SAN FRANCISCO – Sacrificing defense for offense – in a spacious ballpark built for run prevention and against one of the greatest postseason pitchers of all-time – the Cubs benched $184 million outfielder Jason Heyward.
With the chance to end this National League Division Series on Monday night at AT&T Park, manager Joe Maddon sat the Gold Glove defender and started Jorge Soler (left field) and Ben Zobrist (right field) against legendary San Francisco Giants lefty Madison Bumgarner.
The addition of Heyward – and his presence for the pitching staff, on the bases and in the clubhouse – helps explain why the Cubs won 103 games and led the majors in defensive efficiency. But Year 1 of that megadeal has been a massive disappointment from an offensive perspective, with the left-handed hitter batting .230 and posting career-lows in homers (seven) and OPS (.631).
“With a player like him, just be patient,” Maddon said before Game 3 of this best-of-five series. “In some ways, it’s not unlike Jon Lester. He got off to a tough start last year, but he did come on at the end of the year. To a certain extent, I think the same thing has happened with Jason.
“I don’t know what it’s like to be in that particular position regarding that kind of a free-agent moment, getting that kind of attention. Getting to know him, I think he will process the winter properly. If there are any adjustments to be made mechanically or physically, he has time to do it without any games getting in the way.
“You need an adjustment time. I just have a lot of faith in him. Beyond that, he still has been a very productive player for us. And I don’t like him not starting tonight, just based on his glove. But we’re going to give it a go.”
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Injuries and inconsistencies have marked Soler’s career, but he’s a powerful right-handed presence, someone who turned it on during last year’s playoffs, putting up a 1.705 OPS in seven games. The Cubs need to keep Soler involved if they want him to be a sharp, dangerous pinch-hitter in October.
Maddon had already decided on another left-handed hitter in Miguel Montero, believing the veteran catcher could draw the most out of Jake Arrieta and help guide the Cy Young Award winner through the San Francisco lineup. So the outfield decision, in essence, came down to either Soler or Willson Contreras, with Heyward more of an afterthought in the Bumgarner discussions.
“Soler is the better guess for possibly putting the ball in the seats,” Maddon said. “Defensively, of course, that’s something I don’t like to do – to not have your best defensive team on the field. But if we were able to grab a lead, there are things we can do in the latter part of the game.”
Lester admitted he pressed and initially felt the weight of that $155 million contract, but he still became a huge part of last year’s 97-win team and a Cy Young Award contender this season. Heyward got paid like a middle-of-the-order hitter, even though he had only one season on his resume with more than 20 homers and 80 RBI. The Cubs invested in the defense, a patient approach at the plate, his intangibles and under-30 upside.
“I really do believe you’re going to see a big jump in his offense next year,” Maddon said. “He’s going to have time to make the adjustments. He’s going to have time to think things through. He’s going to be more comfortable here next year. And for all those different reasons, I think you’re going to see more.”