Cubs' 'changing of the guard' takes center stage

Heyward receives tribute at Wrigley as top prospects take in the Friendly Confines

October 1st, 2022

CHICAGO --  extended his right hand to the camera in front of him, showing off the World Series ring that he helped bring to the Cubs six years ago. The veteran then patted the Cubs logo on his chest and gave one more wave to a cheering Wrigley Field crowd.

In the fourth inning of Saturday's 2-1 win over the Reds, Heyward was the latest in a line of players from the 2016 championship core to experience a farewell in front of the home fans. As he exited the field, he embraced , who may also be playing his final games with the North Siders.

"You just see a brother kind of moving on from this chapter around here," Cubs manager David Ross said. "He's impacted so many great guys. I think you guys see that and know that, but I'm glad he got that from the fans."

Heyward's moment came with a select group of highly-touted Cubs prospects sitting in the stands at the Friendly Confines. They were able to witness how a longtime Chicago player is celebrated by Cubs fans. And, they got to take a peak at that glistening jewelry from the triumph that ended 108 years of World Series drought.

Prior to Saturday's game, outfielder Ian Happ -- a player growing into more of a leadership role as the previous core has dwindled over the past two-plus years -- spoke with the Minor Leaguers who are in town. Some of those players will be writing the next few chapters for Chicago.

"It was a cool experience to get to talk about what it means to be a Cub," Happ said, "and the important things as these guys get closer."

From their seats, those prospects watched the Cubs turn in their sixth straight win and 10th win in 11 games.

They saw two veterans on short-term deals (Drew Smyly and Wade Miley), along with three homegrown arms (Adbert Alzolay, Manuel Rodríguez and Brandon Hughes), lower the Cubs' collective ERA over the past 10 days to an MLB-best 1.74.

The kids watched Seiya Suzuki rip a homer through a strong wind in front of Heyward, who had moved out of right field to accommodate his signing in Spring Training. They saw Nelson Velázquez -- the MVP of the Arizona Fall League a year ago -- deliver a run-scoring triple.

"What I've been happy about is how they've gone about the back end of it," Ross said of how his team has played in the second half. "The effort, the intensity, the work, none of its changed. Those are good signs. Now, we'll continue to grow.

"And we've got a long way to go to get better to be competing for a World Series, but these guys are on a mission to do that. And as long as we keep that mindset, we're going to be fine."

During the first inning, outfield prospect Owen Caissie -- one of the players acquired from the Padres in the Yu Darvish trade prior to the 2021 season -- stopped by the press box to chat with reporters. Ranked No. 10 on MLB Pipeline's Top 30 Cubs prospects list, the 20-year-old Caissie was part of the High-A South Bend team that just won the Midwest League title.

"We learned to win with the guys that we want to be up there with," Caissie said. "At the end of the season, our team looked a lot different than at the start of the season, but that doesn't mean that we can't win. And it was just kind of cool coming together as like a band of brothers and winning it all."

Once upon a time, a group of prospects -- a cast featuring Javier Báez, Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Kyle Schwarber and Contreras, among others -- rose to the big leagues and achieved that goal. Caissie was asked if he thinks this next wave of prospects can follow suit.

"The Cubs' org is pretty good and they're pretty deep," Caissie said. "I do think we can do it again, for sure."

That is the task at hand for a ballclub in the second year of a rebuilding project, with the potential to be more aggressive in the coming offseason. The farm will not have all the answers -- the Cubs know they have to find impact players externally to supplement the current roster.

One upcoming move to aid in that process will be to release the veteran Heyward after this season ends. The players impacted by Heyward's leadership have been coming to terms with that looming reality.

That includes Happ, who met Heyward in the Cubs' dugout after the standing ovation and gave him a lengthy hug.

"That was an emotional moment, for sure," Happ said. "He deserved to be able to stand there in front of the crowd and get that ovation. He's meant so much to the organization, being a part of that team that won. And everything that he's giving back to the fan base, to the city."