Jason Heyward is the type of guy who paid for season-long hotel-suite upgrades for farewell-tour catcher David Ross and assistant hitting coach Eric Hinske, thanking them for all their help when he broke into the big leagues with the Atlanta Braves.
Heyward is someone with enough stature inside the clubhouse to get benched throughout the playoffs — and still organize a players-only meeting during Game 7 of the World Series.
Maybe what was said in that Progressive Field weight room will forever justify Heyward’s eight-year, $184 million megadeal. The Cubs paid for his intangibles when they gave him the biggest contract in franchise history — and he was on the field for the final out when they beat the Cleveland Indians and finally ended the 108-year drought.
But that decision in free agency revolved around the rest of Heyward’s career, a young core growing up together and how the Cubs would be positioned against the St. Louis Cardinals in the future.
In the same way that the 2016 team regrouped during that 17-minute rain delay, the Cubs expect Heyward to bounce back from the worst offensive season of his career, a nosedive that left him as one of the least productive hitters in the majors.
“Most guys who struggle hide,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “He never asked out of the lineup. He’s helping the team defensively and on the bases and doing all the little things well. He never shied away from that.
“But, obviously, he wanted to be doing better offensively. I just think it’s hard in-season to make significant changes. We sort of needed the reset button of the offseason to be able to do that.”
Heyward is making Arizona a home base this winter, to be near the team’s Mesa complex and process a season that saw him post career lows in homers (seven) and OPS (.631), hit .213 after the All-Star break and go 5-for-48 during the playoffs.
“He’s got a great attitude about everything,” team president Theo Epstein said. “It’s just hard to make the kind of adjustments for some players in-season, because things are going so fast and you’re trying to compete.
“But the offseason is a great opportunity to take a deep breath, slow things down, look at video, work with your coaches, really think about the swing. Think about the bat path and make some adjustments and develop some muscle memory, work on your feel and then take it into games.
“We believe in Jason Heyward and his ability to tackle things head-on and make the necessary adjustments. And I think you’re going to see a much different offensive player next year.”
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The Cubs never could have said something like this during Heyward’s welcome-to-Chicago press conference last December at Spiaggia, the fancy Italian restaurant on Michigan Avenue. But if a big-name free agent is going to be a bust offensively in Year 1, at least he's still only 27.
It’s not like Heyward hit the wall and can feel his body breaking down physically and sense his career sinking into a decline phase. In nearly 600 plate appearances, he drew 53 walks and struck out 93 times, or remarkably similar numbers to what he did in 2015, when he hit .293 for a 100-win St. Louis team and showed up in the National League MVP voting.
“The basic ingredients remain there,” Epstein said. “He hasn’t lost any of that. He sees the ball extremely well. He recognizes pitches extremely well and extremely early. He’s got really good hand-eye coordination.
“It really boiled down to certain things going on with his swing that made it difficult for him, even when he recognized the pitch and even when he made a good decision on whether to swing. And (then) when he made contact, he made it hard for himself to barrel up the ball and put backspin on the ball and hit it hard with carry.
“But that’s all just swing mechanics. That’s something you can adjust. It’s hard to develop better recognition or better hand-eye coordination. He has those things.”
You have to watch Heyward play every day to appreciate some of the subtleties to his game, how his alert, aggressive nature on the bases rubbed off on teammates and spectacular defense in right field made life easier for pitchers. All those highlight-reel throws and catches added a fourth Gold Glove to his collection.
But with Dexter Fowler now in Cardinal red and Albert Almora Jr. and Jon Jay taking over in center field, the Cubs are already sacrificing offense for defense and trying to fill a void at the top of their lineup.
Heyward might never live up to those unfair Hank Aaron comparisons he once got as Baseball America’s No. 1 prospect — or hammer 27 homers again like he did for the Braves in 2012 — but the Cubs are banking on an offensive breakthrough.
“He’s been a six-win player four times in his career — I would classify that as impact,” Epstein said. “He doesn’t need to do anything more than what he’s already done in his career to be a great player, because of everything that he contributes defensively and on the bases.
“Cub fans haven’t seen the type of hitter that Jason Heyward is — and can be — yet. But I think they will.”