MESA, Ariz. – Jon Lester has already noticed a difference in Jason Heyward. It’s not some magical swing adjustment or best-shape-of-his-life hype or simply the bounce from the Cubs finally winning the World Series.
Lester already experienced this, signing the biggest contract in franchise history and reporting to Arizona for Year 2 in a different state of mind. The Cubs hope that helps Heyward recover from the worst offensive season of his career and round out his Gold Glove defense, baseball IQ and clubhouse intangibles.
“He’s a little bit more comfortable,” Lester said before Friday’s workout at the Sloan Park complex. “That’s just human nature. You come into a situation with everything else that you’re bringing along. You’re coming into a place where you don’t know a lot of guys. You’re trying to prove that you’re worth something.
“You’re trying to prove (it) to the city, to your teammates, to your family, to everybody else, all this stuff. So I think now it’s a matter of: He can just go out and play.”
A dead arm slowed down Lester during his first spring training in a Cubs uniform. The $155 million ace then got diagnosed with the yips in front of a national TV audience on Opening Day 2015. That April, the lefty went 0-2 with a 6.23 ERA in four starts before closing with double-digit wins, a 3.34 ERA and another 200-inning season for a playoff team.
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Lester had perhaps the greatest season of his life in 2016, going 19-5 with a 2.44 ERA, earning his fourth All-Star selection, finishing second in the Cy Young Award voting and becoming the National League Championship Series co-MVP.
“That’s kind of how I felt coming into my second year,” Lester said. “OK, we got that one over with. We did some things that we weren’t expected to do. Now it’s time to take that next step.
“You just feel more comfortable. You feel like you can come in and kind of let your shoulders down and let your guard down and just worry about playing baseball and getting your work done.”
Like Lester, Heyward wanted to play at Wrigley Field and live in Chicago and didn’t necessarily grab the biggest offer when he signed his $184 million megadeal. Heyward had also grown up around winning teams and understood that number would follow him for the rest of his career. Both players got the benefit of the doubt by being good teammates, holding themselves accountable and not hiding from the media.
The Cubs will run through their first full-squad workout in Mesa on Saturday, but Heyward has been hitting at the facility throughout the offseason, trying to rediscover what once made him a 27-homer threat for the 2012 Atlanta Braves.
“It seems like he’s a little more relaxed,” Lester said. “People told me the same thing two years ago. But when you’re going through it, the 3-for-4 days or the days you pitch seven innings and give up two runs still aren’t good enough. You feel like you have to do more. That second year just feels like you get back to kind of being yourself.”