Why Cubs have so much respect for Jason Heyward and believe his strong April will carry over

Why Cubs have so much respect for Jason Heyward and believe his strong April will carry over

“No,” a National League scout said without hesitation when asked if Jason Heyward’s swing looked any different in spring training. 

“Uncomfortable,” an American League scout said without trying to reference Cubs manager Joe Maddon and his T-shirt collection. 

But neither scout shared that with any sense of glee, emphasizing how Heyward is a great dude with a strong reputation throughout the industry. One scout even said he hopes Heyward figures it out – just not against his team.  

All along, Heyward never viewed his swing overhaul as an “aha moment” or a one-time fix. He understands how hard this game is, enjoys working at his craft and tries to mentally hit the reset button before every pitch. However he performed in April, he wouldn’t get too high or too low or pretend like he had all the answers. Either way, it would still be a never-ending process of adjustments. 

That’s why Heyward commands so much respect inside the clubhouse, how the Cubs justified a $184 million investment and expected a bounce back in Year 2. Just ask the reigning NL MVP. 

“He’s such an idol to me,” Kris Bryant said. “I just look up to him. He carries himself in such a professional way, good or bad, and that’s something that we all can learn from.

“He shows up. He shows up ready to play, good or bad. Everybody saw what he went through last year. Yeah, you can look at the scoreboard and see it. But in here, you would have never known that he was struggling. It’s unbelievable.”

At the May 1 checkpoint, Heyward is batting .279 – or 49 points higher than last season’s finish – and has hit safely in 20 of 23 games. He already has three home runs after hitting his third homer on June 6 last year. His 16 RBI are more than every other Cub except for Anthony Rizzo.   

“Yeah, he did all the work in the offseason and he put in so much time,” Bryant said. “But I think when we struggle as hitters, it’s more of a mental thing and what we’re thinking up there and what we’re swinging at. 

“You see early on he’s attacking early in the count. I feel like last year he was probably put in some tough situations, too, with guys swinging early in the count and him feeling like he had to take more pitches. But this year, if he’s getting that pitch right there, first pitch he’s going to hit it hard.”

Heyward never wanted to live off his rain-delay speech during Game 7 of the World Series or be remembered as a very expensive motivational speaker. After all the focus on how quickly he moved to Arizona and ramped up his offseason program – and the Cactus League updates – the Cubs might have a different piece to a lineup that’s supposed to score 800-plus runs again. 

“Now it’s just go compete,” Heyward said. “I’m not thinking too much about (my swing). Just take it one day at a time. Just be aware of what I got going on. 

“Strive for perfection. You know it’s not going to be perfect. You got to give pitchers credit. They throw good pitches. The game’s going to be the game. 

“Just keep it really simple and go up there relaxed and take the thinking out of it.”  

Even as one of the least productive hitters in the majors last season (.631 OPS), Heyward still changed the team’s identity with his Gold Glove defense, patient approach and heads-up, aggressive nature on the bases. 

“I see Jason as a big brother,” Albert Almora Jr. said. “He’s one of our leaders. He’s someone you look (up to), because it doesn’t matter if you have a good game or a bad game, he’s still going to be the same professional, same guy in the dugout cheering on his teammates, and that’s something you really want to pattern yourself after. 

“You could put him in the Derek Jeter conversation in (terms of) that’s the type of guy you want on your team, on and off the field.” 

For the Cubs, this is almost like having a point guard or a defensive coordinator in the outfield, a four-time Gold Glove winner who can also shift over to center, in a part of the game that should never go into a slump.

“I’m always looking at him,” Almora said. “One thing I really key on is that you’re always moving out there, depending on how the swings are going, how the pitcher’s throwing, how the situation and the count is progressing. You always can do something to position yourself better. 

“I’m kind of guessing where I’m going to go and then he’s always giving me the thumbs-up when I’m moving the right way.”

Not quite 100 plate appearances would be too early to make a sweeping conclusion about Heyward in 2017. But whatever dragged him down offensively last season – some combination of bad luck, bad timing, bad habits, a high-maintenance swing, the weight of the biggest contract in franchise history – the Cubs are so far optimistic about the early returns.

“It’s physical,” Maddon said, “because he’s always been that guy. He’s great in the clubhouse. He’s always there in the present tense. He plays hard, all that stuff. But if you just took a snapshot standing in the box last year and this year – just where he’s starting from – it’s incredibly different. It’s where he’s starting the bat. That’s it.”

Scott Boras' history lesson illustrates why Cubs are unlikely to trade Kris Bryant


Scott Boras' history lesson illustrates why Cubs are unlikely to trade Kris Bryant

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — As the Cubs move into a new era, the Kris Bryant Decision looms large over the entire organization.

Should they trade him now, two years out from free agency (or one year away if he actually wins his service time grievance)? Or is now the time for the Cubs to deliver a huge offer and lock him up long term?

Bryant's agent, Scott Boras, has been one of the most powerful men in baseball over the last couple decades and he's seen many teams go through the same dilemma the Cubs are currently weighing.

In encountering similar situations with players of Bryant's caliber (a former MVP and Rookie of the Year), Boras shed some light on how unlikely it is that the Cubs would actually wind up dealing him.

"Certainly every player I have that is at that level, they're always asking the question about, 'will they? Won't they? Will they trade him? Will they do it?'" Boras said. "And the answer to that is always: I can give you a percentage over a decade of how many of those players get traded and the answer is very low. If you think that much of him and to get something back for him with a limited period of time is always very hard."

He's got a strong point there. Bryant has a career .901 OPS and averages 32 homers, 92 RBI and 112 runs scored per 162 games over his five years in the big leagues. He proved that the lack of power and production in 2018 was injury related with a strong bounceback season this past year, finishing 14th in WAR in the National League while battling through a lingering knee issue. 

Bryant provides a ton of value to the Cubs and his presence on the roster increases the likelihood of winning another World Series over the next two seasons. In order to trade him, they would need a huge haul in return — a package of players that sets the franchise up for success the future without completely sacrificing the short-term and current window of contention. Will some team actually meet the Cubs' asking price?

The service time grievance is a major issue here, as the difference between one and two years of Bryant would be vast. Red Sox star Mookie Betts is a free agent a year from now and Boston is in a similar situation in that they're weighing a potential trade now rather than risk losing Betts to the open market and getting only draft pick compensation in return.

Boras pointed to how the Red Sox and Cubs both won World Series with Betts and Bryant earlier in their careers, leveraging the star players on cheaper deals to allow more resources to augment the roster around them. But now both guys are due a hefty sum of money in 2020 (MLB Trade Rumors estimates the arbitration figure to be $18.5 million for Bryant and $27.7 million for Betts) and it's time for each team to decide which path to go down.

The prevailing thought around the game is that Bryant won't win his grievance, which puts the Cubs in a different spot than the Red Sox in that they have two years of control left. That's key to either dangle in a trade or to allow more time for the two sides to reach an agreement on an extension.

"I've seen clubs take this decision on and it's often been a decision that they regret — whether they've kept him or whether they've traded him," Boras said. "Again, because they're great players, they're really key decisions."

If no team is able to — or decides to — meet the Cubs' price for Bryant in any trade talks, how likely is it the two sides would work out an extension that keeps him in Chicago beyond 2021?

Both sides waved off any notion that the service time grievance has done anything to damage the relationship between Bryant and the club, with Boras emphasizing that this was a "union matter" and was more about being an "advocate for the rights of players." Even if the arbiter rules against Bryant's grievance, it could still be a major step forward in changing the structure of free agency and service time for the next Collective Bargaining Agreement.

In the matter of extension talks, Bryant and Boras are all ears.

"Look, we're open to talking with them and we've always said that to them," Boras said. "It's always been Kris' philosophy with the team. 

"I would certainly keep the terms and conditions of the contract negotiations private with the Cubs, but obviously it's always a fairness standard. You want what's fair for him and where he stands in the industry and that's true of any player." 

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Cubs continue behind-the-scenes makeover by hiring new scouting director

Cubs continue behind-the-scenes makeover by hiring new scouting director

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. - The Cubs are close to the point of the offseason where their sole focus will be on the roster.

As the final coaching staff comes together, the organization also announced their scouting director Wednesday, adding Dan Kantrovitz as the VP of scouting.

Kantrovitz, 41, spent the last five seasons as the assistant general manager to Billy Beane with the Oakland A's and previously served as the director of scouting for the St. Louis Cardinals for three seasons (2012-14). He is a Brown University graduate and also got his Master's Degree at Harvard.

Kantrovitz is a St. Louis native and was reportedly discussing a return to the Cardinals this winter before he took the job with the Cubs:

He was part of the Cardinals scouting department that drafted Jack Flaherty 34th overall in 2014, plus current Cubs reliever Rowan Wick in the ninth round (300th overall) in 2012 and has other successful high picks on his resume (Michael Wacha, Stephen Piscotty, Luke Weaver).

"We're really excited to be able to bring Danny Kantroviz on board," Theo Epstein said Wednesday at the MLB GM Meetings. "To be able to hire somebody to run our drafts who's already held that position and already run successful drafts in the past, it's a unique opportunity. Guys don't usually go back once they reach the assistant GM level. But in Dan's case, he has just discovered that his passion is running the draft.

"It really fits the exact profile we're looking for. He can scout - he goes out and sees 200 players a year when he's running the draft - and he can really relate very well to scouts and he's also got experience building advanced analytical models and combining both those worlds in a really effective manner. I think he fills a big void for us and look forward to working with him for years to come."

Epstein also called the Kantrovitz hire a "best case scenario" for the Cubs as they reshape their front office infrastructure. In September, Epstein moved Jason McLeod from head of scouting and player development (the position he held since coming over to the Cubs after the 2011 season) into a special assistant role in the big-league front office and shook up the player development department.

They wanted a fresh perspective and new insight into the draft and developing players given the organization's inability to produce homegrown pitchers in the eight years under Epstein's reign. Kantrovitz is the guy they've chosen to now lead the scouting department and the hope is he's able to find more success in the draft.

"Dan is as qualified as maybe anyone out there in baseball to do [balance all the information on draft day] since he has scouted extensively and is on the road the entire draft season seeing players and has done so for many years," Epstein said. "He also is one of the top quants [quantitative analyst] in the game as well. Builds his own models and understands it on a granular level - not just to the R & D department, but being a part of it and not just relating to scouts but being one. He brings a really unique skillset and set of experiences to the position."

That's another big hire to check off the list for the Cubs as the offseason starts to heat up. Epstein and Co. can now turn their attention to fine-tuning the roster to ensure the whole is greater than the sum of the parts in 2020. 

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