Joe Maddon will have a simple message for Jason Heyward in spring training: Just be yourself.
No one around the Cubs will be asking Heyward to “step up and be a leader” or become “the face of the franchise” or whatever other buzzwords hover around a new free agent with a huge contract.
The Cubs have the National League’s reigning Cy Young Award winner (Jake Arrieta), Rookie of the Year (Kris Bryant) and Manager of the Year (Maddon).
Anthony Rizzo is already a two-time All-Star first baseman, MVP candidate and clubhouse spokesman. Until two months ago, $155 million lefty Jon Lester had the richest contract in franchise history.
As part of a $276 million spending spree this offseason, the Cubs also added two World Series champions to set an example for their young hitters (Ben Zobrist) and bring an edge to their pitching staff (John Lackey).
“I don’t know about a final piece,” Heyward said. “I’m happy to be a part of it, though. I know, as a baseball player showing up every year in spring training, we’re only as good as the cards we’re dealt.
“Our job is to show up every day, go to work and try to make the most of what we have. It’s just a great thing to be a part of an organization that says they want to do something – and then they follow through with it.”
The marketing department doesn’t have to force Heyward onto billboards or use him as a distraction from the rest of the on-field product. Coming off a 97-win season, the Cubs reported a 98-percent renewal rate for season tickets. This team also drove TV ratings, with Comcast SportsNet Chicago posting a 121-percent increase from 2014 to 2015.
Heyward will be surrounded by corner outfielders who will turn 24 this month (Jorge Soler) and 23 in March (Kyle Schwarber) and a shortstop who turned 22 last month (Addison Russell).
“Bringing in Jason is sort of a perfect solution for us,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “We get a guy that is an impact player right now, but we also get a guy that fits in perfectly with our young core. The fact that it could serve both masters was something that was incredibly important to us.
“We could get younger and also get better. Jason said it several times and he’s totally right: We play in an environment in the NL Central that was incredibly competitive. Trying to win the division – and trying to avoid the one-game playoff – is something that’s really important to us.
“The rest of the National League is going to get better. We felt, in order to compete, we had to continue to get better as well. And I think we did that with our offseason.”
Heyward isn’t Hank Aaron, a player he was compared to while coming up with his hometown Atlanta Braves. But Heyward also doesn’t have to be a middle-of-the-order force at Wrigley Field. Led by Rizzo (31) and Bryant (26), the Cubs had nine players finish last season with double-digit homers.
The Cubs guaranteed Heyward eight years and $184 million because of his prime age, patient approach at the plate (.353 career on-base percentage) and Gold Glove defense.
“It’s very unique to see a free agent at 26 years old with the kind of career he’s already been able to have,” Arrieta said. “He can hit the ball out of the yard. He can be a .280-to-.300 hitter (and) he plays incredible defense in the outfield.
“That’s something for me (where) I understand with my stuff I can go out there and pitch to contact knowing I have a guy like that out there behind me.”
Heyward’s 27-homer, 82-RBI season with the Braves in 2012 might wind up being the total outlier on the back of his baseball card. He may never become the superstar predicted when Baseball America named him the game’s No. 1 overall prospect heading into the 2010 season. But the St. Louis Cardinals still wanted him to stay so much they reportedly offered him $200 million.
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“He’s got all the potential to hit balls in the seats,” Maddon said. “He’s done it (before), so the big thing is to get in a count and not miss your pitch. That’s where power really comes from. So I think as he continues to understand what he’s doing in the batter’s box – (with) age on his side (and) physicality on his side – eventually you’re going to see the ball go in the seats.
“But that’s still not my concern. He’s going to hit whatever he hits home runs. I want him to come ready to play, work the at-bat, get on base 36 percent of the time or better (and) play that defense and throw like he can. (Because) he’s a winner.”