Theo Epstein: Time for Cubs to go from good to great


Think about the timing for both parties involved: Jason Heyward and the Chicago Cubs.

One year ago to the day in the same room of Spiaggia restaurant in Chicago, the Cubs were introducing their big free-agent prize, pitcher Jon Lester, as they expressed hope they could win in 2015.

On Tuesday, it was this year's free-agent prize, outfielder Jason Heyward, whom the Cubs are hoping can help take them to the next level after they advanced to the National League championship series in 2015.

“It's easy sometimes to sit back on the heels of a surprising 97-win season and be content with what you have and try to go out and do it again and contend again,” said team president Theo Epstein, who also praised the business side of the Cubs' operation for making this winter's big financial commitments.

“But there was a real effort to go from good to great this winter and to capitalize on a moment in time when we have a lot of young, cost-controlled position players. We have Jon Lester and (ace pitcher) Jake Arrieta.

“(Business president) Crane Kenney and his people were great partners in trying to find creative ways to push some of the postseason money into this year's budget. We came up with some creative contract structures to allow us to add now because this is the right time strategically, with next year's free-agent market not being quite as deep as this year's.”

The Cubs introduced the 26-year-old Heyward to Chicago after signing him to an eight-year contract worth $184 million. The timing works out pretty well for Heyward, too, as he can opt out after three years while still in his prime as a player.

Included is a $20 million signing bonus, which reports say is deferred, helping the Cubs financially until they get an expected huge TV deal at the end of this decade.

Epstein likened the Heyward signing to adding another “core” player to the one the Cubs already have with Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant, Addison Russell, Kyle Schwarber and Jorge Soler (who remains a Cub amid continuing trade speculation). The only member of the “core” the Cubs lost was Starlin Castro, whom they traded to the New York Yankees last week for pitcher Adam Warren.

Heyward took less money to come to the Cubs as opposed to staying with the St. Louis Cardinals — for whom he played only one year — or going to a team such as the Washington Nationals.

Being part of a young group was a main attraction, according to Heyward, a right fielder who is penciled in as the Cubs' center fielder unless or until Soler is moved.

“The St. Louis Cardinals are always going to be a great organization,” said Heyward, who played for the Atlanta Braves from 2010-14. He was on the losing side of this year's National League division series against the Cubs.

“For me, and I keep hitting on this, being 26 years old, the fact that my contract will probably put me in any clubhouse longer than most people there, you've got to look at age. You've got to look at how fast a team is changing and how soon those changes may come about.”

Heyward cited Cardinals veterans such as Yadier Molina and Matt Holliday “introducing” him to the St. Louis organization but that he could “look up in three years and see a completely different team,” given the ages of those players and the contract status of others.

“Chicago really offers an opportunity to come in, be introduced to the culture.” he said. “It's a young group of guys, but grow up with them and watch them grow up but still watch myself grow up and have some fun with some familiar faces for a long time.”

Where Heyward bats in the Cubs' lineup will be a fun thing to watch, both during spring training and throughout the regular season. It's possible he could lead off, with recently signed second baseman Ben Zobrist batting second. Those two could flip-flop, or they both could find themselves hitting 5-6 on some days, as manager Joe Maddon likes to change things up often.

Last season the left-handed-hitting Heyward had a line of .293/.359/.439 with 13 home runs and 60 RBI for the Cardinals. For his career, he's at .268/.353/.431 with 97 homers and 352 RBI.

His career high in homers was 27 with the Braves in 2012, but Epstein cites former Red Sox right fielder Dwight Evans as a comparable player whose power could spike. At age 26, Evans hit 24 home runs and saw his power numbers increase to the tune of 32 homers at age 30, 32 at age 32 and 34 at age 35.

Heyward has batted up and down the lineup.

“I like where I'm hitting most when the team's doing the best, let's put it that way,” he said. “If that means I'm hitting leadoff and the team's winning, I've done that. If the team's won, I'm all for it.

“I played for a 100-win team (with the Cardinals) and hit fourth down the stretch, and it worked out, as well. For me, where everybody's happy, I'm happy. And I understand what it takes to have to move around to accommodate maybe the next person or the next person.”

On defense, Heyward is a three-time Gold Glove winner. In center, he will be between converted catcher Schwarber in left and Soler in right. Asked about his approach to defense, Heyward said simply: “I never take a play off.”

Article Comments
Guidelines: Keep it civil and on topic; no profanity, vulgarity, slurs or personal attacks. People who harass others or joke about tragedies will be blocked. If a comment violates these standards or our terms of service, click the "flag" link in the lower-right corner of the comment box. To find our more, read our FAQ.