Schwarber, Heyward lead off Cubs' spring slate

Defending champs split up to face A's, Giants on Saturday

Schwarber, Heyward lead off Cubs' spring slate

MESA, Ariz. -- Jason Heyward will test his swing in a game and Kyle Schwarber will be back in the outfield in the Cubs' Cactus League openers.

The Cubs play split-squad games Saturday, both at 2:05 p.m. CT, and Heyward and Schwarber will both be leading off. After moving to Arizona and spending the majority of the offseason in the batting cages at the Cubs' complex, Heyward will get his first action leading off against the Athletics (live on MLB.TV) at Sloan Park. Schwarber will play left field against the Giants (live via an exclusive audio webcast on in Scottsdale.

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Both could provide huge offensive boosts for the Cubs. In the first year of his eight-year, $184 million contract with the Cubs, Heyward batted .230 and hit seven home runs. That was quite a drop from the .293 average he posted in 2015 with the Cardinals. Even though he didn't produce at the plate, manager Joe Maddon liked having Heyward in the lineup for his defense and baserunning.

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"I've been watching him in batting practice and I can see it's a lot freer, and the ball is coming off hotter," Maddon said of Heyward's work in camp. "Everybody talks about all the work he did all winter. Conversationally, I sense that he feels good about it and that he's at a nice peaceful moment. It'll be fun to watch. There will be some tweaking to go with it. I like it."

Heyward said the work has gone well.

"I feel like it's how you felt before," he said Friday. "I feel like I'm doing things I've done before. It's comfortable, I'm able to make adjustments and I'm just playing the game. It's not a whole lot in the thought process. I'm able to go out and be consistent and take good swings and feel your way through, and not over thinking."

He's been focused on bat control and timing during batting practice. Fans will see that his hands are a little lower as he steps into the batter's box.

"A little bit to start," Heyward said of the positioning. "It's relaxing right there. They're in a good position to stay tension free. That's where it is at the start but as I start to get ready for the pitch, I get my hands back to a good spot where I'm already in motion. When I go to get my last gather, it simplifies it. It takes the tension out of it, it takes too many movements out of it.

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"I'm just in a good position to hit the baseball consistently and be able to be direct to the ball," Heyward said. "That takes the thinking and all of that stuff out of it. Once you feel that, on a daily basis, a lot of good can come out of it. What's left now to do is go play and feel that day in and day out in baseball."

The goal for hitting coaches John Mallee and Eric Hinske has been to get Heyward back to how he felt in 2012. That year, he hit 27 home runs, 30 doubles and drove in a career-high 82 runs while batting .269.

"When you want to re-tool something, the biggest part is getting to the point where you allow yourself to not think about where you're at," he said.

Schwarber returns after tearing two ligaments in his left knee in the third game of the regular season. He was able to be the designated hitter in the World Series but not cleared to play in the outfield at that time. He could have been the DH on Saturday.

"He's been moving and he's gotten a lot of work," Maddon said. "He's going to play out there. He's fine, his leg feels great and his work is special, as you all know. That's all good."

Carrie Muskat has covered the Cubs since 1987, and for 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.