Cubs eager to see the Jason Heyward relaunch in Cactus League

Cubs eager to see the Jason Heyward relaunch in Cactus League

MESA, Ariz. — Cactus League stats are supposed to be irrelevant, especially for the guy with the biggest contract in franchise history. Jason Heyward already built up a reservoir of goodwill as a former All Star, three-time Gold Glove defender and World Series champion. The intangibles got Heyward $184 million guaranteed, and the Cubs are hoping a new comfort level will lead to a Jon Lester effect in Year 2 of that megadeal.

But Heyward will still be one of the most scrutinized players in Mesa after an offseason overhaul that tried to recapture the rhythm and timing he felt with the 2012 Braves (27 homers) and break some of the bad habits that had slowly crept into his high-maintenance left-handed swing.

"If there's ever any doubt," Heyward said, "then you probably shouldn't be here."

Heyward will be batting leadoff and starting in right field on Saturday afternoon when the Cubs open their exhibition schedule with a split-squad game against the A's at Sloan Park. If Heyward has anything to prove this spring, it's "probably to himself, not to us," general manager Jed Hoyer said, backing a player who does the little things so well and commands respect throughout the clubhouse.

"There's going to be growing pains with making adjustments," Hoyer said. "He'll probably have some good days and some bad days. But I think the most important thing is that he feels comfortable and uses these five weeks to lock in and get ready for the Cardinals."

The Cubs are betting on Heyward's age (27), track record (three seasons where he showed up in the National League MVP voting), understanding of the strike zone (.346 career on-base percentage) and willingness to break down his swing this winter at the team's Arizona complex.

At the same time, Heyward realizes "it's just the offseason" and "a never-ending process in baseball." There are no sweeping conclusions to be made when the opposing starting pitcher showers, talks to the media and leaves the stadium before the game ends.

"I'm not sitting here telling you: 'Oh, I know for sure what's going to happen,'" Heyward said. "I don't know how it's going to go. But I know I did a damn good job of preparing for it."

[MORE CUBS: No hard feelings: Cubs and Pedro Strop look to future with contract extension]

Manager Joe Maddon — who gave Heyward nearly 600 plate appearances to figure it out during the regular season (.631 OPS) before turning him into a part-time outfielder in the playoffs (5-for-48) — usually thinks batting practice is overrated or a waste of time. But at 6-foot-5 — and with so much riding on an offensive resurgence — Heyward is hard to miss.

"I can see it's a lot freer and the ball's coming off hotter," Maddon said. "But it's all about game. I'm really eager for him, because everybody just talks about all the work he's done all winter.

"Conversationally with him, I sense or feel like he feels good about it and that he's kind of at a nice peaceful moment with himself. So it will be really fun to watch."

A 103-win season, an American League-style lineup that scored 808 runs, a new appreciation for defensive metrics and a professional attitude helped provide cover for Heyward, who largely escaped the wrath of Cubs fans with little patience for big-ticket free agents.

"Baseball is a game that's going to humble you every day," Heyward said. "You're going to fail more times than you succeed, so it's all about how you handle it, as an individual and as a group. We handled it the best out of anyone last year as a team. And that's why we were able to win the World Series.

"There's always things you feel like you need to work on. You can ask guys who had the best years — there's always something they're trying to improve on and something they don't feel great about at a certain point in time during the year.

"I just happened to have a little bit more breaking down to do. A lot of things allowed me to just kind of pause (and) look forward and not really think about trying to compete and win a game. Let's just get some work done."

Javy Baez flaunts epic World Series tattoo

Javy Baez flaunts epic World Series tattoo

Javy Baez should win a gold glove in tattoos.

The kid with the MLB logo inked on the back of his neck now has an absolutely epic 2016 World Series Champions tattoo on his left deltoid:

That. Is. Awesome.

Javy apparently has had the tattoo for a little while, though it wasn't quite as eye-popping as it is now (or what we could see of it back in January):

😎 Find The #W #JB9 #ElMago

A post shared by Javier Báez ⚾ (@javy23baez) on

That's some good ink work, Javy.

Now just make sure you don't spend too much time in the gym working on those delts. That tattoo would look awfully weird stretched out:

No hard feelings: Cubs and Pedro Strop look to future with contract extension

No hard feelings: Cubs and Pedro Strop look to future with contract extension

MESA, Ariz. — Whatever frustrations Pedro Strop might have kept bottled up during the playoffs didn't change how he feels about his Cubs teammates or living in Chicago or the energy at Wrigley Field.

"I think if there were any hard feelings we wouldn't be doing this extension," general manager Jed Hoyer said Friday after announcing the deal that could keep Strop in a Cubs uniform through the 2019 season.

The Cubs framed Strop's fade into the postseason background as a matter of bad timing after he tore the meniscus in his left knee in August. Otherwise, manager Joe Maddon in theory wouldn't have felt the need to push Aroldis Chapman so hard during the World Series.

The Cubs backed up their story by avoiding an arbitration hearing with a $5.5 million settlement for 2017 before camp opened in Arizona. The two sides continued negotiating, agreeing to a one-year extension worth $5.85 million and a $6.25 million club option for 2019 with a $500,000 buyout. For that sense of comfort and security, Strop sacrificed the chance to sell himself as a possible closer next winter.

"I just feel happy that I know I'm going to be here," Strop said. "I don't care about the role or whatever.

"I like to win better than roles."

It's not just a talking point with Strop, who memorably high-stepped down the third-base line next to Kris Bryant in a walk-off win that became a 2015 Sports Illustrated cover and a blown-up image players see on the way from the Wrigley Field clubhouse out to the tunnel leading into the dugout.

"I have a lot of energy," Strop said. "Every time I walk into the clubhouse, I always come in positive, you know, waking people up when they're sleeping and just trying to have good moments and just play ball, play the game the right way."

[MORE CUBS: Cubs eager to see the Jason Heyward relaunch in Cactus League]

With Wade Davis and Koji Uehara positioned to become free agents after this season, the Cubs wanted to invest in their bullpen and clubhouse, where Strop is among the most popular players and a bilingual presence buzzing around the room.

"We don't want to be in a position of always having to rebuild the bullpen," Hoyer said. "Pedro's been a rock for us down there. His pitching is a big part of why we wanted to bring him back. But it's also who he is.

"He puts every person around him in a better mood every day. This guy's always beaming. He's always in a great mood. But under that huge smile, he's an awesome competitor, and this guy wants the ball in the biggest spots. We want more guys like that."

Since coming over in the franchise-altering Jake Arrieta trade with the Baltimore Orioles in the middle of the 2013 season, Strop has notched 84 holds, put up a 0.98 WHIP and a 2.68 ERA and accounted for 232 appearances. During that time, the right-hander leads all National League relievers with a .173 batting average against and ranks third in opponents' OPS (.530) and fourth in strikeouts per nine innings (10.82).

"We got these guys in our clubhouse that are just great to have (around) beyond being good," Maddon said. "He's at the top of the list. He's always upbeat. He's always ready. He's always there for somebody else. And then he's got one of the best sliders in all of baseball."

Maddon didn't show that same level of trust in Strop during the playoffs, but the force of his talent and personality — the crooked-hat look, chest-pounding celebrations and love for the game — helped change this team's identity and turn the Cubs into World Series champs.

"I felt for Pedro," Hoyer said. "I felt like he rushed as much as he could to get back on the field for the postseason, but he probably wasn't vintage Pedro Strop at any point down the stretch, just by nature of the timing. But when you look at the numbers he's put up over the last three years, he's been one of the best setup guys in the game."