PHOENIX — Jason Heyward is listed at 6-foot-5, 240 pounds and has the biggest contract in franchise history. Yet there are still times where he blends into the background on this Cubs team.
That’s partially by design, the Cubs investing in Gold Glove defense and on-base/contact skills after a 97-win season, plus Heyward wanting to go to a place where he could be part of a talented young core that could win for a long time.
It also says something about the subtleties to Heyward’s game, which still got him paid like a middle-of-the-order hitter. Eight years and $184 million guaranteed wasn’t necessarily even the biggest offer out there this winter.
Just watch Heyward in the seventh inning of Sunday’s 7-3 win over the Arizona Diamondbacks at Chase Field, sprinting from first base to third on a ball that skipped past shortstop Chris Owings into left field. Heyward then raced home on Jorge Soler’s sacrifice fly to right field, and plays like that are what Chicago fans can expect on Monday night when he makes his Wrigley Field debut in a Cubs uniform.
“Everybody is only going to look at batting averages all the time,” manager Joe Maddon said. “But this guy is a really good baseball player. He impacts the game in so many different ways. I just love him right where he’s at.”
What a difference between Heyward’s low-key arrival and the symbolism behind Jon Lester’s six-year, $155 million contract and how that framed his first season on the North Side.
“There should be a lot of hype around him,” said Lester, who will start the home opener against the Cincinnati Reds. “There should be a lot of hype around ‘Zo’ (Ben Zobrist). Those two guys have really elevated the young guys in the way they go about their business, which is even more impressive (considering) what they did last year.”
Lester remembered watching Kris Bryant stretch a single into a double against Zack Greinke on Saturday and turning to assistant hitting coach Eric Hinske: “I told ‘Ske: ‘This isn’t a knock on you, (but) my favorite part about this team is the way we run the bases.’”
“That’s a testament to J-Hey,” Lester said. “He brought that over. That’s what he’s known for — playing really good defense, running the bases with — I don’t want to say reckless abandon, because he knows what he’s doing — but he makes other guys better. He makes guys want to get better and take that extra base and do that sort of thing.”
To be clear, Bryant was a polished, heads-up, instinctual player from the moment he arrived in The Show last year. Anthony Rizzo credited Dave McKay — a Dale Sveum hire now on Arizona’s coaching staff — for helping him develop that aggressive mentality on the bases. And Maddon turned running hard to first base into a “Respect 90” catchphrase.
But the Cubs believe Heyward will be a good influence, the same way Lester stayed the same guy throughout a statistically strong season (3.34 ERA and 207 strikeouts in 205 innings) that still had plenty of ups and downs.
“Position players have it a little bit easier than pitchers do, just because our days are so much more magnified,” Lester said. “He plays every day. He goes 0-for-4, it’s like: ‘Well, I got tomorrow.’ (When) I stink — I got four more days for everybody to talk about how much I stink.
“It’s just so much easier for a position player to come in and feel more relaxed and more of a part of this team, as opposed to a guy that kind of stands out.
“Plus, he’s such a level-headed, grounded guy that you’d never know what he signed for.”
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Heyward wore a St. Louis Cardinals uniform the last time he played at Wrigley Field, and he will hear all about that decision when the Cubs go to Busch Stadium next week and reignite that rivalry.
Heyward — who had once been Baseball America’s No. 1 overall prospect while coming up with his hometown Atlanta Braves — didn’t feel like he needed to be The Man or a face of the franchise.
“Early in my career in Atlanta, there was a lot of focus on me,” Heyward said. “And you got guys with Hall of Fame (resumes), guys who put up some good numbers (and had) good seasons. The focus is all about what the team wants" (it to be) from ownership down to the front office down to the coaching staff.
“I feel like here, they do a great job of just letting it be about the team,” Heyward said. “It’s not one person that’s going to do it overnight. I understand that there’s marketing and things like that to promote. But as a group, you want everyone understanding this is your team — the Chicago Cubs — not just one player to look at and say: ‘We’re going to rally around this guy when he comes to the bat or when he’s on the field.’
“That’s something special, regardless of the contract you have.”