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Cubs consider tweak in Chatwood's contract

Pitcher's Cy Young Award vote clause a topic of discussion at Winter Meetings
MLB.com

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- The Cubs may change a clause in Tyler Chatwood's contract to eliminate linking a financial reward to him receiving a Cy Young Award vote from the Baseball Writers' Association of America.

Chatwood signed a three-year, $38 million contract last week with the Cubs. If he receives one vote for the Cy Young Award in either 2018 or '19, his 2020 salary will increase from $13 million to $15 million. One Cy Young Award vote in both seasons would boost his 2020 salary to $17 million.

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- The Cubs may change a clause in Tyler Chatwood's contract to eliminate linking a financial reward to him receiving a Cy Young Award vote from the Baseball Writers' Association of America.

Chatwood signed a three-year, $38 million contract last week with the Cubs. If he receives one vote for the Cy Young Award in either 2018 or '19, his 2020 salary will increase from $13 million to $15 million. One Cy Young Award vote in both seasons would boost his 2020 salary to $17 million.

During its meeting on Tuesday, the BBWAA was considering making Chatwood ineligible for the voting because of that clause in his contract.

"Looking at it from the team perspective, whenever there's a gap in evaluation between what the player wants and what the team wants to give, you want to try to find some qualitative way to assess a player's performance," Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer said Tuesday. "There are many things you can't do, and the leverage you have that are qualitative are All-Star and any awards at the end of the year."

Hoyer said it's difficult to find a measure to gauge the quality of performance.

"[Being an] All-Star is flawed because it's half a season," Hoyer said. "And there's a lot of them. There could be five injury replacements and you could be the sixth guy who's an All-Star. That's not the best measure of a guy's quality.

"Teams are in a box as to how you can do that, and we felt one Cy Young vote was a pretty good measure of quality," he said. "There's only five Cy Young votes [on the BBWAA ballot] -- [Most Valuable Player] is 10. In a typical year, seven to 10 guys get votes.

"Honestly, we did talk about it during the [negotiation] process, and I think there's a level of trust in the writers that writers take their votes seriously," he said. "People aren't going to throw a vote out there just to cost the Cubs money. People do take their votes seriously and their category seriously. That was our logic on it."

Video: Rogers on what Chatwood can bring to the Cubs

Major League Baseball did approve Chatwood's contract. Hoyer said he had talked to MLB officials regarding the contract and added that he hoped for a solution to come up with qualitative performance measures.

One possibility, he said, would be an All-MLB first, second and third team, and a team could add a clause in a player's contract to reward them if he makes one of those teams.

"I've talked to people, and I understand the argument on the other side and how it could be compromising the vote," Hoyer said. "We actually trusted the writers to not do that."

The last contract to include such a clause was Curt Schilling's deal with the Red Sox in 2007, which was overseen by Theo Epstein, who was the Red Sox general manager at the time and is now the Cubs' president of baseball operations.

Carrie Muskat has covered the Cubs since 1987, and for MLB.com since 2001. She writes a blog, Muskat Ramblings, and you can follow her on Twitter @CarrieMuskat.

This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

Tyler Chatwood

Dance all days: Ross basks in limelight

Former Cubs catcher gets bling, enjoying life after baseball
MLB.com

CHICAGO -- David Ross wasn't quite dancing, but he still seemed light on his feet.

After throwing out a ceremonial first pitch on Wednesday night at Wrigley Field, Ross did do a quick step to home plate toward his old battery mate, Jon Lester, who caught it. Ross skipped his first couple of steps, a huge smile on his face.

Full Game Coverage

CHICAGO -- David Ross wasn't quite dancing, but he still seemed light on his feet.

After throwing out a ceremonial first pitch on Wednesday night at Wrigley Field, Ross did do a quick step to home plate toward his old battery mate, Jon Lester, who caught it. Ross skipped his first couple of steps, a huge smile on his face.

Full Game Coverage

And why not? Really, why not?

"I couldn't control my emotions," Ross said. "The day built up on me. I was excited to get here. I felt like I was a kid coming to his first Major League game. Even watching the game from the stands, it was the first time I ever did it. It was really, really cool. I felt like a kid out there. It came out in my walk, my skip, my high-fives."

Ross has become a special assistant to Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein, a baseball analyst for ESPN, an author, a motivational speaker and most notably a national phenomenon on the show "Dancing with the Stars" in the 161 days since ending his career with a home run off Andrew Miller in Game 7 of the World Series. That's a lot for a guy who had thought his plate was full as a backup catcher, husband and father.

"I really feel like I'm the luckiest man ever," Ross said. "I've got a book coming out. I can't even read. How do I have a book coming out? Somebody bought the rights to my book to make a movie. I'm on 'Dancing with the Stars;' I was on "Saturday Night Live" and "Ellen," then doing some charity things. Eddie Vedder gave me a shoutout in Game 5 [of the World Series]. Who am I? I don't even know anymore. It's so crazy.

"I'm appreciative, and the emotional part for me is the love I get, is for who I am, not my stats. That's the part that gets me emotional. People like you for you, who you are as a person, not just who you are as a player."

Video: LAD@CHC: Fan favorite Ross throws out first pitch

Ross was on the "Dancing with the Stars" set in Los Angeles on Monday night, when the Cubs raised the World Series banner at Wrigley Field. He and his partner, Lindsay Arnold, survived elimination while doing a Viennese waltz, which wasn't easy considering how much of Ross' heart was with his old team on the diamond and in the clubhouse.

Ross is the first person tied to baseball to participate on ABC's popular dance show, which is in its 24th season. The 40-year-old said he would not have done the show if the schedule hadn't worked out so he could have been at Wrigley when the World Series rings were passed out.

That was first order of business Wednesday night, when players and coaches received rings encrusted with 108 diamonds, signifying the drought that ended with the seven-game victory over the Indians last fall.

Ross drew one of the loudest cheers from the crowd of 40,844, popping out of the third-base dugout wearing a championship jersey -- his name and No. 3 written in gold on the back -- over khaki pants. His new-found star power is a marvel to behold, even for his best friends.

"The guy is an A-list celebrity," Anthony Rizzo said. "I have to contact his assistants now just to [talk to] him."

Rizzo was joking, sort of. He and many of his teammates hung out with Ross on Tuesday, the night after Rizzo's ninth-inning single delivered a 3-2 victory in the Cubs' home opener.

Video: LAD@CHC: Ross sings during 7th-inning stretch

But Ross' popularity has soared since he signed a two-year, $5 million deal with the Cubs in December 2014, not coincidentally less than two weeks after Lester signed with the Cubs. Ross had been Lester's personal catcher for two seasons in Boston and they reprised that role in Chicago, this time with Ross becoming nicknamed "Granpa Rossy" by Rizzo, Kris Bryant and his younger teammates.

"We had some text messages going back and forth," Ross said of Lester in the time when the Cubs were pursuing him. "I wasn't just trying to follow Jon Lester; I was trying to take care of my family at that point. The fact the Cubs wanted me as well as him was special. The way that's worked out was obviously the best decision I've ever made. Theo tells me all the time, 'Aren't you glad you didn't go here or there?' I tell him, 'Hey, 'I would have won there, too, buddy.' "

Tweet from @D_Ross3: BLING for the CHAMPS pic.twitter.com/3pDdrbMn0K

Ross embraced the chance to play at Wrigley Field, and Cubs fans quickly came to treat him with affection. He counseled Lester through the public examination of his yips throwing to bases and rode alongside him through his 19-5 season in 2016, when he was second to Max Scherzer in the National League Cy Young Award voting.

Ross was squeezed onto the Opening Day roster in 2015 alongside fellow catchers Welington Castillo and Miguel Montero, and spent much of '16 in a three-catcher rotation with Montero and rookie Willson Contreras.

Ross spent time on the disabled list with concussion symptoms his first season in Chicago, and he let it be known early that he wouldn't play after the end of his contract. The thing nobody saw coming was that Ross had one of the most productive years of his career as a 39-year-old, delivering 10 home runs and a .784 OPS in 166 at-bats.

Ross' 1.8 WAR matched the second best of his 15-season career, the only better one coming with the Braves in 2009. Had the Cubs not given him a chance to ride off into the sunset, they might have tried to talk him out of retiring.

"I mentioned it a little bit," manager Joe Maddon said. "[But] maybe he played so well last year because he knew it was going to be his last year. He just put it all out there. He worked hard to get in shape to play as well as he did. After winning the World Series, I'd say, 'Please don't come back. Just go be with your family and do other things.' I thought it was really the perfect ending to an interesting career."

Tweet from @Cubs: Triple threat. ���������� pic.twitter.com/lQqt0uw0A3

Like Ross' former teammates, Maddon has been impressed by Ross' work on "Dancing with the Stars." He said it shows him that Ross could have a career ahead of him as a manager if he gets the itch to get back into uniform.

"One thing I love is that he's stepping outside his comfort zone now," Maddon said. "It's a big leap of faith to jump out on a dance floor in front of the nation after being a baseball player. I love that. That in and of itself tells me he'd be a good manager. He has all the necessary requirements, plus he's not afraid to take a chance or a risk."

Ross says that Maddon is right about him being outside his comfort zone. Ross said he had to conquer his own inhibitions a couple weeks ago, when he and Arnold did a dance that played off the movie "Magic Mike," about a male stripper.

"I'm as far out of my comfort zone [as I could be]," Ross said. "I did the 'Magic Mike' routine the other night, and I literally couldn't sleep one night. I drop my kids off at school, and like half the elementary school goes, 'Mr. Ross, we watched you on 'Dancing with the Stars.' I knew I had 'Magic Mike.' I'm like, 'Wait a minute. All these 7-, 8-, 9-, 10-year-olds are going to watch me take off pants and shirt.' It scared me to death. It took a lot to do that. I feel like it's the first World Series game I ever caught every time I step out there. My heart rate is through the roof. The emotions are crazy."

Arnold accompanied Ross to Chicago so they could work on next week's performance. Ross said they rehearsed from 8 a.m. CT until almost 3 p.m. on Wednesday before he could focus on seeing his former teammates and picking up his World Series ring.

Pretty solid day.

"It was just a joy for me," Ross said.

Dance on, David. Dance on.

Phil Rogers is a columnist for MLB.com.

This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

David Ross

Lackey expects to return from DL soon after eligible

Cubs starter rehabbing right shoulder strain
MLB.com

SAN DIEGO -- John Lackey played catch on Tuesday for the first time since he was placed on the disabled list Aug. 15, and if he continues to make progress, the Cubs right-hander will throw a bullpen session this weekend in Los Angeles. Lackey, rehabbing a right shoulder strain, did not expect to be sidelined too long after the Aug. 30 date when he's eligible to be activated.

"It felt good," Lackey said. "We'll see how it goes [Wednesday]. I don't anticipate anything. It felt pretty normal today. Hopefully, we'll keep moving forward."

Full Game Coverage

SAN DIEGO -- John Lackey played catch on Tuesday for the first time since he was placed on the disabled list Aug. 15, and if he continues to make progress, the Cubs right-hander will throw a bullpen session this weekend in Los Angeles. Lackey, rehabbing a right shoulder strain, did not expect to be sidelined too long after the Aug. 30 date when he's eligible to be activated.

"It felt good," Lackey said. "We'll see how it goes [Wednesday]. I don't anticipate anything. It felt pretty normal today. Hopefully, we'll keep moving forward."

Full Game Coverage

Asked if there was some discomfort, Lackey shrugged.

"There's been some discomfort for about 13 years," he said. "You don't throw a couple thousand innings and not have some discomfort."

Cubs manager Joe Maddon said the weekend bullpen session will give the Cubs a better feel of how long Lackey needs.

"I don't think it will take him a long time to get back," Maddon said. "We'll see if he's able to do the side piece. If he's able to do it without too much discomfort, his start won't be too far to follow that."

Lackey agreed.

"As long as it feels OK, I'll be able to ramp up pretty quick," he said.

As for the other Cubs pitchers on the DL, Joe Smith, sidelined with a left hamstring strain, threw a bullpen session on Tuesday and also was making progress. Hector Rondon, out since Aug. 17 with a right triceps strain, played catch on Tuesday and said he felt good.

Worth noting

• Maddon met pregame with Warriors coach Steve Kerr, and hoped to get some insight into what it takes to build an NBA champion.

"When you have individual talent like that, like we do, you don't want to get in the way too often," Maddon said before the meeting. "I don't want to get in the way at all. I'm curious to meet him."

• Major League Baseball announced the playoff schedule, and although Maddon doesn't want to talk playoffs now, he did point out a major contradiction.

"The most important games are played in the worst weather," Maddon said. "I don't know if that's ever going to change and we'll see a neutral site. Baseball is meant to be played well and meant to be played in good weather."

Did he have any suggestions?

"Of course I do, but I'd only get in trouble," he said.

• Eloy Jimenez was named the Midwest League's Most Valuable Player, Prospect of the Year and an end-of-the-season All-Star, the league announced Tuesday. The awards were determined by the 16 Midwest League managers. Jimenez, 19, entered play on Tuesday leading the league in doubles, slugging percentage, OPS and RBIs, and was second in extra-base hits and total bases, and third in batting average. He is ranked No. 2 on MLBPipeline.com's list of top 30 Cubs prospects.

South Bend pitcher Preston Morrison and manager Jimmy Gonzalez also were named to the Midwest League's end-of-the-season All-Star team.

Carrie Muskat has covered the Cubs since 1987, and for MLB.com since 2001. She writes a blog, Muskat Ramblings. You can follow her on Twitter @CarrieMuskat and listen to her podcast.

This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

Chicago Cubs, John Lackey

Vine Line: Friendly fire

Cubs pitcher John Lackey is one of the fiercest competitors in MLB
MLB.com

From 2008-09, veteran pitcher John Lackey faced off against Jon Lester three times in close American League Division Series matchups between the Angels and Red Sox. Lester took two out of those three contests.

When you pit two intense, highly competitive pitchers against each other in the pressure-filled cauldron that is postseason baseball, it's safe to say emotions can run high. To put it mildly, there was no love lost between the two hurlers.

From 2008-09, veteran pitcher John Lackey faced off against Jon Lester three times in close American League Division Series matchups between the Angels and Red Sox. Lester took two out of those three contests.

When you pit two intense, highly competitive pitchers against each other in the pressure-filled cauldron that is postseason baseball, it's safe to say emotions can run high. To put it mildly, there was no love lost between the two hurlers.

"I'll be the first one to tell you nobody in that dugout liked him," Lester said of Lackey. "Just because of how competitive he is and all the emotions he has on the field."

In 2010, Lackey and Lester suddenly found themselves together in the Red Sox rotation. Would the two bitter rivals be able to put that animosity behind them and function effectively as teammates?

"Easy," Lackey said. "Once you get on the same team wearing the same colors, it's time to go to work together."

That's certainly good news for Cubs fans, as Lackey spent last season with the division rival Cardinals before signing a two-year contract with the Cubs in December. As it turns out, Lackey and Lester did much more than tolerate each other in Boston; the two avowed country boys became close friends and are now nearly inseparable, on and off the baseball field. When Lackey found out he'd be facing Lester again in the National League Division Series last October, the two pitchers shrugged off any special meaning to the game. Their friendship meant more to them.

"When I was in Boston, we faced Lackey almost every year in the playoffs, and he was always an incredible competitor," Cubs General Manager Jed Hoyer said. "We always admired him from afar. He's one of those guys who takes the ball, and he wants to control that day when he pitches. That's something that happens less and less in our game. That day for him is his. He brought that kind of fire to the field all the time."

Mound Menace

This season, Cubs fans have been able to see for themselves just how competitive Lackey truly is. Jason Heyward, who played with the pitcher last year in St. Louis, is extremely happy to have Lackey as a teammate again, especially because it means he doesn't have to face him from the batter's box.

"When he's on the mound, he's a bully," Heyward said. "He wants you to swing the bat. It's 'You're going to get a hit or I'm going to get you out, but let's make this happen quickly.' His stuff is just heavy.

"He's a bulldog. He competes like no other when he's on the mound. It's fun to watch. He likes to work quick. Playing behind him, that helps you out. You appreciate what he does when he goes to the mound."

Cubs players no doubt appreciate the simple fact that when Lackey goes to the mound, he now does it in Cubbie blue instead of Cardinal red. In three starts (21.2 innings) against the North Siders last season, he went 2-0 with a 1.25 ERA and 19 strikeouts versus only five walks. Rookie of the Year Kris Bryant logged two hits and five strikeouts in nine at-bats against Lackey in 2015. One of the first things Bryant told the right-hander was that he was glad he didn't have to face him anymore.

"He's a really good guy to have on your team," Bryant said. "He doesn't care what you think between the lines."

One thing that's surprised Bryant is how different Lackey is as a teammate versus the way he's generally perceived from the opposing dugout. He may be fierce on the mound, but that doesn't carry over into the clubhouse -- at least not on non-pitching days.

"From the moment I met him, I was like, 'This guy is awesome,'" Bryant said. "Obviously, you have opinions of players, and you hate facing certain guys. He was one of those guys for me. I haven't had many at-bats against him, but I struggled."

As far as Lackey is concerned, he's just fine with most Big Leaguers thinking he's difficult. No pitcher wants to be a hitter's favorite opponent.

"I don't want a hitter to want to face me," Lackey said. "Obviously, I compete on the field and I get after it, and I know how that can be perceived sometimes. I think people find out I'm a lot different than [they think] I am, which is fine. In between the lines, I don't care what the other team thinks about me. I'm there to win."

The Cubs' young hitters can learn a thing or two from the pitcher who schooled them last season; don't think they won't ask him how he got them out.

"I told him that he dominated me," Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo said. "I'm happy to play behind him, pick his brain, [find out] why he got me out so much."

Video: CHC@PHI: Lackey tosses seven scoreless innings in win

Team First

Although Lackey spends most of his time on the mound scowling, he actually smiled and laughed his way through much of his first spring camp with the Cubs. Anyone looking for him could usually find him with Lester. The pair regularly challenged each other at wind sprints, talked over strategy or simply drove around in Lester's camouflage-colored buggy.

"It's Siamese almost," said catcher David Ross of the pair. "They're attached at the hip. It's a good thing. They both are similar in how they go about their business. Jon is so serious, and you'll see the same thing with Lackey. He wants to win."

Lester laughed when told that Ross said the two pitchers were as close as conjoined twins. "That's how we were over [in Boston]," Lester said. "We did everything. It makes you accountable because you have somebody going, 'C'mon, let's go do this.'

"The biggest thing is accountability. You're sitting here thinking, 'I don't want to do my running,' but you've got somebody going, 'C'mon let's go.' That's the way we've always been. I think it makes each other better. Those days -- we all have them -- when you don't feel like doing anything. Now you have somebody who will push you."

Ryan Dempster had a little fun at Lackey and Lester's expense during his talk show at the Cubs Convention in January. When the two friends were on stage together being interviewed, Dempster brought out some Popeye's chicken, saying he likes to make Red Sox pitchers feel at home. When Lackey and Lester were in Boston, they created a media firestorm by reportedly drinking beer and eating chicken in the Fenway Park clubhouse during a few games.

Lackey didn't know what Dempster was up to, but he did laugh at the joke -- and eat the chicken.

Cubs hitters are certainly happy to call Lackey a teammate, but his arrival in Chicago may benefit Lester more than anyone. Several members of the coaching staff have already told Lackey what a good influence he's been on the veteran lefty.

"He's my boy," Lackey said of Lester. "Our wives are good friends. Our kids are friends. We've been hanging out, having cookouts and that kind of stuff. It's been a lot of fun."

There's also a burgeoning Texas connection on the staff. Jake Arrieta will soon be Lackey's neighbor in Austin. The Arrietas are planning to build a new home there, just down the street from the Lackeys'. The former division foes even played golf together a few times this offseason.

"Everything you hear about the guy is just positive, especially from guys who have played with him," Arrieta said. "Conversations with him are natural. He's a funny guy, always upbeat, joking around. He's a personality you want to surround yourself with. I was fortunate to get to know him this offseason and start that transition for spring and throughout the season. I know he has a real close relationship to Lester and Ryan Dempster. It just shows you what kind of guy he is."

Playoff Payoff

Despite a deep postseason run for the Cubs in 2015, the team still lacked some depth in the rotation. Not only does Lackey create an imposing front three with Arrieta and Lester, he is also one of the more playoff-tested pitchers of his generation. Between stints with the Angels, Red Sox and Cardinals, Lackey has played in eight different postseasons (15 series), pitched in 23 playoff games (20 starts) and gone 8-5 with a 3.11 ERA in 127.1 October innings.

Lackey was the pitcher the Angels and Red Sox wanted on the mound when it mattered most, and he delivered in those pressure-packed situations. He is the first starting pitcher in Major League history to win World Series-clinching games with two different teams, doing so as a rookie with the Angels in 2002 and again with the Red Sox in 2013.

The Cubs hope whatever it is that drives Lackey rubs off on the rest of the team. Manager Joe Maddon has known the pitcher since those early days with the Angels and said Lackey has mellowed a bit -- on certain days, at least.

"Four out of five days, I'm pretty laid back and having a good time," Lackey said. "When you only get 30-some times to help your team, I take it pretty dang serious."

So does he need that edge to stay among the game's elite arms at 37 years old?

"I think it's helped, for sure," Lackey said. "It's not going anywhere."

Ultimately, Lackey's image is immaterial, so long as he takes care of business when he's on the mound. And, to a man, the Cubs pitchers all agree he's been a perfect addition to the staff.

"We all want to do our job," Lester said. "We all have different ways of going about things. Jake is kind of the stoic one and doesn't show emotion and stands up there and chucks the ball. I get a little more emotional, and so does Lack. With Kyle [Hendricks], I don't think I've ever seen Kyle do anything except keep his mouth shut and go pitch.

"Everybody harnesses their deal their own way. [Lackey] is a little more vocal and outgoing with his emotions on the mound. The other four days, he's a big ol' teddy bear and cares about his teammates and wants his teammates to do well."

Winning Edge

When told people were surprised to see him smiling so much with the Cubs, Lackey, as if on cue, smiled.

"When I'm competing, I'm there to win," he said. "On the other days, I'll be cool and hang out. I love having fun as much as anybody. When it's my day, it's time to work."

"He's a terrific guy," Hoyer said of Lackey. "He's a leader. All the players love him, and he takes his day seriously. When he's on the mound, he's incredibly intense, incredibly focused. We feel the edge he brings is great for our team. People will be on alert the day he pitches because he takes it so seriously. There's no question the day he pitches, the team comes to play. They know how seriously he takes it."

Ross, who caught Lackey when the two were together with the Red Sox, has seen that game face up close.

"John is an emotional player, and he goes out there and really feels strongly like, 'Today's my day for the boys. I don't get to help out the other days. This is my day, and I try to compete and help the guys win,'" Ross said. "He takes that very seriously. I appreciate that."

Ultimately, all Lackey wants to do is win, and that's exactly the kind of player the Cubs were looking to add to their rotation this offseason.

"He's the nicest guy ever," Ross said, "but on the day he pitches, he's pretty locked in. He's no-nonsense."

Of course, Lackey also likes to have a good time, and Maddon has seen that side of him too. "Johnny is straight up and straightforward," Maddon said. "He likes to giggle and have fun, but when it comes down to his craft, he gets very serious."

While it might be hard to imagine the 6-foot-6, 230-pound pitcher giggling, all you have to do is mention his new daughter, Kenzi, who was born in December, or play a round of golf with him to hear his easy laugh and see his softer side.

"He's polar opposite [on the golf course]," Arrieta said. "He hasn't been playing that long. He's out there having a good time and doesn't care how he scores. It's a nice change-up from the mindset we're in at the field."

So before Lackey's starts, put on your cowboy hat, play some country music and add a little swagger to your step. This good old boy is going to bring everything he has to the mound every fifth day.

"When we signed Lackey in the offseason," Maddon said, "I thought he was one of the top free-agent signs of the winter -- specifically for us and what we're doing."

Carrie Muskat has covered the Cubs since 1987, and for MLB.com since 2001. She writes a blog, Muskat Ramblings. You can follow her on Twitter @CarrieMuskat and listen to her podcast. This article appears in Vine Line magazine. Follow Vine Line @cubsvineline, and get this article and more delivered to your doorstep by purchasing a subscription at cubs.com/vineline.

This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

Vine Line: The king of swing

Since hitting coach John Mallee was hired in 2014, he has helped a young corps of talented hitters grow into one of MLB's deepest and most feared lineups
Vine Line

On a torrid March morning in Mesa, Ariz., John Mallee was mingling with the coaching staff in front of the home dugout at Sloan Park. The second-year hitting coach had just watched two of the organization's young talents, Addison Russell and Jorge Soler, step into the batter's box for live BP against two of baseball's premier veteran arms, John Lackey and Jon Lester.

Judging by the smiles adorning the offensive crew's faces as they moved toward the dugout, everybody seemed pleased with the results -- which is a relative oddity in the early days of the preseason. For the first few weeks, live BP generally entails a procession of lazy grounders, jam shots and weakly hit foul balls, as hitters re-acclimate themselves to 95 mph heaters and nasty, tailing sliders.

On a torrid March morning in Mesa, Ariz., John Mallee was mingling with the coaching staff in front of the home dugout at Sloan Park. The second-year hitting coach had just watched two of the organization's young talents, Addison Russell and Jorge Soler, step into the batter's box for live BP against two of baseball's premier veteran arms, John Lackey and Jon Lester.

Judging by the smiles adorning the offensive crew's faces as they moved toward the dugout, everybody seemed pleased with the results -- which is a relative oddity in the early days of the preseason. For the first few weeks, live BP generally entails a procession of lazy grounders, jam shots and weakly hit foul balls, as hitters re-acclimate themselves to 95 mph heaters and nasty, tailing sliders.

Of course, given the current state of the Cubs' offense, Mallee has spent a good portion of the 2016 campaign smiling. As of late June, the team boasted six active position players who had put up an OPS+ of 100 or better (100 being league average) in 2015 -- and that doesn't even include Kyle Schwarber or Soler, both of whom were on the DL at that point -- and five with an All-Star appearance on their résumé. Throw in a group of the most talented young hitters in the game, and it's no surprise Mallee, 47, couldn't wait to work with the most talked-about aspect of the most talked-about team in the Majors.

"No question, I'm very excited about what we did this offseason," said Mallee, whose previous experience includes serving as the hitting coach for the Marlins from 2010-11 and the Astros from 2012-14. "And the younger players have a year of experience under their belt. It's exciting to see."

During Spring Training, Vine Line spent some time with the veteran Big League batting coach to get his insights into preparation, adjustments, the sheer quantity of talent on the Cubs roster and much more.

When Manager Joe Maddon started with the organization in 2014, he said the first thing he needed to do was build relationships with the players. Given the pride hitters take in their individual swings, was that also your first order of business?

Players don't care how much you know until they know how much you care. And then also building that rapport with them and building that trust. The key is the trust, and I try not to guess on anything. I try to have the video to back things up. I'll also use the analytics to show me if they can handle certain pitches. So when I'm talking to them, I have some facts behind it.

As a hitting coach, sometimes you have to leave them alone, and you don't want to overcoach them or make things complicated. We're always trying to make things very simple. Each guy has a couple of key checkpoints that they go to when they're starting to struggle. I have to know what those checkpoints are so that I can make suggestions according to the information they need.

This offseason, the Cubs acquired free-agent veterans Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist. As a hitting coach, how do you quickly familiarize yourself with new additions?

When we first signed both the guys, I went to our analytics people and found out where these guys' strengths and weaknesses were. When I got a chance to come in early and work with them, I got to find out what they're comfortable with, what they like -- from a routine, from an approach, from the scouting reports they like and the way they want me to talk to them in the dugout when a reliever comes in. It's about me getting to learn them and understanding what they think they need to work on and what they feel they have success with. If they tell me that there are some deficiencies they want to address, then that's where I come in as a coach and give them my experience and feed off the information they want.

How surprising was it to have four rookies be so productive last season?

I've been fortunate enough in my career that I've always had young teams. When I got to the Marlins, then when I [was with] Houston, they were all young guys. So I had a lot of experience working with young guys. The biggest thing is the makeup of those four rookies. The Cubs do a great job of not just signing talented players but players with aptitude, with plate discipline. They're made right, and they're very competitive people. They understand how to control themselves.

Some of them went through some struggles last year, and the help from the veterans -- David Ross, Miguel Montero and even Anthony Rizzo, calling him a veteran as young as he is -- [is] really what helped them through a lot of things. And the environment Joe Maddon and Davey Martinez create, it's amazing. There's no stress. Nothing is put on them: "You'll get 'em next time. You'll learn from it. Just keep moving forward." All of that combined is a good formula to help young players get through the struggles, and it helps them make adjustments.

Video: PIT@CHC: Cubs swat five homers in win vs. Pirates

Opposing teams now have plenty of film on the Cubs' young hitters. How do you see that affecting their offensive production this season?

This game is all about adjustments. The good players are able to make adjustments according to how this guy is trying to get them out, with the aptitude they have and their willingness to [adjust]. The league is going to adjust back to them, which it did. To a man, each one of them went through a little thing last year, as each hitter does. These guys were willing to make those adjustments, basically on their own, and figure out, "OK, this guy is doing this. Let me try this. Let me do that." And, again, the help of the veterans was great.

Where do you begin when you need to make an adjustment to a player's swing?

A couple of guys made mechanical adjustments last year, whether it was swing planes or adding some type of physical move to help them stay in motion or to time things better. It basically comes down to the approach. If you have good plate discipline, which these guys have, a lot of times you're only as good as the pitch you swing at. And these guys have the ability to control the strike zone. Selective-aggressive hitting is truly attacking a pitch in your strength early in the count [or] taking [a pitch that isn't in your strength], even if it's in the strike zone. That's what these guys do. They're able to look for what their strengths are early. Even if the pitcher is not going to that [strength], they're patient enough to wait for it.

Russell's swing changed quite a bit last year. How did adding a leg kick help him?

It was right around the break, and Addison was having trouble being on time with the fastball. You think, "Well, you've got to get your foot down sooner," but he was getting his foot down early. When he was getting his foot down early and getting ready to swing, he took another step. So it was just trying to find a way to keep him in motion. Then when he was ready to hit and his eyes were telling him it's time to go, he would swing. By adding that little knee tuck, it was just a way to get him to stay in motion and moving, as opposed to being stopped and having to restart again.

It's finding out what's natural for him. You go back and look at his high school film, and he had a bit of a leg kick. So it was a natural move for him anyway because he had a history of it. When I was able to see that from before [he was] signed and right when he signed, I knew that was already going to be a simple transition for him.

Video: CHC@WSH: Russell works Scherzer to end perfect game

What does your daily routine look like before a game?

We have a run production analytics team [that includes] our advanced scouts and our scouts in the field. I have [Coordinator of Advanced Scouting] Nate Halm, who is absolutely amazing, put together a template to help me give the information to the guys. We'll go in and talk about each pitcher and see if we can find some tendencies the guys have. And now we have the batter-pitcher matchup, meaning our guys have faced these guys, so they have some history.

My job is to help these guys try to figure out how this guy pitches them -- in general and in situations when there are runners in scoring position. I just try to give them that information. Then we have an advance meeting once a series. We'll go over the starters and then all the guys in the bullpen and their roles, so that the guys on the bench know that they're probably going to face this guy in this situation. They can start to study those guys and who they're going to face that night.

The Cubs' roster depth likely means some of the younger players will see fewer at-bats throughout the season. Could this be a hindrance to their long-term development?

Joe puts players in a position to be successful, so I don't think it would hurt them as much as one would think, [despite not] getting everyday at-bats, because he's putting them against the good matchups. … I don't see a regression. From a team dynamic and the way Joe puts them in a situation to be successful, I don't think it's going to hinder their development.

There's so much information out there now. Which of your hitters spend the most time in the video room, and do you think that's a good thing for them?

Well, the young guys: Kris Bryant, Russell. The older guys, they have a lot of history of doing this, so they don't need as much information -- or don't rely on it as much because they know how that guy is trying to get them out. Those [veteran] guys, they get themselves ready and try to show the younger guys how to get ready. They're in there figuring out how to approach the guy that night.

With experience, [the younger hitters] will learn to keep it simple. We don't want to fill their minds with too much information. A lot of these guys go up and look for what they want to hit until the count says they have to hit what the guy is going to throw.

How important is assistant hitting coach Eric Hinske to your operation?

Eric is the backbone of this offense, in my opinion. His relationship with the players [is excellent]. He just got done playing. He stood in the box. He was able to help Rizzo handle left-handed pitching. He does a lot of approach stuff with the guys. He'll watch the opposing pitchers, and for the advance meeting, he'll chime in. Guys come to the cage, and he'll give them any advice he has on how to approach [a certain] guy. He understands his swing, he's a very positive guy, and the players love him.

Phil Barnes is the associate editor of the Cubs' official publication, Vine Line magazine, and has covered the team since 2012. He contributes to the Cubs Vine Line Blog. This article appears in Vine Line magazine. Follow Vine Line @cubsvineline, and get this article and more delivered to your doorstep by purchasing a subscription at cubs.com/vineline.

This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

Vine Line: The complete package

Cubs slugger Kris Bryant has a knack for making difficult tasks look easy, on and off the field
Vine Line

There's a big divide between Kris Bryant the media creation and Kris Bryant the man. As an exercise, let's separate these dueling Bryants into column A and column B.

In column A, you have the burgeoning celebrity. This is the young superstar who hit .275/.369/.488 with 26 home runs and 99 RBI in his All-Star rookie campaign; the 6-foot-5 matinee idol whose crystal blue eyes have spawned multiple Twitter accounts; the man who collected the Golden Spikes Award (given to the nation's best amateur player) and earned Minor League Player of the Year and Rookie of the Year honors in consecutive seasons. This is the Scott Boras client whose image was plastered across an enormous Adidas billboard staring down at Wrigley Field from Addison Street to start the 2015 season -- before he had even cracked the 40-man roster. He's the Sports Illustrated cover boy who has done viral videos for Lyft, Red Bull and Cut4 -- posing as a taxi driver, swimming with sharks and masquerading as a European transfer player at Mesa Community College -- and who was recently named the face of Express clothing.

There's a big divide between Kris Bryant the media creation and Kris Bryant the man. As an exercise, let's separate these dueling Bryants into column A and column B.

In column A, you have the burgeoning celebrity. This is the young superstar who hit .275/.369/.488 with 26 home runs and 99 RBI in his All-Star rookie campaign; the 6-foot-5 matinee idol whose crystal blue eyes have spawned multiple Twitter accounts; the man who collected the Golden Spikes Award (given to the nation's best amateur player) and earned Minor League Player of the Year and Rookie of the Year honors in consecutive seasons. This is the Scott Boras client whose image was plastered across an enormous Adidas billboard staring down at Wrigley Field from Addison Street to start the 2015 season -- before he had even cracked the 40-man roster. He's the Sports Illustrated cover boy who has done viral videos for Lyft, Red Bull and Cut4 -- posing as a taxi driver, swimming with sharks and masquerading as a European transfer player at Mesa Community College -- and who was recently named the face of Express clothing.

It's a compelling package, and, like with any celebrity, it's easy to assume you know Bryant from this well-publicized and carefully groomed construction.

But the Bryant in column B is markedly different. This is the quiet, usually smiling gentleman that teammates see in the clubhouse. This Bryant is confident and likes to have fun, but he's also polite, respectful and hesitant to draw attention to himself. He works hard and listens to his coaches. He's the humble player who calls his dad after most games and recently got engaged to his high school sweetheart.

So how did Bryant B, the flesh-and-blood human being who is still working to adjust to this rapidly expanding new life, learn to embrace Bryant A? The 24-year-old has the remarkable ability, rare in someone so young, to separate what he does on the field from what he does off the field. He has no problem saying no to the things he doesn't want to do, but he embraces the opportunities that sound fun, confident in the belief that taking time away from the game to clear his head will ultimately make him a better player.

"I completely leave the game at the field -- other than I'll probably call my dad after the game and talk to him about it," Bryant said. "After that, I'm done. I watch Netflix. We go out to dinner a lot, especially in Chicago. The food is awesome. I play a little guitar too. I just tinker around with some things, video games, that kind of thing.

"But there is never much time off the field when you're not playing. You have a couple of hours after the game to watch some TV, go to sleep, wake up, go right to the field. It's a crazy lifestyle, but a lifestyle I want to live."

Of course, the celebrity Bryant persona is still quite new and will take some getting used to. So for now, he's moving forward one step at a time and trying to remain laser-focused on getting better at his day job.

The Machine

Everything about Bryant's career so far has had a whiff of inevitability to it. At times, he's seemed like a man among boys -- even when he was still a boy himself.

Bryant's father, Mike, a former Minor League outfielder in the Red Sox organization and a disciple of Ted Williams, loves to tell of how his son still holds the Las Vegas Little League record for home runs in a season. As a senior at Bonanza High School, Bryant hit .489 with 22 home runs and 51 RBI en route to Aflac, Baseball America and USA Today high school All-American honors. In his junior (and final) year at the University of San Diego, he mashed 31 home runs, which seems like a reasonable total for a man with his size, power and uppercut swing -- until you realize Bryant hit more homers than 223 out of 298 Division I baseball programs by himself and led the NCAA in eight different offensive categories, including runs, slugging percentage, total bases and walks.

After the Cubs selected him second overall in the 2013 Draft, he continued to punish baseballs. From his Rookie League debut until his Major League call-up on April 17, 2015, Bryant hit an absurd .327/.426/.667 with 55 longballs and 152 RBI in 181 Minor League games.

Video: Must C Classic: Bryant smashes three homers

"If you just look at him, he looks the part," said Cubs assistant hitting coach Eric Hinske, a 12-year Major League veteran who won the AL Rookie of the Year Award in 2002 with Toronto. "The guys that are the All-Stars and the Hall of Famers, they're touched on the way out. He's one of these guys who is just blessed with all the talent, and he's got the right head on his shoulders. The sky is the limit, for sure."

In some ways, Bryant was biomechanically engineered to be a Major League slugger. His father, who gives private lessons in his backyard batting cage in Las Vegas, has admitted to treating his son like a Big League hitter since he was a preteen. From the age of 5, Bryant was getting daily swing lessons and learning the intricacies of Williams' seminal opus, The Science of Hitting. The main lesson -- and one the slugger has internalized well -- was to hit the ball hard and put it in the air.

Mike Bryant worked tirelessly to fine-tune his son's trademark uppercut swing, designed to loft the ball with sufficient drive and backspin to carry it out of most parks, short of Yellowstone. The problem with that extreme uppercut is that it also creates a lot of swings and misses. Despite spending the first few games of the 2015 season at Triple-A Iowa, Bryant still led the NL in strikeouts with 199. While the young slugger understands strikeouts are an inevitable byproduct of the way he swings the bat, he did notice last season that he was missing on too many pitches in the strike zone.

"He's talked a lot about staying flatter in the zone with his bat path," Hinske said. "He has a tendency to uppercut his swing a little bit, so he wants to keep that barrel in the zone longer. He's worked a lot in the offseason doing that. He does a stop-the-bat drill where he just tries to stop that barrel in the zone using his lower half to get there. He works at his craft. He's a pro."

Both hitting coach John Mallee and Hinske agree that Bryant is almost the perfect pupil. He takes coaching well, and his problems are easy to fix because he's so mechanically correct.

"His aptitude is tremendous," Mallee said. "He studies the opposing pitcher, he takes a lot of pride in his pregame preparation, and he develops his own plan when he gets up in the game. If he sticks to his plan, he's as good as anybody."

That's high praise for a man who came into the 2016 season with just 650 Major League plate appearances. But hitting exploding fastballs and gravity-defying sliders from the best pitchers on the planet takes more than just the right chromosomal mix. As the old adage goes, even the best hitters fail seven out of 10 times, and no rookie gets through his initial tour of duty without hitting the skids for a few games.

Although Bryant famously didn't log his first Major League home run until May 9 of last year, 21 games into his career, he actually still swung the bat well during that brief power outage. His season found its nadir between July 6 and Aug. 6, when he hit .168/.289/.295 with only two home runs and 38 strikeouts in 27 contests, dropping his season average 29 points in the process.

"He got in a little bit of a funk there, and the veterans picked him up and kind of showed him the way to get through it," Mallee said. "When you have that much talent, if we can just not let him think of it as a big situation -- [we want to] just let him go up there and let his instincts take over."

It would have been more than understandable if Bryant had started to press, as a young man trying to prove himself in the Big Leagues. But that's what truly separates him from most of the other premier hitters around the league. He has an almost preternatural calm about him. Teammates rave about his ability to never get too high or too low, which allows him to easily shrug off the occasional 0 for 4.

"The mental game is huge in baseball, and he's very strong-minded up there," said teammate Kyle Schwarber. "It's easy to get down on yourself when you're going bad. Everyone gets to that point of second-guessing themselves at some point. A couple of bad games here and there, and you start thinking about it too much. But he does a really good job of turning that switch back on and getting right back to it."

Bryant also has a unique ability to make adjustments quickly if things get out of whack. When most hitters are battling their swing, it can take weeks in the cage and/or video room to find the microscopic grain of sand in the machine. But Bryant has such a good feel for his mechanics and is such a student of hitting that he can sometimes make at-bat-to-at-bat adjustments. This is a skill even other Major Leaguers marvel at, and it's anomalous in someone so young.

"[Making those adjustments] is hard," Schwarber said. "I mean, you're seeing the best pitching from around the world. These guys are getting paid a lot of money to get you out, and you have to make adjustments on the fly because they start picking up on what your weaknesses are pretty quick."

The Man

When a player appears to be a perfectly tuned hitting machine, it can be easy to forget he's also a human being. While Bryant was racking up accolades last year, he was also adjusting to a completely different life, both on and off the field. Almost every pitcher he faced last season was new to him, meaning he had very little intelligence on how they would attack him and what their pitches would look like in real time. And that doesn't even factor in what it feels like to stand in the batter's box at Dodger Stadium for the first time.

"It's great to get to know the pitchers better," Bryant said. "It's not just me going up there and saying, 'Oh man, it's Max Scherzer. I saw him on TV. He was on my fantasy team a couple of years ago.' You know? He's just another guy in the Big Leagues, and you have to approach it that way. Every pitcher is a nameless, faceless opponent, and that [has been] easier this year.

"That's the biggest thing when you get up there and you start facing guys who are household names. Playing against guys like that, it's really hard to get over that hump and realize that it's just another game of baseball, just at a different level, with cameras everywhere and a whole lot of fans in the stands."

One factor that made last season even more complicated was the constant scrutiny. Every time Bryant came to the plate in 2015, it was like Christmas morning for the media and fans. What will he do this time? Can he clear the new left-field video board?

While the hype certainly remains for this 2016 Cubs squad, Bryant is more of a known commodity this year, and there are plenty of other stars around him to pull focus.

"The whole hype thing and the tuning in to every at-bat, it's something as a player, I don't know if you really want that," Bryant said. "You just want to go out there and play your game. I think this year will be a little bit more of that. Just let me go out there and play and do what I do on the field and kind of keep all that other stuff a little bit more quiet, which will be nice for me and the team."

In some ways, baseball has always come easy to Bryant. But it's nearly impossible to prepare a person for the constant stream of demands and opportunities that accompanies celebrity. And Bryant is undeniably a celebrity.

Although he is surprisingly grounded and calm, he still leaned heavily on his clubhouse mates to ease him through the adjustment period. It helped that he was far from the only rookie sensation on the team, as he came up in the same season as Addison Russell, Schwarber and Jorge Soler. Another plus was that the team was in the hunt all season long. There was little time for clubhouse hazing and rookie initiations (although the rookies did don princess dresses for the occasional flight) with the club fighting for a playoff spot down the stretch.

"It definitely was easier because we had so many young guys, but it wasn't just because of all the young guys," Schwarber said. "The veteran presences around us brought us in. It was, 'You're part of this team, and let's go.'

"It definitely makes it easier when you have a group of guys up here who are so worried about winning, they don't really have time to waste. It's time to go, and when we get up here, they don't treat us any differently. They treat us with respect, and we treat them with respect."

Bryant's true partner in crime on the Cubs is Anthony Rizzo. The two fun-loving former top prospects bonded almost immediately last year, spawning the Bryzzo phenomenon, which has since been immortalized in a commercial for MLB.com.

"We just have fun, we're young," Bryant said. "We just have a good time on the field and goofing around in the locker room. It really isn't just us though. There are so many people here and different personalities who like to goof around. But he's a really good guy. He does a lot for the community. He's someone I look up to in terms of that. He does so much for people and treats everybody with respect. It's good to see that out of a superstar."

Bryant is a firm believer in working hard when it's time to work and getting completely away from the game during his downtime. That philosophy is not altogether different from the way Manager Joe Maddon handles things, and it may be the key to a healthy Major League lifestyle.

While the offseason was busy for Bryant, he did manage a little rest and relaxation. Aside from getting engaged to his longtime girlfriend, Jessica Delp, he said the best thing he did this winter was travel to Hawaii. He spent some time on the islands watching the pro surfing tour and paddle boarding, but he also tapped into his inner adrenaline junkie by taking helicopter rides and, yes, swimming with sharks -- a little escapade that set the Cubs Twitterverse aflutter. When Bryant initially posted a video of his underwater encounter to his Instagram account, it looked as if he was swimming freely with the man-eaters. Rest assured, he was safely ensconced in a protective cage.

"There was a little mystery behind it, but I was definitely in the cage," Bryant said, laughing. "I didn't mind doing it. I wasn't scared at all. I knew we'd be in a cage. I was more worried about the boat ride out there because I get super seasick. I was just like, 'Just get me in the water, let me see these sharks and then let's go back.'"

Putting It All Together

Despite his many successes in the game, Bryant is constantly and furiously driven to get better, which means he also spent plenty of time this offseason working on his swing. Although that trademark uppercut was good enough to deliver a unanimous Rookie of the Year Award, it wasn't good enough for him. When asked to grade his first year in the Bigs, Bryant was a stern evaluator.

"In terms of handling everything that came my way -- the struggles, the tension, the craziness -- I'd give myself an A+," he said. "I was really able to kind of tune that out and just go out there and play my game and help the team win. I was pretty proud of myself for doing that.

"Overall, maybe a B+. I'm pretty hard on myself. There are areas last year where I can think back on not getting the runner in from third base or making a silly error, that kind of thing. I really want to get better at that. I think I'll always give myself a B+ or a B. It's just who I am. I just want to continue to get better and be the best I can be and not be complacent or settle for anything less."

For many, the second year in the Big Leagues can be harder than the first. Even a player as heralded as Bryant essentially arrives in The Show as a mystery, but now pitchers have detailed scouting reports on him. Plus, they have faced Bryant mano a mano, so they know how he reacts to their arsenal.

To offset this, Bryant spends a lot of time in the video room studying opposing pitchers, but he said he doesn't immerse himself in it because watching too much video can be detrimental to him. He just wants to know what each pitcher throws and how their pitches move. After that, he trusts his swing and his ability to make real-time adjustments.

"Once I figure something out that I did wrong and I make that adjustment, I'm so determined to fix it," Bryant said. "I think that's really what sets me apart in terms of my mentality is just that determination and the desire to change what's not going good for me. That's really what's gotten me this far, and I hope I can continue to learn how to be even quicker at making adjustments so that my game can go to different levels."

As far as the Cubs coaching staff is concerned, Bryant is already well ahead of the curve for a player of his age and experience level. Mallee said once the second-year phenom learns to relax from at-bat to at-bat and let the game come to him, the result could be scary for opposing pitchers.

"Kris' ability to hit and recognize pitches and command the strike zone is outstanding," Mallee said. "As a young hitter, he gets in trouble sometimes because he tries to do it all in this at-bat instead of being patient. When he's patient, he walks a bunch.

"He's going to become a better hitter, and he's learning that with the lineup we have, he doesn't have to get that hit. The next guy behind him has a chance to get the hit. He just has to look for a good pitch to hit, [and if] he doesn't get it, [he'll] just take his walk and let the next [guy come] up."

So how does a man who in just three years' time has gone from relative anonymity to the owner of MLB's best-selling jersey in 2015 stay grounded and manage the colossal expectations on his back after his spectacular freshman campaign? Somehow, he handles it all with the same steady hand that smoothed his transition into the upper echelon of baseball and instant celebrity.

"I have no problem with those expectations, because mine are way bigger than theirs -- than anybody's out there," Bryant said. "My expectations are the sky. I've always had that mentality. I think if you don't set your expectations high, if you don't write your goals down and make them lofty or crazy or record-breaking goals, then you shouldn't be playing this game. That's what I do all the time. I write my goals down, what I want to do as an individual and as a team, and I look back on them at the end of the year. There are some I don't get, but there are some where I'm like, 'Wow, I did that. That's pretty good. Let's make it even higher next year.'"

Opposing pitchers beware.

Gary Cohen is the editor-in-chief of the Cubs' official publication, Vine Line magazine, and has covered the team since 2011. You can follow him on Twitter @GaryCohen10. This article appears in Vine Line magazine. Follow Vine Line @cubsvineline, and get this article and more delivered to your doorstep by purchasing a subscription at cubs.com/vineline.

This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

Vine Line: Super utilityman

When Ben Zobrist broke into the Majors, he was searching for a position. Now the World Series champion has mastered almost all of them.
Vine Line

Where would Ben Zobrist be right now if he had been unwilling to move off the shortstop position? Would he still be a backup infielder? Would he have missed out on a long, lucrative career in the Majors? Would only a small pocket of fans have ever heard of the man who has since become one of baseball's most unique players and helped redefine the utility role?

Fortunately, Zobrist is all about the team, and he is certainly not one to turn down a golden opportunity.

Where would Ben Zobrist be right now if he had been unwilling to move off the shortstop position? Would he still be a backup infielder? Would he have missed out on a long, lucrative career in the Majors? Would only a small pocket of fans have ever heard of the man who has since become one of baseball's most unique players and helped redefine the utility role?

Fortunately, Zobrist is all about the team, and he is certainly not one to turn down a golden opportunity.

Coming into Spring Training in 2008, the then-26-year-old shortstop was just trying to stay afloat in the Bigs. In two seasons' worth of Major League call-ups, he'd played only 83 games and put up an unexceptional .200/.234/.275 batting line. Plus, finding a regular spot on the Tampa Bay infield dirt was proving difficult, as the Rays had just acquired future All-Star Jason Bartlett to play Zobrist's primary position.

In an effort to get the athletic infielder into the lineup more often, then-Rays Manager Joe Maddon, in classic Maddon fashion, proposed a unique idea: Would Zobrist be interested in trying to redefine his game by assuming an undefined role? Unlike many Major Leaguers who might have bristled at being asked to move off their natural spot and play multiple positions, Zobrist quickly warmed to the concept. He has since become synonymous with the super-utility job, playing all over the diamond and earning the respect of people throughout baseball with his team-first attitude (as evidenced by his array of roles, both in the clubhouse and on roster cards), professional at-bats and solid defense.

Eight seasons later, with two All-Star appearances and a World Series title under his belt, the Eureka, Ill., native decided to join back up with his former skipper on Chicago's North Side, inking a four-year deal with the Cubs during the offseason.

"In the end, our heart wanted to be in Chicago as a family," Zobrist said during his introductory press conference at the MLB Winter Meetings in Nashville. "I wanted to play for this team, wanted to play for Joe Maddon again, and I want to win a championship as a Chicago Cub. That's my one goal the next four years: We've got to win a championship and bring a World Series trophy back to Chicago."

Opportunity Knocks

The talk of the town was hanging out in a dimly lit, sequestered portion of a ballroom at the Sheraton Grand Hotel in downtown Chicago. Boxed in between the tall, off-white, removable walls stood the Cubs' 40-man roster and many members of the front office, enjoying a simple dinner buffet. The team was awaiting the opening ceremony of the weekend's Cubs Convention, and there was plenty of buzz among the group. Players who hadn't seen each other during the offseason reconnected with a host of high fives and hugs, and it wasn't long before teammates were cloistered in tight circles, recapping their winters.

In the middle of the room next to the lengthy food table was Zobrist, the Cubs' recent four-year, $56 million free-agent prize, deep in conversation with a procession of teammates, who were clearly enjoying the opportunity to chat with a man Maddon has dubbed "one of the top five humans on the face of the Earth."

As one player left, another quickly assumed his place. The scene was reminiscent of a wedding receiving line, with teammates patiently waiting their turn to introduce themselves to the player affectionately nicknamed Zo, Zoby or Zorilla. Although his on-field demeanor is the polar opposite of a glitzy, me-first player, his willingness to move all over the diamond and his positive clubhouse persona have made him a rock star of sorts among the tight-knit community of Major League players and coaches.

"He's definitely a team player," said Cubs bench coach Dave Martinez, who spent seven seasons with Zobrist in Tampa Bay. "I've never met one guy that said anything negative about him. He comes every day to play. I can't speak highly enough about him. He's one of my favorites all-time."

Video: ARI@CHC: Zobrist discusses the team's momentum

But Zobrist wasn't always a rock star. Entering 2008 with the Rays, he was still searching for his Big League identity following a few largely unsuccessful Major League stints in 2006-07. That spring, Maddon and Martinez discussed the idea of increasing their reserve shortstop's potential value by trying him in the outfield, even though he had no professional experience off the dirt.

"He was only playing shortstop, but with what we were trying to do ... I told Joe, 'This guy's an athlete. He can do a lot of things,'" Martinez said. "'Why don't we try him out in the outfield?' That's how the whole thing started."

Plenty of Major Leaguers have a sense of positional entitlement by the time they reach the game's highest level. After going through Little League, high school, college and the Minors as usually the best player on the field, there can be a sense that they've earned their particular spot. There's also the valid fear that the strain of learning a new position could have a negative impact on their overall game.

Although it might not have sat well with management, Zobrist could have declined the offer and stuck it out at shortstop or searched for an opportunity elsewhere. But that wasn't the case for the eager young player, who fully embraced the new role as if it were a set position.

"That was my best shot at getting an opportunity to play in 2008 when I came to the team," Zobrist said. "I just thought, 'Man, I want to do whatever I can do to get an opportunity out there.'"

Even though he had no real experience manning the outfield, his lack of reps didn't show up on tape. While he admits he may have misplayed a ball or two during warm-ups in the early going, there was no real deer-in-headlights moment.

"We put him out there, and it was almost like he was a natural," Martinez said. "For a while, he had one of the quickest releases and one of the most accurate arms out there."

Zobrist missed the early portion of the 2008 season following thumb surgery, but he returned to the fold in mid-May and started popping up all over the diamond. He made his season debut at shortstop on May 15. On May 20, he started at second base. The next day, he came in as a defensive replacement in center field. A week later, he was penciled in as the Rays' starting right fielder. During a stretch in August, he was the team's regular left fielder. In a 13-inning affair on Sept. 6, he started at short, moved to left field in the eighth and played third base from the ninth inning on. In 565.2 defensive innings that season, 272.1 came at a position other than his natural shortstop.

Ben Zobrist, super-utilityman extraordinaire, was born.

"It was fun to watch his first couple years because he made huge strides really, really fast -- kind of shocking strides," said Cubs right-hander Jason Hammel, then a teammate with the Rays. "Obviously power, he always hit pretty well for average, but you never knew what position he was going to play. ... His athletic ability is really second to none. It's really cool to see a guy like that who was given a chance and turned it into something very, very impressive."

Ego Check

Zobrist still played only 62 games that season, but he was a key cog in the club's shocking division title run in the treacherous AL East and helped the Rays reach their first World Series in franchise history. With more playing time, he also demonstrated what he was capable of doing offensively, hitting .253/.339/.505 with 12 home runs and 10 doubles in 198 at-bats.

"As I played whatever position it was, they could see that my hitting was maturing," Zobrist said. "So for me, I was getting comfortable as a hitter, and it made me more comfortable out in the field no matter what position I was playing. I was just glad to be in the lineup. It didn't matter to me where I was as long as I could get a chance to hit and find a way to help the club both offensively and defensively."

From 2008-15, Zobrist compiled a .270/.362/.442 line with a 123 OPS+ (100 being an average MLB player). His stellar hitting, solid defense and versatility earned him his first All-Star appearance in 2009, and he made the cut again in 2013. Given last year's Cubs lineup led the Majors in strikeouts -- with 126 more than the next-closest team -- perhaps the most important stat in the contact hitter's line is his 12 percent career walk rate, placing him in the top 20 among hitters with 4,000 plate appearances since 2006. In 535 plate appearances last season, Zobrist struck out only 56 times and drew 62 walks.

As strong as he has become offensively, defense is and always will be his calling card. It's also where he earned his reputation as the kind of player teams want in the clubhouse.

"It's not about him. He checks his ego at the door every day," said former teammate and current Cubs assistant hitting coach Eric Hinske. "He says, 'Where do you want me to play? Where do you want me to hit in the lineup? I'm going to help this team win.' Don't you want this guy on your team? I do."

That team-first mentality is another reason Zobrist, despite being in his mid-30s, was one of the most sought-after free agents on the market this past offseason. After a nine-year run with the Rays from 2006-14, he was shipped to Oakland in January 2015 and then moved to Kansas City at the trade deadline. A few months later, he was a key veteran presence on a Royals squad that captured its first World Series championship since 1985. A half-dozen clubs showed interest in Zobrist before he finally decided on the Cubs.

And this wasn't the first time the Chicago front office had attempted to acquire Zobrist's services, largely due to his clubhouse credibility. Of course, it doesn't hurt to have the endorsement of one of the most trusted men in baseball.

"Zo is only about one thing -- he's the consummate team-player professional," Maddon said. "The kind of impact he can have on our young position players, to me, is going to be phenomenal. He does take care of himself great. Just the example to be set is going to be perfect for our young players."

That strong work ethic hasn't gone unnoticed by his peers.

"The Ben you see today is the Ben you're going to see tomorrow, and at the Big League level, that's the kind of guy you need to see," Hammel said. "It's a guy who's consistent. He has established his routine, and he sticks to it. Ben's been no different in light of what a superstar would be because he's established what he's done and he continues to do it."

Many around the game have lauded Zobrist's pregame preparation, especially considering he has to be ready to play all over the diamond.

"His routine on a daily basis is impeccable," Martinez said. "The days he's going to play the outfield, he goes out in the outfield and takes his 15 minutes of fly balls, hits some balls, does some stretching, he does his batting practice routine. It's every day. Once in a while, I have to tell him, 'Hey, you need a breather.'"

But Zobrist sees all that work as part and parcel of being a Major Leaguer. He does it for one reason and one reason alone -- he wants to win.

"The mindset of being a super-utility guy is, 'Do what's best for the team,'" Zobrist said. "Put your own comfort aside for maybe the comfort of some other guys on the team so that we can all be better as a unit. Obviously, that transfers. If you have that mindset, that's going to transfer to the clubhouse as well. If you want to be that kind of guy, you've got to take that attitude both on the field and off the field. … If we all have that mindset, I think we're going to be better for it in the end."

It's that kind of thinking that quickly won over his longtime manager. Maddon served as a guest on a live variety show hosted by former Cubs pitcher Ryan Dempster at the Cubs Convention. The skipper spent a few minutes on stage recapping the 2015 season and discussing the charity work he had done the previous week. But the already-lively Maddon perked up a bit when the topic of Zobrist came up.

Maddon recounted a story from years ago when he and then-Rays General Manager Andrew Friedman had to break the news to Zobrist that he was being sent back down to Triple-A Durham. Maddon explained that generally in that situation, he allows players to speak their mind a little bit, which more often than not results in guys explaining that they already know what they need to work on -- "lip service," as Maddon called it. But the conversation with his star pupil was different, and it was something the baseball lifer had never heard before.

"All he wanted to tell me and Andrew was that he wished us well, and all he wants to do is see us win and be a part of that particular group of players," Maddon explained. "He's one of the most unselfish players I've ever met in my life."

It's no secret Maddon has always taken a shine to athletes who are willing to adjust for the good of the team. During his Cubs tenure, he has frequently complimented players who have tried multiple roles -- whether it was Kris Bryant shifting to the outfield, Travis Wood getting bumped to the bullpen or the recently traded Starlin Castro going from franchise shortstop to bench player to key second baseman for a playoff run.

Zobrist's attitude and style of play fit right in with Maddon's ethos, so it's no wonder the two have such a strong relationship. And it didn't take Zobrist long to recognize how special Maddon is either. Early in his Tampa Bay tenure, Zobrist received a big vote of confidence from the man in charge despite his middling results.

"He brought me aside, and he could see that I was pressing a little bit," Zobrist said. "He said, 'Hey, I just want you to know you're going to be here for a long, long time. You're going to play in this league for over 10 years.' I was just trying to find my way in there. I couldn't figure it out.

"It's a tough league. And he had that kind of belief in me at the time. ... For young guys that are coming up, I think he's incredible at building confidence in you and putting you in a position to succeed."

Pay It Forward

Zobrist has spent much of the first half as the Cubs' regular second baseman, but that doesn't necessarily mean he'll finish every game at the keystone. He is more than aware of Maddon's penchant for moving players around, and he's made it clear he is willing to continue his familiar super-utility role in Chicago.

Video: CHC@ATL: Zobrist makes a nice play, thanks his bench

One byproduct of the Zobrist signing is that former top prospect Javier Baez is now without a set defensive role. After getting some experience at second base in 2014 and then expanding his horizons to third base last season, the natural shortstop also saw time at first base and in left field through June. In other words, Baez was working on his best Zobrist impression. And he had the ideal mentor to work with.

"As a teammate, if there's anybody that you feel like could learn from something you've already gone through -- mistakes you've made that you can keep them from making when they're doing the same type of positions and moving around, that type of thing -- sure, I'm going to approach them and let them know some things that helped me out," Zobrist said.

The ultimate goal of every Major Leaguer is to win a World Series. Plenty of ballplayers think they know what it takes -- or at least are willing to talk the talk. But there are few like Zobrist, who, even before getting fitted for his own World Series ring, displayed a selfless attitude and a willingness to do whatever it took to help his team win, even if it wasn't in his own best interests. It's that demeanor that has made him one of the most revered players in the game and a perfect addition to the Cubs' clubhouse.

"The person he is is what people truly fall in love with, regardless of whether he's good or not," Martinez said. "I think Ben Zobrist the person truly inspires everybody, and that's what makes him the leader he is."

And it all started with a simple decision to do what was in the best interest of the team.

Phil Barnes is the associate editor of the Cubs' official publication, Vine Line magazine, and has covered the team since 2012. He contributes to the Cubs Vine Line Blog. This article appears in Vine Line magazine. Follow Vine Line @cubsvineline, and get this article and more delivered to your doorstep by purchasing a subscription at cubs.com/vineline.

This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

Vine Line: Hey, hey!

For the second year in a row, the Cubs landed one of the most coveted players on the offseason free-agent market: do-everything outfielder Jason Heyward
Vine Line

Over the years, Jason Heyward has made quite an impression on Cubs management. He has also left his mark on Wrigley Field -- perhaps never more definitively than during last year's National League Division Series.

In six Major League seasons with the Braves and Cardinals, the do-everything outfielder has hit .293 versus Cubs pitching and .311 at Wrigley Field, more than 40 points above his career .268 batting average to that point. During the 2015 NLDS, Heyward posted a .357/.438/.643 slash line, all while playing stellar defense in right field and running the bases with his usual athletic, aggressive verve.

Over the years, Jason Heyward has made quite an impression on Cubs management. He has also left his mark on Wrigley Field -- perhaps never more definitively than during last year's National League Division Series.

In six Major League seasons with the Braves and Cardinals, the do-everything outfielder has hit .293 versus Cubs pitching and .311 at Wrigley Field, more than 40 points above his career .268 batting average to that point. During the 2015 NLDS, Heyward posted a .357/.438/.643 slash line, all while playing stellar defense in right field and running the bases with his usual athletic, aggressive verve.

If something about playing on the North Side of Chicago brings out the best in the 26-year-old All-Star, that would be excellent news for the Cubs. After years of beating up on the boys in blue, Heyward has finally joined them, inking an eight-year contract to patrol the Friendly Confines' outfield grass.

"It's definitely been fun for me to hit here and play in this ballpark," Heyward said. "I've always loved it. Whether it was a good team on the field I was playing against or a bad team, you knew every day you were going to get the atmosphere from the fans, the historic feel that [Wrigley] has and the elements that it brought to the game being an iconic ballpark."

Heyward spent the first five years of his career with his hometown Atlanta Braves, but the Cubs front office got a close-up look at the damage he could do in all phases of the game in 2015, when he played for the NL Central rival Cardinals. The Cubs brain trust had been watching Heyward closely for years, knowing he would become a free agent at a uniquely young age, but there was one particular at-bat that caught Cubs President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein's eye.

In Game 3 of the NLDS at Wrigley Field, Heyward stepped into the box against Cubs ace Jake Arrieta -- a man who had put up the best second half by a starter in Major League history and was just coming off an 11-strikeout, zero-walk, complete-game shutout performance in the NL Wild Card Game. After back-to-back 95 mph sinkers, Arrieta went to the breaking ball, spinning an 80 mph curve off the plate, low and outside. Heyward, a left-handed hitter, extended his arms, reached out and drove the pitch on a line into the left-field bleachers.

Video: STL@CHC Gm3: Heyward hits a two-run homer in the 6th

"It showed a real sophisticated approach and an ability to make adjustments like that against one of the best pitchers in the game," said Epstein at Heyward's introductory press conference. "A lot of our players and staff were buzzing about that swing in the clubhouse after the game. You couldn't help but envision some of the damage he might be able to do playing at Wrigley Field on a consistent basis with that kind of ability to drive the ball to the opposite field."

Central Swap

In many ways, Heyward is the perfect free-agent signee. He's also an anomaly. By the time most Major Leaguers hit the open market, they're on the wrong side of 30, and ballplayers typically experience their statistical prime between the ages of 27-29. In other words, to enlist the services of a top-flight free agent, most teams are paying for past production and hoping for a few solid back-of-the-baseball-card-type years before the inevitable downswing. Front offices know they're going to regret at least the latter years of most long-term free-agent contracts. But Heyward came up with the Braves at 20 years old so, at 26, he is just entering his prime, despite the fact that he's already a six-year veteran.

"When you're building an organization, you have to build up a core of young players that needs to be complemented with free agents who are usually older veteran influences," Epstein said. "You run that risk with the older players you bring in. In Jason's case -- [he's] a day younger than Anthony Rizzo -- he just really fits perfectly in this young core that we're developing."

And that young core is exactly why Heyward will be sporting the bull's-eye "C" on his chest this year instead of a redbird. Although many teams made a run at acquiring Heyward's services, most in the know understood it came down to two teams: the Cardinals and Cubs. Ultimately, when Heyward looked at the long-term prospects, he liked what he saw on the North Side.

"Knowing my contract would probably put me in any clubhouse for longer than most people there, you've got to look at the age, how fast the team is changing and how soon those changes may come about," Heyward said. "I felt like if I were to look up in three years and see a completely different team, that would kind of be difficult for me.

"Chicago really offers an opportunity to come in and be introduced to the culture by a young group of guys. [I can] 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."

With a 97-win season and some playoff success already under their belt, the Cubs could have easily sat back on their heels and been content to make another run behind essentially the same team. But Epstein said the organization -- from the ownership group to baseball operations to the business side -- made a concerted effort to take the team from good to great this offseason. After his young, talented squad bowed out to the Mets in the NLCS, Epstein mentioned three areas that needed improvement: pitching depth, outfield defense, and situational and contact hitting. Heyward's skillset fills two of those needs perfectly.

So how did the Cubs land the premier position player on the free-agent market, just one year after signing the top free-agent pitcher? In 2014, Epstein and company had to put on a full-court press to woo Jon Lester to Chicago, as most people thought the Cubs were still a year or two away from fielding a consistent winner. This time, the franchise more or less sold itself.

"I'm a big team guy," Heyward said. "I love being there for my teammates with whatever it is, on or off the field. You understand it's a grind. You show up every day to the field. We spend that much time together, so you want to know that you're in an environment that's going to be conducive to winning, and everybody being positive and treating each other like a family."

There's certainly a lot going for the Cubs in 2016. The organization has a cost-controlled, projectable young core; Manager of the Year Joe Maddon is at the helm; Wrigley Field is one of the greatest environments in the game and is undergoing a massive restoration, with a new home clubhouse and vastly improved player facilities coming online this year; and the reigning Rookie of the Year and Cy Young winner are both in the fold.

But perhaps the best recruiting tool the franchise had at its disposal was its recent playoff run. After facing each other 19 times during the regular season, the Cubs and Cardinals matched up again in the NLDS. The atmosphere at Wrigley Field, coupled with the show the Cubs' young players put on, made the entire baseball world stand up and take notice.

"Players definitely saw how much fun our guys were having this [past] year," Epstein said. "That's a credit to our fans creating a wonderful atmosphere, to Joe Maddon and his coaching staff setting the right tone for the players and letting them be themselves, and to our guys. It doesn't feel like selling when you just talk about the players that we have and how much they support each other, how much fun they have playing the game. It's obvious from across the field, the joy. We've had all four [offseason] acquisitions really take less [money to come here]."

Cubs Chairman Tom Ricketts agreed that, while the facilities upgrades didn't hurt the Cubs' recruiting pitch, it was ultimately all about the product on the field.

"I'd like to think that stuff helps some, but what players are looking for is to be on a winner," Ricketts said. "It's a long season, and free agents who have a choice of different locations want to be somewhere where the season goes by faster because they're on an excellent team."

Great Expectations

Heyward's biggest strength might be that he has few true weaknesses. When he came up with the Braves, he was considered the consummate five-tool player. Although a few of those tools have yet to develop the way insiders first expected -- of course, given the hype that surrounded Heyward's first Spring Training with Atlanta in 2010, that probably would have been impossible -- he's still proficient or better at every aspect of the game.

"Jason is an impact player because of how talented he is in all different phases of the game," Epstein said. "[He's an] impact defender. He gets great reads on the ball; he's probably the best right fielder in the game and someone we really feel can play solid-to-excellent center field, as well; he can throw; he's one of the best base runners in the league; somebody who plays our kind of baseball in the box, grinding out at-bats, getting on base at an outstanding clip with power potential; and somebody who has a knack for getting big hits.

"He just does all the little things that go into winning baseball games. He impacts the game in lots of obvious ways and lots of subtle ways as well. You put on top of that his age -- that he's just entering his prime -- he has a chance to be an even better player than he's already been."

There have always been a few knocks on Heyward -- primarily his mid-range power and his "complicated" swing path. But a lot of those knocks are based on (perhaps unrealistic) early projections.

After the Braves selected Heyward in the first round (14th overall) of the 2007 Draft out of Henry County High School in McDonough, Ga., he was expected to be a generational talent. He burst onto the scene during Spring Training in 2010, when he forced the Braves to erect protective tents behind the right-field wall because his majestic batting practice home runs went into a heretofore-thought-unreachable parking lot and damaged more than one front-office member's car. After breaking windshields, the J-Hey Kid broke camp with the Braves at just 20 years old and was immediately anointed the face of the franchise, earning early comparisons to legendary Hall of Famer Hank Aaron.

By the time Heyward stepped into the box for his first Major League at-bat on April 5, 2010, against Carlos Zambrano and the Cubs, the mammoth three-run shot he sent soaring into the Braves bullpen at Turner Field felt more like a coronation. The legends were true. Baseball's next transcendent player had arrived.

But since then, he's become one of the more polarizing athletes in the game among baseball wonks. No one questions Heyward's defense or baserunning, and he's earned an All-Star selection, three Gold Gloves and MVP consideration in three separate years. But some insiders are still not enamored with his swing. Despite Heyward's knack for grinding out good at-bats and his career .353 on-base percentage, some observers bemoan his inconsistency and complain that his Aaron-level power has never manifested at the Big League level. But most agree that, at just 26, Heyward is still evolving as a player.

"I feel like I'm not done," Heyward said. "I feel like there's more in there for me. I said that at the beginning of Spring Training in 2015. I feel like I took some strides in going forward and getting back to things I used to do when I was 19, 20 years old. I want to see what I can do to make the most of that and continue to build off this past year."

Does Heyward have the potential to hit 30-plus home runs for the Cubs? Absolutely. His résumé already includes a 27-homer season with the Braves in 2012. Epstein compared him to former Red Sox right fielder Dwight Evans, who started his career as a contact hitter but didn't become a consistent power threat until his late 20s, eventually hitting 385 career bombs.

The bigger question might be: Does it really matter if Heyward ever becomes a 30-homer guy? Perhaps more than any other team, the Cubs probably would be quite happy with his career average of 19 homers per 162 games. The club already has five returning players who hit 15 or more longballs last season, and three of them are 26 or younger, so improvement is likely.

"The beautiful thing about this is he doesn't have to hit for more power than he already has to really help us win a lot of games because of what he brings to the table defensively and with his on-base skills," Epstein said. "Now, add consistent power production into the mix, and you're talking about one of the true, true elites in the game."

By the Numbers

While baseball writers spent much of the early offseason debating whether Heyward is a true cornerstone player, the game seemingly already anointed him one. In a deep market for free-agent outfielders, Heyward was the first major player off the board and was pursued by multiple playoff contenders before landing on the North Side. His versatility and charisma certainly caught the eye of the Cubs' decision makers.

"After every game we played the Cardinals, I'd go down and talk to Joe [Maddon]," said Cubs Executive Vice President and General Manager Jed Hoyer. "Joe was always buzzing about Jason, about how much he impacted the game. Every time he looked at something on the field, Jason was a part of it. That's the kind of player we wanted to bring onto our team, our young core. He does everything well on the field. I think Joe, in particular, really appreciated all the things he did. He was a tough out, but he was also a great base runner, a great defender, just always in the action."

Video: CIN@CHC: Heyward receives award for his defense

Heyward is a new kind of superstar -- call him a superstar for the modern, SABR-based era. Sports Illustrated ran a series of online articles over the winter that attempted to determine what free agents were really worth, based largely on projected Wins Above Replacement (WAR). Most major free agents -- such as David Price and Zack Greinke -- were deemed less valuable than the contract they actually signed, but Heyward was priced at a mammoth 10 years, $361 million.

Much of that value stems from his age -- the Cubs should get Heyward's best years and very little, if any, decline -- and his defensive prowess. Generally, a WAR of 0.0 denotes a replacement-level player, while a WAR greater than 5.0 is All-Star caliber. In Heyward's first six seasons, Baseball-Reference tallies his WAR at 5.0 or higher four times, and he's never been lower than 2.5, still well above average. Only one active player has a higher career WAR than Heyward's 31.1 in six seasons or fewer, and that's otherworldly Los Angeles Angels outfielder and perennial MVP candidate Mike Trout.

And it's not as if Heyward struggles with the stick. His batting average, on-base percentage, RBI, stolen bases and total bases have all improved year over year for three years running. The .293 batting average he put up last year in St. Louis was a career high, as were his 33 doubles and 23 stolen bases.

On the defensive side of the ball, Heyward is elite by almost any measure. Since he came into the league in 2010, he leads the NL in Ultimate Zone Rating and Defensive Runs Saved. Even better for the Cubs is that he's looked equally proficient in both his native right field and in center field. He's played only 32 of his career 816 games in center, but the Cubs are very confident he can fill that role for them if necessary.

"[His defensive flexibility] really helped and enabled us to pursue him without executing other moves," Epstein said. "We made one trade and free-agent signing earlier this offseason that were sort of dependent on one another. If Jason were strictly a right fielder, we would have had a more complicated set of maneuvers to try to possibly bring him into the fold. With our vacancy in center field and his ability and willingness to play out there, it became a great match and allows for some different combinations through the years as we move forward."

Given Heyward's athleticism and chiseled 6-foot-5, 240-pound frame, it would be easy to assume his defensive prowess comes naturally, but he has always taken great pride in his glovework.

"I never take a pitch off," he said. "On offense, the at-bats only come around so many times a game. On defense, there are 27 outs you need to make in nine innings to win a ballgame, and I'm not asleep for any of those. I try to do what I can to help my team, whether it's cutting the ball off, throwing somebody out or making a nice diving play. You can score 10 runs, but if you can't stop somebody from scoring 11, you're not going to win."

Prime Time

So why don't some consider Heyward a true superstar? Perhaps it's because people want to be able to peg a superstar: Player X is a cleanup hitter you can count on for 30 home runs and 100 RBI, and he'll play first base every day. While Heyward's versatility makes him hard to categorize, it's one of his greatest assets. Not only can he play center field or right field at an elite level, but he can also bat just about anywhere in the lineup. Over his career, he's had at least 31 plate appearances from every spot in the order.

Given the way Maddon likes to manipulate his lineups and defensive sets from game to game, you can imagine how excited he is to have a player with Heyward's flexibility and team-first attitude.

"Joe called Jason a beautiful man from time to time this year," Epstein said, laughing. "When he drops that on somebody, he thinks he's a really good player."

For his part, Heyward said he doesn't care where he bats, so long as the team is winning. That selflessness -- which can be unusual in a top-flight player -- combined with his ability to impact all aspects of the game, will be a tremendous asset to a young Cubs team.

"He's always a tough out, always a professional at-bat; you can't run on his arm; he's always a risk to steal," Ricketts said. "You look at all those things and think, 'That's the kind of guy we need on our team. That's the kind of well-rounded player we want all of our guys to be.' It's exciting to be able to put him into the lineup, particularly because we still have young guys, and it can improve their game. They can model a little more of what they do on what Jason does."

Given his relative youth, Heyward still has a long way to go as a player, and the Cubs are excited to see what his prime will bring. No one would be surprised to see him hit 30 homers. No one would be surprised to see him drive in 100 runs. No one would be surprised to see him hit .300. No one would be surprised to see him win a trophy case full of additional Gold Gloves. And no one would be surprised to see him make a positive impact on his new Cubs teammates.

"When you talk to players who have been in the same clubhouse as Jason Heyward, to a man, they say Jason's one of those rare guys who makes his teammates better," Epstein said. "That's a rare compliment to throw around, especially for someone who's been in his early, and now mid, 20s in this game."

Ultimately, if Heyward has the same season he had last year, when he was good for a 6.5 WAR and placed 15th in MVP voting, the Cubs will be a much better team in 2016. In other words, they just need Jason Heyward to be Jason Heyward. The rest will take care of itself.

Gary Cohen is the editor-in-chief of the Cubs' official publication, Vine Line magazine, and has covered the team since 2011. You can follow him on Twitter @GaryCohen10. This article appears in Vine Line magazine. Follow Vine Line @cubsvineline, and get this article and more delivered to your doorstep by purchasing a subscription at cubs.com/vineline.

This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

Vine Line: In the swing of things

The 2016 Cubs are one of MLB's deepest teams, and nowhere is that more evident than in the bullpen
Vine Line

Since the expansion of bullpen specialization in the 1950s and '60s, most Major League relief corps have been constructed in a similar fashion. Teams tend to carry six or seven relievers, including a closer, an eighth-inning specialist, a seventh-inning specialist, a few set-up men and at least one long man. Often, that long man is a former starter no longer making the grade -- the kind of arm teams feel most comfortable running out to the mound with a five-run lead or a five-run deficit.

But as Cubs fans discovered throughout last season and the first half of 2016, the way Manager Joe Maddon's teams are put together is far from conventional.

Since the expansion of bullpen specialization in the 1950s and '60s, most Major League relief corps have been constructed in a similar fashion. Teams tend to carry six or seven relievers, including a closer, an eighth-inning specialist, a seventh-inning specialist, a few set-up men and at least one long man. Often, that long man is a former starter no longer making the grade -- the kind of arm teams feel most comfortable running out to the mound with a five-run lead or a five-run deficit.

But as Cubs fans discovered throughout last season and the first half of 2016, the way Manager Joe Maddon's teams are put together is far from conventional.

As the 2016 campaign has progressed, the Cubs have proven that they are one of the deepest and most formidable teams in baseball, with a unique mix of young stars at key positions and battle-tested veterans leading the way. But the thing that has made this group truly dangerous is its versatility up and down the roster -- and that includes exceptional bullpen depth.

The Cubs do have an established closer in Hector Rondon and several talented set-up men with electric stuff, including Pedro Strop and Justin Grimm. But behind them, the club has a quartet of talented arms -- Trevor Cahill, Clayton Richard, Adam Warren and Travis Wood -- who can all start, relieve or do just about anything in between. All four pitchers came into professional baseball as starters, and they all have experienced success in that role. But each ended last season in the bullpen, and their versatility gives the Cubs a big weapon as the season wears on.

"It's an unusual group in the most positive way possible in the bullpen, with the variety of multiple-inning guys that are also capable of closing games if you wanted them to and could also start games if you wanted them to," Maddon said. "I think any manager would love to have those four guys to choose from, whether it be to fill the latter part of the rotation or to have at your disposal on a nightly basis. It's all good stuff."

Video: LAD@CHC: Cubs' bullpen retires 21 straight in 2-0 win

Going Deep

Interest in versatility has been trending upward in baseball for years on the positional side. New Cubs acquisition Ben Zobrist became a legitimate Major League star by playing multiple positions and helped usher in the age of the super-utilityman. But until recently, there has still been a stigma associated with being a bullpen swingman. The typical narrative was that these pitchers couldn't cut it as starters and didn't have the stuff to be back-end relievers.

In recent years, Big League front offices have begun to see the value of versatility in the 'pen as well. Cubs President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein and Executive Vice President and General Manager Jed Hoyer have repeatedly spoken of needing eight or nine viable starters to feel comfortable heading into a season. Injuries and underperformance are almost inevitable, and teams need to protect themselves for those eventualities.

Now, in addition to an imposing starting five that includes 2015 Cy Young winner Jake Arrieta, World Series champions Jon Lester and John Lackey, Jason Hammel and Kyle Hendricks, the Cubs have four pitchers who can easily slot into a starting role if necessary.

"If you look at this position just a couple of years ago, it had a totally different feel," Richard said. "What people are starting to understand is that there's value in the versatility. You see we signed Ben Zobrist, and people place so much value because he's capable of doing so many things. That holds weight as a pitcher too -- if you're needed for a start, for multiple innings out of the bullpen or for a situational lefty with me or Woody. There's value in that, and it's neat to be a part of it."

Plus, if the starter is shaky in a particular outing -- and even Arrieta had an off day or two last season -- the Cubs have several pitchers who can step in and provide long relief, without overtaxing the bullpen for the next day's game.

The best example of this might have been the 2015 postseason. Going into the playoffs, both Hammel and Hendricks were struggling. The two pitchers made four combined starts between the NLDS and NLCS and didn't last through five frames in any of them. Cahill, Richard and Wood all stepped up to log valuable innings and keep the Cubs' hopes alive -- and they were almost never used in the same situation twice.

"A team might be stacked and have the best rotation, and there's always something that comes up, whether it's a little nagging injury or a big injury," Cahill said. "Depth helps out a lot. I think they figured out that starters can pitch out of the 'pen effectively. Me, Woody, Clayton, we're all throwing harder out of the 'pen. It's nice to have that versatility. I think we got more comfortable throwing in those later roles instead of just being a long guy when we first went to the bullpen. But if one of us is going well, you can just keep running us out there -- one inning, two innings, three innings."

Another major benefit of having so much versatility is that it offers Maddon more flexibility in how he can use his pitchers, which should reduce wear and tear on the starting rotation. The veteran skipper has always been cautious about overusing his arms, but with depth an issue last year and the team in position to make a deep postseason run, Maddon leaned more heavily on some of his guys than he might have liked.

Going forward, the Cubs should be able to dip into the 'pen earlier if needed to preserve their starters and reduce the workload on some of their key high-leverage relievers. As Maddon will be the first to tell you, he's quite comfortable with any of his swing quartet closing a game or two in certain situations. Richard was the first to do so, against Milwaukee in mid-May.

Video: CHC@MIL: Richard closes out game, earns first save

"We have a lot of talent, and that gives Joe a lot of flexibility with how he wants to use the bullpen," Warren said. "He can say, 'All right, I want to let this guy eat up three innings tonight,' and we still have a long man the next night. You don't have to make a move. It allows for that flexibility. You can throw just a matchup guy and then still have a long guy."

Making Adjustments

Pitching from the rotation and in relief are very different jobs that require different preparation. Just because someone has been a solid Major League starter doesn't mean he'll make an effective reliever, and a reliever who excels in one-inning bursts won't necessarily remain effective in a second turn through an opposing lineup. To be able to do both well is an acquired, and impressive, skill.

"There are four days as a starter that you know you're not going to pitch," Warren said. "So you're like, 'OK, I got this. I've got running and lifting today. The next day I've got a bullpen.' You have a set routine, whereas coming in from the bullpen, it's 'OK, I might have to pitch today, so I have to get up and have the same routine.' You have to prepare yourself to pitch every day."

You also can't discount Major League egos. Most pitchers would rather start or throw in high-leverage, late-inning situations. That's where the glamour -- and, let's be honest, the money -- is. All four of the Cubs' swingmen have spent most of their careers in starting roles.

In 2010, Cahill went 18-8 with a 2.97 ERA in 30 starts with the Athletics, earning a spot on the AL All-Star team. He's logged six seasons as primarily a starter. Richard has two 14-win seasons under his belt in six years as a starter with the White Sox and Padres. Wood logged five seasons in the rotation with the Reds and Cubs and made the 2013 NL All-Star team before being moved to the 'pen in 2015.

Warren's background is a bit different. He was a starter at the University of North Carolina and in the Yankees' Minor League system, but pitched mainly in relief after getting his first real Big League shot in 2013. Injuries in New York forced Warren back into the rotation for parts of the 2015 campaign, and he made 17 starts, going 6-6 with a 3.66 ERA.

When pressed, all of the Cubs' swingmen say they prefer starting. But what makes them -- and many of their teammates -- special is that their first priority is winning, and they're willing to do whatever is asked of them in pursuit of the ultimate goal. Each took the move to the bullpen well, worked hard to master the new routine and came out firing.

"[Being willing to move around] goes with the background, the makeup of the individual," said Cubs pitching coach Chris Bosio. "That has a lot to do with the people we're looking to pick up."

Each pitcher also admitted to struggling a bit at first without a defined role, but that all comes down to personal preference. Cahill said transitioning from a reliever to a starter is more difficult, while Warren said the exact opposite. Ultimately, it's about mastering the different mentality needed for each job and making your pitches.

"Initially [going back and forth] can be difficult," Richard said. "But you can't think about it too much because when you do that, you put undue pressure on yourself. At the end of the day, it's still executing pitches. If you're going to be successful either as a starter or as a guy out of the bullpen, you have to execute pitches."

Or, as Wood said: "It's still 60 feet, 6 inches."

Mixing It Up

One thing that does -- or can -- change coming out of the bullpen is pitch mix. While most starters use three or four pitches to keep hitters off balance, top relievers really need only two plus pitches. One of the best closers in Major League history, Mariano Rivera, threw his cutter almost 90 percent of the time by the end of his career. Some relievers work with a larger repertoire, but most are fastball-slider guys.

This is one of the characteristics that differentiates the Cubs' talented foursome.

"I think the advantage for us as a staff is that most of the guys who have been starters are three- or four-pitch guys," Bosio said. "We're bringing another pitch in there that normally a lot of hitters wouldn't see -- a third pitch or possibly even a fourth."

Richard continued to use all of his pitches out of the 'pen, but in a much different ratio. Last season, throwing in relief for the first time, he used his fastball at an 81.3 percent rate, according to Fangraphs. That's nearly a 20 percent increase over the previous season when he was a starter. He also gained a little velocity on his heater, as most pitchers do going from throwing multiple innings to a single frame.

"You're a little more fresh," Richard said. "The workload isn't as heavy as a reliever, so naturally your intensity is able to kick up because you're not throwing the sheer quantity of pitches. I think that's where the velocity comes from is just having a rested arm.

"I've always leaned on my fastball pretty heavily. It may have been a little bit more this past year making that transition into the bullpen, making sure they're seeing my best pitch, feeling out: 'Well, I don't want to get beat with my third- or fourth-best pitch when I'm only facing one hitter.'"

Warren throws a fastball, slider, curveball and change-up, and he'll use them all in about the same ratio whether he's starting or relieving. For him, it's more a matter of strategy. As a starter, he might hold a pitch back the first turn or two through the order, so he has something new to go to later in the game. As a reliever, he's using all four pitches immediately because he likely won't see batters a second time.

"I've always had a good feel for all my pitches," Warren said. "I feel like that builds my strength because most hitters are used to seeing a reliever with two or maybe three pitches, but never really four. Most relievers usually have a really good fastball, slider or breaking ball. I don't have a put-away pitch, but I can use all my pitches to keep hitters off balance. I feel like it gives me an advantage if I can throw them all.

"Now, there might be one day where maybe I'm casting my curveball or something, so for one inning, I might get rid of my curveball and stick with fastball, slider, change-up. That happens, but the hitters don't know that."

Video: WSH@CHC: Warren gets Zimmerman to end threat in 10th

The other thing pitchers moving from the rotation to the bullpen need to prepare for is the hike in adrenaline. Starters get a chance to ease into games and aren't necessarily pitching in high-leverage situations all the time. Coming out of the bullpen, anything can happen. You might be called on to start a clean inning, but you also have to be ready to come in with the bases loaded and the game on the line.

In Game 3 of last season's NLDS versus the Cardinals, the Cubs took a 5-2 lead into the sixth inning with the series knotted at 1-1. Arrieta quickly gave up two runs on a Jason Heyward homer and then struck out two Cardinals hitters before plunking Brandon Moss. Maddon called to the bullpen for Richard, who quickly induced a Kolton Wong groundout on a 93 mph fastball to end the threat and maintain the Cubs' lead.

Richard was followed by Cahill and Wood, who combined for a scoreless seventh inning before turning the game over to Strop and Rondon.

"I kind of like not knowing because you're always on your toes," Cahill said. "You're always into the game because you just don't know."

Of course, there are some drawbacks to coming out of the bullpen, especially for a well-rounded player like Wood.

"I do miss hitting quite a bit," said Wood, who hit .215 with seven home runs and 22 RBI in his first three Cubs seasons as a starter. "I don't get the same opportunities to come in and pinch-hit. I don't get the at-bats on starting days, so that was a big thing. I do miss it. I still enjoy it, so I work on it. I don't want to let it slip away. I keep it toned in case it's needed."

If the Royals proved anything with their World Series title run in 2015, it was that the postseason is all about powerful bullpen arms. Last year, they had the ability to shorten games with their dominant back-end pitching. While the Cubs 'pen is constructed differently, it could be similarly effective. One thing is certain: Few teams, if any, can match the depth and versatility the North Siders have in their relief corps. And for a manager who loves to get creative with the way he utilizes his players, it could be a perfect match.

"It's got to be great for Joe having those tools to be able to use in different situations," Richard said. "When you're only able to do one thing, it really makes decisions a little bit more difficult for your manager. If you look through the pitchers, we have so many guys who are talented on so many levels and that can be used in different situations, it's got to help."

Gary Cohen is the editor-in-chief of the Cubs' official publication, Vine Line magazine, and has covered the team since 2011. You can follow him on Twitter @GaryCohen10. This article appears in Vine Line magazine. Follow Vine Line @cubsvineline, and get this article and more delivered to your doorstep by purchasing a subscription at cubs.com/vineline.

This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.