Jason Heyward could become the next Cub killer. This also looks like a free agent who would check all the boxes for Theo Epstein’s front office. That left-handed swing and Gold Glove defense would also be perfect for Yankee Stadium.
The St. Louis Cardinals acquired Heyward with the hope that he would be their next great core player, planning for the future and eventually life after Matt Holliday and Yadier Molina.
Otherwise, the Cardinals wouldn’t have done that four-player deal last November, watching Shelby Miller (2.07 ERA) blossom into an All-Star with the Atlanta Braves.
Either way, Heyward should be an X-factor in the Cubs-Cardinals rivalry. In leaving Atlanta — the city he grew up around and the organization that made him a first-round pick in 2007 — Heyward almost sounded like Jon Lester after signing that six-year, $155 million megadeal.
“Everyone here did their part — more than their part — to make me feel at home and welcome,” Heyward said Wednesday, sitting at his locker inside Wrigley Field’s cramped visiting clubhouse. “But I still had to do my part as far as just feeling adjusted and becoming accustomed to everything.
“It’s kind of like the monkey on your back. You have the added element every day (where) there’s something to go along with the natural preparation of getting ready for a game.
“But I’ve had a blast. And it’s been nothing but positive things for me to say about my experience.”
If the Cubs really can afford to hand out a nine-figure contract next winter, you would think they would prioritize pitching, a frontline guy like David Price or Jordan Zimmermann to go with Lester and Jake Arrieta.
But Heyward will turn 26 in August and should have his best years in front of him, though it’s hard to put a price tag on that potential, the flashes of patience, speed, power and defense.
Heyward has already been a top-10 National League position player in terms of WAR — a metric that weighs defense heavily — in three of his five seasons. He gets on base around 35 percent of the time. He stole 20-plus bases in 2012 and 2014. He has exceeded the 20-homer, 80-RBI marks only once (in 2012).
The Cubs have questions marks in the outfield — especially if Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber stay at third base and catcher — and 2016 is too soon to count on the Albert Almoras and Billy McKinneys in the farm system.
“They’re a good team in a really good division,” Heyward said. “That’s plain and simple. They can go out and win any night. They have a good enough team to do so. They have new leadership (and that) can go a long way.”
The chain of events that led Heyward to St. Louis began with Atlanta’s decision to promote a hometown, homegrown player and put him in their 2010 Opening Day lineup — and not gain the extra year of club control the Cubs got when they stashed Bryant at Triple-A Iowa to start this season.
Heyward hit a three-run homer off Carlos Zambrano in his first big-league at-bat as the Braves gave the Cubs a 16-5 beatdown at Turner Field. Atlanta won 91 games that season and made the playoffs as a wild-card team.
“You don’t think about it at that time,” Heyward said. “It’s a business. Certain things you can never control. Just try to control what you can. Don’t take anything for granted.
“You understand that trades and things like that are part of it. Growing up in Georgia, I’ve seen the Braves make plenty of moves like that, and you always wonder why they’re letting go of certain guys, and it just happened time after time after time. So for anybody that was surprised — I wasn’t.”
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The Cardinals wanted to use this season as a recruiting pitch and a chance to get to know Heyward, who’s hitting .278 with nine homers and 30 RBIs and slowly heating up from April (.611 OPS) through May (.783 OPS) and into June (.881 OPS) and what should be a huge platform in the playoffs.
“I want to go for a winning attitude, a winning-mindset organization,” Heyward said. “After that, let everything else take care of itself. I’d just like to try to win as many games as possible and know that’s the reason you show up every day for work.
“When the time comes to make decisions, we’ll see what happens. Just tackle it then. Right now, I’m in a perfect place.”