Cubs underdogs? That's just fine with J-Hey

Outfielder discusses expectations, newcomers, championship core and more

February 24th, 2021

MESA, Ariz. -- Tell that the Cubs are not going to win the division this year. That is fine by him. Inside Chicago's clubhouse, Heyward and his teammates are setting their own expectations and trying to block out the outside noise.

"I love that -- not being picked to win," Heyward said in a Zoom discussion on Wednesday. "Preseason numbers and picks and whatnot don't mean anything."

What matters to Heyward is that he sees "champions" when he looks around the Cubs' clubhouse. That includes the players left over from the 2016 World Series team and some newcomers who have won rings elsewhere.

The projection systems have doubts. Fangraphs currently has the Cubs projected to win 77 games, while Baseball Prospectus' PECOTA projections have the North Siders with 85.3 wins on average in simulations. There are plenty of questions in the lineup, rotation and bullpen driving those results.

Even with some major changes to the roster over the offseason, however, Heyward believes the team can surprise its fans in the year ahead.

"I think we can give them a lot to be excited about this year," Heyward said.

Here are some of the highlights of Heyward's conversation:

Over the offseason, the Cubs reorganized their outfield, signing Joc Pederson and Jake Marisnick after parting ways with Kyle Schwarber and Albert Almora Jr. Heyward was asked for his thoughts on what Pederson and Marisnick bring to the fold.

"They bring championships, first of all. That's something awesome to say, I feel like, when you add some champions to your team, even when you have to lose some because of the business side. But Joc brings that grind and attitude that it's the team goal first and everything else second. I think that showed throughout his career -- the team in L.A. having success, but also him being a big part of their playoff moments, and being able to step in and fill a lot of different roles.

"Jake, great outfielder. He's a guy that loves to work, tries to make the most of his opportunity. I've seen that just from afar, and competing against him and watching him play the game. But just getting to know him in these first few days -- every bit of that and more. And I just look forward to getting around these guys on a daily basis and starting to gel with them and build an outfield rapport."

Prior to the 2016 season, Heyward signed an eight-year, $184 million free-agent contract with the Cubs. He was asked what it was like to play in a walk year in '15 with St. Louis, given that Javier Báez, Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo could hit free agency next winter.

"The toughest part [was] just coming into it knowing that [St. Louis] wanted me. That was awesome, but no, 'Hey, I want to go play baseball. I want to see what we can get done as a group, and then we'll see what I'm worth at the end of the year.' But for the guys coming in [this year], I would say it's kind of similar. When it comes down to it, we want to win. We want to try and win as many games as possible.

"We have a championship together -- some of us, some of these guys in their walk years. Some of these guys also coming from new teams have championships, [and are] in a walk year, I think it's very easy to focus on -- if you do the right things, and you try to win -- put your best foot forward that way. Then, I think you're going to look at your career, you're gonna look at your season and say, 'OK, I've done well for myself when I'm heading into free agency.'"

The Cubs' overhauled rotation now features a group of command-based pitchers who rely more on a sound plan and great defense than strikeouts. Heyward was asked about the importance of maintaining a high level of defense in 2021 with such a contact-based pitching staff.

"I love that, to be honest. There's times where the game can get boring in right field. I think our guys pitch to contact, but they pitch to smart contact. These guys pitch to get outs, not pitch to punch people out and strike out. They pitch to play the game and read the game. I think being able to do that on the fly is a special thing. And that's something you're going to actually need when it comes down to a division like ours, where you're going to see guys over and over again. And it's going to come down to the wire when you talk about the division race."

During the abbreviated 2020 season, Heyward turned in a .265/.392/.456 slash line in 50 games. While the sample was small last year, that offensive showing was the veteran's best since his rookie year in '10 (.277/.393/.456). Heyward had a 129 OPS+ in '20, compared to the 87 OPS+ in his first four years in Chicago.

"When it comes to the offensive side for me, and my time in Chicago, I felt like last year, and every year since I've been here, I've just got more comfortable with the system. ... You've got to fit into a system sometimes, and you've got to understand how to do that. So, I think I have a pretty good grasp on that now."

A native of Georgia, Heyward has embraced the city of Chicago both on and off the field in his time playing for the Cubs. The veteran says he could envision himself still calling the city home after his playing career is over. Heyward lives in Chicago full-time now (with the exception of Spring Training).

"It's home. I feel like most people, when you call something home, you live at home. I work out at Wrigley, work out at a few other spots close by in the community. It also allows me to do things to give back to the community and not feel like I need to travel back in town to do it. You know, it just kind of makes it easy to do exactly what I say I'm doing. That's living and loving Chicago. That's home."