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Why Jason Heyward chose Cubs over Cardinals

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Why Jason Heyward chose Cubs over Cardinals

Jason Heyward will be the polarizing figure in the Cubs-Cardinals rivalry for at least the next three years.

Heyward will be a constant reminder of what could have been for the Cardinals and their St. Louis fanbase, representing something of a changing of the guard as the big-name free agent opted for a franchise that hasn't won a World Series in 107 years over an organization that is consistently among the MLB's elite.

[RELATED - Joe Maddon feels like Cubs won baseball lottery again with Jason Heyward]

The 26-year-old outfielder left money on the table (the Cardinals reportedly made an offer close to $200 million) to sign with the Cubs for the most lucrative contract in franchise history (eight years, $184 million).

"As everyone may have seen from the numbers that came out, I didn't take the highest offer," Heyward said in his introductory press conference in Chicago Tuesday afternoon. "But for me, a winning attitude and culture and the fact that this was such a young group that I could grow myself with and be 26 years old.

"I would rather grow up with a bunch of guys and make them family and be able to cherish that for the rest of the day without feeling like I had to restart."

At several points during his "Welcome to Chicago" presser, Heyward cited the Cubs' young core as a huge reason for choosing the corner of Clark and Addison as his home for at least the next three years (his contract includes opt-outs after the third and fourth seasons).

The Cubs have Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant, Addison Russell, Kyle Schwarber, Javier Baez and Jorge Soler all under team control through at least the 2021 season.

Meanwhile, the Cardinals have several aging veterans - Heyward mentioned Matt Holliday, Yadier Molina and Adam Wainwright by name - as part of their core.

"I felt like if I were to look up in three years and see it's a completely different team, that would be kind of be different for me," Heyward said. "Chicago really offers me an opportunity to come in, get introduced to the culture by a young group of guys.

"I'll grow up with them and watch them grow and have some fun with some familiar faces for a long time."

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Heyward also liked how loose the Cubs kept things during a surprising run to contention in 2015, experiencing playoff baseball at Wrigley Field firsthand during the National League Division Series.

"You saw those guys having fun over there just like I was doing on the other side of the field," Heyward said. "We all brought out the best competition in each other. With the young group that [the Cubs] have here, they didn't shy away from it. And that's special to see.

"It says a lot about the leadership, coming down from ownership to the front office to Joe [Maddon] and the things he's instilling with them on a daily basis to let them know that they're good and they belong."

Heyward said playing for a manager like Maddon is just "icing on the cake."

Cardinals fans were seen burning Heyward jerseys on social media and his mentions on Twitter over the last few days are not for the faint of heart.

Heyward took the high road and said he doesn't have one bad thing to say about the Cardinals, but immediately went back to his decision and the desire to go to the best environment for him long-term.

It also helps that Heyward could be immortalized in baseball lore if he is a part of the team that finally - finally - wins a championship for the Cubs.

With last season's run to the NLCS fresh in everybody's mind and a young core that now has a full season in the big leagues under its belt, a run to the World Series isn't just a pipe dream anymore. "The Plan" Theo Epstein's front office has talked about for years looks like it has finally come to fruition for the Cubs.

[SHOP CUBS: Get your Cubs gear right here]

"Good team or bad team, this city gets behind the Chicago Cubs," Heyward said. "Playoffs, of course, helped me see that firsthand. ... But the Cubs being so young, having a great core of guys and the intelligence of everybody involved saying they want to be able to put that kind of core group together going forward for a long time, for me, that sold it.

"It's a beautiful thing, to win a World Series. I'm a baseball player and that's what I strive to do every year. To do it in this city, it's a no-brainer that you'd be making history. That would be awesome.

"You see what Theo did with the Red Sox in 2004 and reversed the curse and kinda set the country upside down with that. It would be much like that here. I feel like it would be a much greater impact.

"My mindset is always to win a World Series and I feel like I have a great opportunity to do so with this group we have here."

The Cubs believe they made the right investment in Heyward, even if they don't yet have a new TV deal and needed to get creative to make the financials work.

"We want to add players who are going to help us win the World Series," Epstein said. "Jason Heyward, I think everyday that he comes to the park - in some form or another - contributes to winning baseball.

"And we believe will ultimately contribute to a World Series title."

Remember that guy? Former Cubs shortstop Ricky Gutiérrez

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AP

Remember that guy? Former Cubs shortstop Ricky Gutiérrez

Ricky Gutiérrez played in the Majors from 1993-2004. He played shortstop for the Cubs from 2000-01 and later signed with them again in June 2004. 

However, Gutiérrez never got back to the Majors with the Cubs, who sent him to the Red Sox the following month. His final Major League game was with the Red Sox on Oct. 3, 2004, the final game of the 2004 regular season; he didn’t play in the 2004 postseason. Gutiérrez was subsequently signed and released by a few other teams, including the White Sox in 2005.

Gutiérrez holds the distinction of being the first Cubs player to hit a regular season grand slam against the White Sox (July 12, 2001). In his two seasons with the Cubs, he tied for the Major League lead in sacrifice bunts both years (16 in 2000, 17 in 2001) which was odd since he had a grand total of 18 sacrifice bunts in his 847 career games NOT in a Cubs uniform. He also had uncharacteristic power with the Cubs:  21 home runs for Chicago in 272 games, 17 home runs with everyone else (847 games).

What Cubs fans probably remember most is what Gutiérrez did against them. On May 6, 1998 he had the lone hit (many dispute it should have been ruled an error) for the Astros off Kerry Wood in Wood’s 20-strikeout masterpiece at Wrigley Field (Gutiérrez was responsible for two of the strikeouts). 

Later that season, on June 26, the number 20 and Gutiérrez were again connected when he had a 20-pitch battle against Bartolo Colón, which ended in a strikeout. It remained the last plate appearance in the Majors of at least 20 pitches until Brandon Belt flew out on the 21st pitch of an at-bat against the Angels' Jaime Barria on April 22, 2018.

Gutiérrez’s nephew, James Jones, played 14 seasons in the NBA for the Pacers, Suns, Trail Blazers, Heat and Cavaliers.

2019 encore for Jesse Chavez?

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USA TODAY

2019 encore for Jesse Chavez?

On July 15, Brandon Morrow recorded his 22nd save of the season with a scoreless inning in San Diego. It wound up being the last time he pitched in a game for the Cubs in 2018. 

Four days later, during the All-Star break, the Cubs made a move to bolster their bullpen, acquiring Jesse Chavez from the Rangers in exchange for minor league hurler Tyler Thomas. It wasn’t even the biggest trade they’d make with the Rangers that month – a little over a week later they dealt for Cole Hamels. 

Despite pitching nearly half the innings, Chavez was almost as valuable as Hamels.

2018 with Cubs IP fWAR
Jesse Chavez 39.0 1.1
Cole Hamels 76.1 1.5

Chavez made his Cubs debut on July 21; from July 21 through the end of the season, 187 pitchers tossed at least 30 innings. 185 of them had a higher ERA than Chavez, while 184 of them allowed more baserunners per 9 innings.

Best ERA, July 21-end of season

(minimum 30 innings) IP ERA
Blake Treinen 32.1 0.56
Jesse Chavez 39.0 1.15
Blake Snell 61.2 1.17
Trevor Bauer 35.0 1.29
Trevor Williams 71.2 1.38
Robert Stock 36.0 1.50

Fewest baserunners per 9 innings, July 32-end of season

(minimum 30 innings) IP BR/9 IP
Blake Treinen 32.1 5.85
Blake Snell 61.2 7.15
Jesse Chavez 39.0 7.15
Jacob deGrom 93.2 7.49
Scott Oberg 30.2 7.63
Josh Hader 33.1 7.83

But how did Chavez transform into one of Joe Maddon’s best bullpen arms down the stretch?  According to Chavez, his own transformation started on Mother’s Day.

Chavez entered a game in Houston with a 5.48 ERA in a dozen appearances, but pitched three innings with no hits, no walks and four strikeouts. From that point through the end of the season, he posted a 1.70 ERA and 0.892 WHIP. 

Chavez points to a change in arm slot which resulted in better consistency and a slight jump in velocity. A glance at his release point charts show that consistency, and he added roughly one mile an hour to his fastball.

"It's kept me more consistent in the zone," Chavez said. "Things have been sharper, velocity has been a lot sharper. I was huffing and puffing trying to get a 92 (mph fastball) out there and it wasn't coming.

"Next thing you know, I dropped it and it's right there, and I'm like, 'something's wrong here.' But I just took it and ran with it."

Jesse Chavez 2018 four-seam fastball velocity

  Average Max
Prior to May 13 92.6 mph 94.6 mph
May 13 on 93.6 mph 95.7 mph

Can Chavez be valuable in 2019?  The 35-year old reliever posted the best ERA (2.55), WHIP (1.059) and walk rate (4.5% - nearly two percent better than his previous best) in 2018, and he continued to get better as the season went on. 

He’s a former starter who can pitch multiple innings if needed, and that’s a valuable thing - especially for a manager like Joe Maddon, who uses his pitchers in a variety of ways. It’s unlikely he’ll have a second consecutive career year.

But he’ll likely be well worth the price tag; he only made $1 million in 2018, and even with a slight raise he should be very affordable. There’s definitely room in Maddon’s bullpen for a pitcher like Chavez.