just want to win. I think that’s it. When you get the taste of it early and then you don’t have it for a while, that’s what you’re striving for. To play this game and in front of sellouts and the energy and the expectation of winning, it’s why I enjoy the game.

“That’s what I want to be able to continue to do for the few years I have left.”

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Javy Baez is now the face of baseball

Javy Baez is now the face of baseball

Javy Baez is one step closer to becoming the unquestioned face of Major League Baseball.

For the next year, El Mago will be the cover boy for video-game-playing baseball fans, as Baez announced on his Twitter Monday morning he is gracing the cover of MLB The Show 2020:

On the even of Game 1 of the World Series, Playstation released a video depicting why they chose Baez as the new face of the game:

Last year's cover featured Bryce Harper, announced before he even signed with the Phillies. 

Baez also joins the likes of Aaron Judge, Ken Griffey Jr., Chipper Jones, Barry Bonds and David Ortiz as cover athletes for the PS4 game.

The 26-year-old Baez has become one of the most recognizable figures in the game, playing with a flair and swag that includes mind-bending baserunning maneuvers and impossible defensive plays. 

Case in point:

Baez missed the final month of the 2019 season with a fractured thumb, but still put up 29 homers and 85 RBI while ranking second on the team in WAR. In 2018, he finished second in NL MVP voting while leading the league in RBI (111) and topping the Cubs in most offensive categories. 

Theo Epstein said he never deems any player as "untouchable," but Baez is about as close as it gets for this Cubs team right now. He made the switch to shortstop full time this year and wound up with elite defensive numbers to go along with his fearsome offense and an attitude and mindset the rest of the Cubs hope to emulate.

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