Jason Heyward has become an offensive catalyst

Jason Heyward has become an offensive catalyst

Expecting Jason Heyward to carry a team offensively would be thought as foolish just a few short months ago. But here in the middle of July, Heyward has turned into the offensive firestarter the Cubs have been seemingly missing since Dexter Fowler left. 

Heyward walked away from Thursday night's 9-6 win over the Cardinals tallying three hits, two RBI, two runs scored and his first stolen base of the year, as the 28-year-old outfielder continued to poke holes in the Cardinals defense. 

Twice Heyward was able to slip a ball between the 1st and 2nd basemen that off the bat looked like neither had a chance to make it through the right field side. Later, Heyward would battle through a lengthy at-bat, finally being rewarded with an opposite-field hit that drove in the game-tying run. 

"It just happened," Heyward explained. " [Carlos Martinez] is not going to give you a whole lot to do damage on throughout the game. I was able to get one pitch there and get a guy home." 

Cubs manager Joe Maddon mentioned Heyward and his ability to move the ball around the field and how it's helped him become an effective piece to this Cubs offense. So effective Heyward's batting average crept up to .290 after today's three-hit performance. 

Heyward credits his quick hands as the major tool he's utilized to create so many successful at-bats lately, which has allowed him to take advantage of certain pitches and punch them through for hits.

He's certainly not driving the ball for consistent power, but the approach has put Heyward on pace to match the 160 hit total he amassed with the Cardinals in 2015. 

"I feel like Joe's mindset on moving the ball is putting the ball in play when you got guys on base," said Heyward. "It keeps the line moving, regardless of the result." 

It might be crazy to think that Heyward's incredible turnaround this season might simply be attributed to putting the ball in play. But even just taking a look at Heyward's contact rates shows he's increased his contact on pitches outside the zone by roughly three percent.

Not a massive difference, but if Heyward's hands are truly giving him an edge at the plate, making contact with pitches that may not be a strike but are hittable pitches could explain the increased offense we are seeing now. 

"That's kinda the biggest thing," said Heyward. "The more good swings you take, the more hits you have a chance to get." 

Shooters shoot, and Heyward continues to shoot his shot and keep the Cubs offense chugging along. 

Brandon Morrow and the state of the Cubs bullpen ahead of the trade deadline

Brandon Morrow and the state of the Cubs bullpen ahead of the trade deadline

Brandon Morrow is getting an extended All-Star Break.

For the second time in the last month, the Cubs closer is heading to the disabled list to get another break, this time with inflammation in his right biceps.

That leaves the Cubs without their best relief pitcher — a guy with a 1.47 ERA, 1.08 WHIP and 22 saves in 24 chances — for the next week as the team hits the ground running in the second half with 12 games in 11 days against the Cardinals and Diamondbacks.

"It's been bothering him a bit, but we thought it was manageable," Joe Maddon said before the Cubs kicked off play Thursday evening. "But now it's not [manageable], so just have to take a little bit of a break. 

"We don't anticipate him being gone for a long time, but it seems to be prudent to go this course right now."

Maddon pointed to a bit lower velocity Morrow had in San Diego Sunday and believes now is "the right time to back off for the latter part of the season."

The Cubs do have Carl Edwards Jr. back from the paternity list and the 26-year-old flamethrower already got a "break" of his own earlier this season when he missed about 5 weeks with a shoulder issue.

The word "break" is key here because that's how Maddon and the Cubs characterize these little stints on the disabled list.

After all, they are "breaks," even if they're not built into a season like the All-Star Break.

The Cubs want both Morrow and Edwards to be healthy and dynamic in late September and throughout the postseason in October. They've been uber-cautious about the two pitchers throughout their respective Cubs careers and a stint on the disabled list serves to save bullets and wear and tear on their right arms in the dog days of the season.

After all, Morrow has already appeared in 35 games this season, which he's only done once since 2008 — last year, when he pitched in 45 games. Morrow has a long history of arm issues, so the Cubs have given him plenty of slack as they try to keep him healthy for the most important stretch of the season.

But that's also why the Cubs are looking to add some reinforcements to the bullpen before the trade deadline. They were linked to Brad Hand before the lefty was traded to the Cleveland Indians Thursday and they've also been linked to Orioles closer Zach Britton.

If Britton's healthy, he could serve as a perfect fit for the Cubs as a rental with closing experience and a guy from the left side to help fill both needs in the Chicago bullpen.

The Cubs currently have Justin Wilson, Randy Rosario and Brian Duensing as left-handed options in the bullpen, but all are at varying levels of confidence at the moment.

Wilson still has some issues with control, but otherwise has been very good of late. Rosario is a rookie and his outlying numbers indicate his 1.95 ERA is a bit of a mirage. Duensing just recently returned from the DL himself and currently boasts a 6.59 ERA and 1.83 WHIP on the season.

Then there's Mike Montgomery, who right now has a stranglehold on a spot in the Cubs rotation while Yu Darvish gets healthy. There is currently no update on Darvish, which means Montgomery won't be moving back to the bullpen anytime soon.

With less than 2 weeks left until the trade deadline, Maddon would be all for adding another arm or two to his pitching staff.

"Sure. All of the pitching, they're definitely going to want to look at it," Maddon said. "Our numbers are among the best in the NL both overall and as a bullpen and then even into the starters.

"But you're always looking to make it better. That's what GMs do. We'll see how it all plays out. We're hoping the [Morrow] thing is a shorter situation, which we believe it will be."

Kyle Schwarber and Javy Baez could face off in the Home Run Derby

Kyle Schwarber and Javy Baez could face off in the Home Run Derby

It’s official.

For the first time since Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant in 2015, the Cubs will have representatives in the Home Run Derby.

The Cubs announced Kyle Schwarber and Javier Baez will participate in this year’s contest next Monday in Washington, D.C.

The two have shown special power throughout their young major-league careers that has made fans and players excited to see them take part.

Baez has hit a team-leading 18 home runs this year, giving him the seventh best total in the National League, while Schwarber trails with 17 homers of his own. Both are also on pace to notch career highs in 2018, topping the 30 (Schwarber) and 23 (Baez) they hit last season.

They will each attempt to be the first Cubs player to win the Home Run Derby since Sammy Sosa, who hit 26 home runs in 2000. Bryant and Rizzo had a tough time in 2015, the first year of the newer head-to-head format, when they were both eliminated in the first round.

In this year's opening round, the fifth-seeded Schwarber will face the Astros' fourth-seeded Alex Bregman, and the sixth-seeded Baez will square up against the Dodgers' Max Muncy, a three seed. The bracket also includes the Brewers' first-seeded Jesus Aguilar, the Nationals' second-seeded Bryce Harper, the Braves' seventh-seeded Freddie Freeman, and the Phillies' eighth-seeded Rhys Hoskins.

With the way the bracket is formatted, Schwarber and Baez could face each other in the final round.

The Home Run Derby is a chance for both the Cubs’ second baseman and leftfielder to showcase their talents on one of the most exciting stages in baseball. It’s an opportunity Schwarber has always wanted.

“It’s on the bucket list, being in the Home Run Derby,” Schwarber, who was not selected to the 2018 MLB All-Star Game, said. “… it’s definitely a thing that I want to do and at least try once.”

Some players in the past have said the Derby negatively affects hitters’ swings, but Cubs manager Joe Maddon isn’t worried about having his 25-year-old sluggers in the home run hitting event. In fact, he thinks it will be a good thing for their careers.

“I’m more worried about fatigue, but I also believe the benefit’s gonna be that they did it,” Maddon said. “I would never want to restrict ‘em from that and, like I said, at their age, it’s kind of perfect.”

The Cubs have been one of the best teams in the major leagues as of late, so having one of the team’s players win in this Monday’s competition would be even sweeter for the organization.

All-Star Game festivities come at a good time for the red-hot Baez, who has shined all season in Chicago with a team-leading 66 RBIs (second in the NL) and 95 hits. Those marks have earned him a starting spot in the All-Star Game at second base. He will try to bring the Home Run Derby title back into the hands of the National League after Aaron Judge’s 47-dinger win for the American League in 2017.

“A lot of people got the question mark on their mind how I’m going to do I guess,” Baez said. “It’s all about putting on a show and having fun. We’ll see what happens.”