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
By Gary Cohen
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.
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.
"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."
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."
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."
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."
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.