The Cubs are paying Jason Heyward like a middle-of-the-order hitter, whether or not he ever evolves into that kind of offensive force. The age-26 runway, a .353 career on-base percentage and Gold Glove defense made eight years and $184 million seem like a safe investment in this market.
How Heyward responds to a different clubhouse, a new city and an unfamiliar position will be one of the many storylines for a Cubs team that will have World Series ambitions when pitchers and catchers officially report on Friday in Arizona.
There were times the Cubs looked unsure and sloppy in the field while getting swept by the New York Mets in the National League Championship Series, but that team had been built on a shaky defensive foundation and arrived ahead of schedule last year.
No doubt, Heyward is an elite defender in right field, where he won three Gold Gloves in the last four years with the Atlanta Braves and St. Louis Cardinals. He led all NL right fielders in putouts and assists in 2012 and 2014. He led the majors in Defensive Runs Saved in 2014 (32) and finished fourth in that category last season (22).
Only Tampa Bay Rays center fielder Kevin Kiermaier (30) posted a higher Ultimate Zone Rating than Heyward (20.2) last year. Only Kansas City Royals left fielder Alex Gordon (25) finished with a better UZR than Heyward (24.1) in 2014.
Heyward has already played almost 7,000 defensive innings in The Show, but only 3 percent of that time has been in center field.
“I’m going to give my best effort all the time,” Heyward said. “On defense, I can affect the game every pitch. But on offense, I only get one (key) at-bat or (it) comes around only 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 and do what I can to help my team, whether it’s cutting a 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.”
The qualifying offer has dragged down Dexter Fowler’s market, with teams like the White Sox and Baltimore Orioles apparently reluctant to give up a draft pick for a defender who doesn’t pass the eye test or grade out well on the metrics. (Though Fowler still remaining unsigned in the middle of February would have been inconceivable at the end of a walk season where he scored 102 runs for a 97-win team and got on base almost 35 percent of the time.)
The Cubs wanted to upgrade in center field and create more of a defensive identity. Jorge Soler and Kyle Schwarber will be projects for bench coach Dave Martinez, an enthusiastic teacher who played 16 seasons in the big leagues.
Soler has already missed out on so much development time while defecting from Cuba and recovering from injuries. Schwarber looked like a designated hitter coming out of Indiana University and he doesn’t want to give up on the idea of catching.
But it’s not like the Cubs are making this a lifetime appointment for Heyward. It could wind up being a one- or two-year solution while someone like Albert Almora continues to develop in the minors. Maybe Javier Baez smoothly transitions to the outfield or the Cubs eventually get a trade offer they can’t refuse.
Theo Epstein’s front office has already given manager Joe Maddon a deep roster to make in-game adjustments and create good matchups with versatile players like Baez, Ben Zobrist, Kris Bryant and Chris Coghlan.
And as long as Soler and Schwarber crush the ball, most of those defensive concerns will be going, going, gone.
“We love the offensive upside that Jorge Soler and Kyle Schwarber present at the corner-outfield positions,” Epstein said. “But it’s a long contract. Things will inevitably change over time. I’m sure there’s a time where Jason’s going to be playing plenty of right field for us. We’re excited about seeing him play center field day in and day out.
“(With) all the research that we’ve done and all the scouting reports we have, we feel like he’s going to handle himself very well in center field.
“(It’s) a great match (that) allows for some different combinations through the years as we move forward.”
Maddon – who had to focus on the little things with the small-market Rays and likes to say he comes from The Land of Run Prevention – won’t try to turn Heyward into something he’s not.
“Believe me, I will talk to him a lot,” Maddon said. “My expectation is that he comes out, gets ready to play and knows where to set up on defense, works a good at-bat and just keep running the bases (the same way), because I love the way he runs the bases.
“(It’s the) process. Don’t worry about the outcome of anything. Just go play.”