HAZLETON, Pa. — Joe Maddon compared signing Jon Lester to winning the baseball lottery at last year’s winter meetings. The Cubs manager now feels like he hit another Powerball jackpot with Jason Heyward.
“We won two years in a row,” Maddon said Tuesday. “I believe he’s one of the top five players in the National League.”
Almost 700 miles from the fancy Michigan Avenue restaurant where the Cubs staged Heyward’s welcome-to-Chicago press conference, Maddon imagined the possibilities while back in his blue-collar hometown in Pennsylvania, preparing for his annual “Thanksmas” events at the Hazleton One Community Center.
This is the ideal player for a manager who digs run prevention, thinks batting average is overrated and understands baseball’s new aging curve in an era of tougher testing for performance-enhancing drugs: a three-time Gold Glove outfielder with a career .353 on-base percentage and a 1989 birth certificate.
No doubt, Maddon loves the Cubs gambling on Heyward with the biggest contract in franchise history, an eight-year, $184 million megadeal that comes with a World Series-or-bust mandate.
“Somebody’s got to be that guy, so it might as well be him,” Maddon said. “I really believe he’s going to handle it well.
“I believe he believes he’s earned the right to be in this position. (He’s) 26. He’s worked hard to get here. This is his third organization, so he knows what it’s like to be around a little bit. He’s not going to be wide-eyed.
“He just played in St. Louis on a 100-win team. He played on some really good teams in Atlanta. So I would hope that money should not change this dude at all. If anything, it would just provide motivation to play as well as he can.”
Maddon’s message to Heyward could be boiled down to the same thing he told Lester after the All-Star lefty signed a six-year, $155 million contract: Be yourself. Don’t change anything. Just go play.
The Cubs don’t need Heyward to live up to the hype that followed him as Baseball America’s No. 1 overall prospect heading into the 2010 season.
The Cubs aren’t crossing their fingers hoping Heyward can match his numbers from the 2012 season, the only time he’s put up 20-plus homers and more than 80 RBIs.
The Cubs can live with Heyward still being a .268 hitter in this monster lineup, as long as he keeps seeing pitches, saving runs with his defense and putting pressure on the other team with his speed and instincts.
“Everybody gets hung up on batting averages all the time,” Maddon said. “Believe me, I do not. This guy is a really good baseball player. First of all, he comes to play every day. He plays both sides of the ball. I think he’s a top-three defender at any position. Great arm.
“He’s a top-three, top-five baserunner. And I think him and Kris Bryant together give you two of the best baserunners in the National League, maybe all of baseball.
“The sky’s the limit, man.”
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Heyward reminds Maddon of another corner outfielder he once worked with in the Angels system who developed into an eight-time Gold Glove winner in the big leagues.
“I think he can absolutely play center,” Maddon said. “I had Jimmy Edmonds in the minor leagues. Jimmy was a right fielder in the minor leagues. People were afraid to put him in center field because he wasn’t fast enough. He just wasn’t the prototypical-looking centerfielder. But Jimmy had this incredible, innate ability to be on line with his first step after a baseball.
“Jimmy was always in motion. I’m really eager to see Jason play center field. Because he’s big, he’s lanky, I think there’s the assumption that he can’t play in the middle. I’m curious. I think his instincts for the game are that good.
“Watching him in right field, going back on the baseball, he’s really good. Coming in on the baseball, he’s really good. Arm accuracy is fantastic. I think his makeup permits him to play there, too, because he seems like a take-charge kind of a dude. He’s not afraid to say what he thinks. I’m eager to see this.”
The entire baseball world will be watching to see how Heyward fits into a team that won 97 games and two playoff rounds and won’t be satisfied with anything less than a World Series title in 2016.
“I couldn’t believe we had that opportunity to sign him,” Maddon said. “It’s really exciting, man. And then when you talk to him, his head’s obviously in the right place. And to be that young with that many years ahead of us and him — it’s pretty cool.”