MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. — Barely six months after he was drafted by the Cubs, Ed Howard IV was on a busy downtown corner in hometown Chicago with veteran big-leaguers Curtis Granderson, Jason Heyward and other members of The Players Alliance, providing pandemic essentials and baseball equipment, just a few miles from where he grew up.
Maybe even providing a glimpse into a Cubs future he might one day lead, on and off the field.
That might sound like a lot to expect from any young prospect, even a 16th overall draft pick. Never mind one with all the eyes of his hometown’s baseball fans on him.
But these are, after all, his streets. This is his town. His spotlight. His dream.
And, as far as he’s concerned, his purpose.
“I genuinely think everything happens for a reason, so I think I was put in this situation, drafted by this organization, for a reason,” Howard said. “That’s why I have so much trust in myself, because I feel like I was built for it.
“I’m able to handle anything thrown at me.”
HOWARD CERTAINLY IS built like an elite baseball prospect: a 6-foot-2, 185-pound shortstop ranked among the top-100 prospects in the game a year ago by Baseball Prospectus and a consensus top-10 prospect in the Cubs system now, considered by Baseball America the top defensive infielder in the system.
But more than that, a risk-averse Cubs front office that tends to avoid pitchers and high school players in general in the first round of drafts viewed the Mount Carmel grad — who lived the highs and blows of the Jackie Robinson West Little League saga as a 12-year-old — as a uniquely prepared and poised high school player.
“The first word that comes to mind is just ‘maturity,’ “ said Cubs player development executive Matt Dorey, the Cubs’ farm director the past two seasons.
Howard needed that maturity to navigate not only losing his first professional summer when the pandemic wiped out the 2020 minor-league season but also a slow start in 2021, along with a hamstring injury that cost him more than a month midseason — until heating up in August and going 26-for-78 (.333) in his final 22 games with eight extra-base hits, five walks and 13 RBIs (.873 OPS).
“It’s definitely been a grind, physically, mentally,” Howard said during a conversation with NBC Sports Chicago as he wrapped up his first season last fall in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.
“I started off kind of slow, facing adversity, but that’s what made me stronger at the end,” he said. “So I’ll keep pushing, keep grinding, and I’ll be back better [in 2022].”
THAT 2022 EFFORT starts officially this week as the Cubs open a two-week mini camp for many of their better prospects, ahead of the March 7 reporting date for minor-league players.
Despite the ongoing MLB lockout and slow-moving labor talks that threaten to delay the start of major-league season, the minor-league schedule, including an on-time start to spring training, is operating “business as usual” for those not on the 40-man rosters (and, consequently, not union members).
For a team like the Cubs, minor-league camp figured to include most of the intriguing storylines of the spring, regardless, after the front office blew up the big-league roster at the July 30 trade deadline to acquire reinforcements for a lagging farm system.
Exit championship-core All-Stars Kris Bryant, Javy Báez and Anthony Rizzo.
Enter new Cubs prospects Caleb Kilian, Pete Crow-Armstrong and Kevin Alcantara.
“It just shows that they believe in some of the young guys that we have in this organization,” Howard said of the roster reboot. “It’s just motivation to keep grinding, keep getting better. That opportunity is there for me. It’s there for all of us in the organization.”
Whatever else the deadline purge might have said about management intentions, players in the system all seemed to sense that cleared path to the big leagues.
Double-A shortstop Luis Vazquez said he believes he can be the next Báez for the Cubs by the time the next core is in place. Howard’s low-A teammate Kevin Made, another shortstop, also said, through an interpreter, he can be the next Javy.
What about the kid from Mount Carmel?
“He wants to be the next Ed Howard,” Dorey said.
THAT’S NOT ONLY admirable. That’s a marketing plan.
Imagine what happens when the first Chicago-born player ever drafted in the first round by the Cubs reaches the big leagues and has the kind of success the scouts project. Imagine him as part of a new core helping the team to the playoffs again. Imagine his first All-Star selection.
Dave St. Peter doesn’t have to imagine. The president of the Minnesota Twins lived it after the Twins drafted catcher Joe Mauer out of Cretin-Derham Hall High School in St. Paul with the No. 1 overall pick in 2001 — instead of Mark Prior — and wound up with an MVP, three-time batting champ and six-time All-Star.
If his resumé isn’t Hall of Fame caliber, his baseball focus, acumen, polish, poise and willingness to represent his hometown on MLB’s biggest stages certainly are.
The Cubs already have identified that part in Howard.
“At least in our case, I always thought that was really one of Joe Mauer’s greatest gifts,” St. Peter said. “Half of St. Paul claims they’re related to Joe Mauer, but Joe was always able to compartmentalize somehow his life as a professional baseball player and stay focused and perform at an elite level, and also, more important, to stay connected to his family and his community. To this day nobody says a bad word about Joe Mauer.
“There’s no doubt there’s an added benefit to the team if you’re fortunate enough to hit on a hometown kid.”
The Twins made Mauer the focus of several marketing campaigns and ballpark giveaways. They sold more No. 7 Mauer jerseys during his career than any other player. And Mauer even played off his wholesome image when he starred with his mom in a milk commercial for St. Paul-based dairy producer Kemps.
“We got all kinds of benefit out of Joe and were able to leverage that connection,” St. Peter said.
But make no mistake, he added: That formula worked only because Mauer had success on the field.
“It cuts both ways,” St. Peter said. “For the team you’re dealing with a known commodity, and clearly prospects in today’s game are already known, so there’s already a level of hype that goes along with all of our prospects. But when it’s a local prospect, it goes to a whole new level.
“But it does add incremental pressure for the player — I don’t think there’s any doubt about that — for the player that doesn’t want to disappoint people and wants to find a way to make that dream a reality.”
HEYWARD’S BEEN THERE. And if Howard reaches the big leagues in the next two years — or if the Cubs find a way to keep Heyward beyond his current contract — Howard will have a resource in the clubhouse every day to help navigate what might await.
“For me I got to see the business side early on,” said Heyward, an Atlanta-area native drafted 14th overall by the Braves in 2007 — and touted as the next big star for the perennial playoff team almost from the moment he debuted at 20 against Carlos Zambrano and the Cubs.
“It was, ‘Let’s push this guy,’ and, ‘Let’s make it known he’s here.’ And I understand all that. That’s the business side; that’s the money side,” Heyward said.
And that might have been the easiest part to anticipate.
“Just having that hometown-team situation, it was tough at times,” said Heyward, who discovered distractions in the conflict between the demands of friends and family and the demands of job and teammates.
“Because I just wanted to go play baseball,” he said. “I just wanted to be a teammate. I wanted to be a rookie and be seen and not heard. But then you’re asked to go do things and asked to speak up, and your face is thrown in front of a camera. It’s kind of hard to keep the attention off you in that way.”
That’s where veteran teammates such as David Ross, Eric Hinske and Chipper Jones helped him stay on track enough to make an All-Star team his first year and put up career-high offensive numbers in his third.
Heyward already has made himself available as a mentor to Howard, who also had no lack of mentors coming of age toward the draft, from his father to White Sox shortstop Tim Anderson.
“He’s got a lot of talent, a lot of tools. I’m here as a resource and a reference if he needs,” said Heyward. “It’s a cool thing to see him be drafted by the hometown team and get the chance to play in front of his people, in front of his community and affect that directly, on and off the field, when he chooses.”
That’s something Howard has said from the start that he wants to embrace, whether it’s representing his hometown in general or being a role model and resource for young Black players whose choices for such role models in the sport are historically underrepresented in the majors.
“I’ll definitely be a role model,” Howard said the night he was drafted. “That’s definitely something I’m big on.”
HOWARD HAS TO GET there first. And he’s only 80 minor-league games — 326 plate appearances — down that road after the 2020 pandemic season was lost.
The road picks up again these next few weeks in Arizona, where the big-leaguers remain locked out — but where fans traveling to Mesa can get a glimpse of the future of the Cubs, the face of the next championship core, the team’s next All-Star shortstop, Chicago’s next homegrown sports star.
Move over, Derrick Rose.
Too soon? Too much pressure? Unfair?
Of course, it is.
But bring it on, says Ed Howard.
“I don’t feel pressure,” said the prospect who figures to have more eyes on him than even the newcomers during what could be the Cubs’ most watched minor-league camp since Bryant and Báez roamed the back fields in Mesa a baseball generation ago.
“I feel like my whole life I’ve kind of always had eyes on me,” Howard said. “I went to the Little League World Series at a young age. I feel like I’m built for the pressure. I’m used to it at this point.”
After all, he was a star on the Little League team that won a national championship — representing not just his city but his country.
At least as significant as that experience was the scrutiny and the scandal that followed when that group of Jackie Robinson West 12-year-olds was stripped of the title because adults in charge had falsified documents in an effort to include players from outside the eligible district.
Some of the fallout was especially ugly, even racial.
“Adversity is just part of life,” Howard said. “Adversity makes you stronger at the end of the day. That Little League situation, what happened after that happened. But you just keep pushing and look forward. You can’t really look back and dwell on things in the past. That’s something that taught me and that I’ve carried over to life.”
Maybe that’s why he seemed to handle injuries and A-ball slumps so well at 19.
Dorey raved about his communication skills with instructors and his priorities. “He’s leaned into every challenge,” Dorey said.
Howard calls the so-called pressures of being the celebrated hometown prospect for the high-profile franchise a “blessing” and “awesome opportunity.”
And after some of those experiences a few years ago, it’s easy to believe him.
“I was super young,” he said. “But you just keep grinding. I got older. I matured.
In fact, he added, “It didn’t affect me as much as you probably think …
“It just added fuel to my fire.”