MESA, Ariz. – Cubs right fielder Jason Heyward brought up the importance of defense on his own before he was asked about the possibility of more action in the field this season. The Cubs lack a real strikeout pitcher in their starting rotation.
“I love that, to be honest,” he said, laughing. “There’s times when a game can get boring in right field.”
Defense was already a strong suit for the Cubs last season. They won the inaugural team Gold Glove award in the National League. Then this offseason, their roster continued to improve defensively. The Cubs added outfielders Joc Pederson and Jake Marisnick, and infielder Eric Sogard. They brought back Cameron Maybin. Second baseman Nico Hoerner is competing for an everyday role, after platooning last year.
“We can’t overlook defense with our pitching staff, for sure,” Cubs president of baseball operations Hoyer told NBC Sports Chicago’s Gordon Wittenmyer. “And really any pitching staff, but ours in particular. The ball’s going to be in play more, hopefully it’s on the ground, but the ball’s going to be in play more.”
Of the six pitchers battling for rotation spots this spring, only Adbert Alzolay throws in the mid-90s. Kyle Hendricks and Zach Davies, expected to pitch in the front of the rotation, toss fastballs in the high 80s. But last season Hendricks had the 11th best hard-hit rate (31.8) in MLB, according to Statcast.
“I look at it like, when this team was at their best with a core group of these guys, it was some really elite defense,” Cubs manager David Ross said. “And so, that was something that we set out to be better at last year, and we got better. These guys worked in different ways and grew and changed some of the routines they had, and it paid off. There were real awards handed out, guys are up for awards they hadn’t been up for before.”
The Cubs led the league with seven Gold Glove finalists last season. Javier Báez won his first Gold Glove. Rizzo took home his fourth.
The team Gold Glove, Hoyer said, “was really meaningful to the whole (coaching) staff, given the fact that was something that we talked about from Day 1, and they really followed through exceptionally well.”
This season, on top of the new signings, the Cubs return all seven finalists.
“Our guys pitched a contact, but they pitch to smart contact,” Heyward said. 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.”
If all goes to plan, the infielders will see more action in the field than Heyward. But if he’s kept busy in right field, that’s fine by him.
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