It's not hard to draw parallels between Jason Heyward and the Cubs team he plays right field for.
Arriving on the scene with a combo of (a bit green) youth and talent, both had to deal with sky-high expectations from the start. Heyward was the future of baseball, an intoxicating mix of 5 tools topped off with a generational glove. The Cubs were bursting at the seams with top prospects, flush with cash, and run by a man that Forbes magazine decided was a better leader than, among others, The Pope.
$184 million and two underwhelming playoff runs later, both head into 2019 trying to prove that talk of closing windows is premature.
Heyward's struggles have been well documented. Through the first half of his Cubs contract, he's hit .252/.322/.367 with a .688 OPS and a wRC+ that's yet to hit league-average. If it wasn't before, Heyward's contract is officially a burden, and probably one the Cubs would like to get off their books. How that'd work is another thing entirely.
Heyward's contract has some tricky language in it. It offered him a full no-trade clause in the first three years, and a partial one after that. Now, for the first time in his Cubs career, Heyward can't totally dictate his future; he has a 12-team no-trade clause for the next two summers. However, if the Cubs don't move him in either 2019 or 2020, his "10/5 Rights" kick in. Essentially, the latest CBA dictates that if a player has 10+ years of service time, 5 of which come with one team, said player automatically earns a full no-trade clause. As if the Cubs weren't well-tuned in financial restraints already, Heyward's contract (at 20+ million per year) extends for three more years after his 10/5 clause hits.
Swirling trade rumors may linger in the minds of younger players, but with a decade of baseball to his name, Heyward's not phased.
"My antenna is always turned off," he said. "I don’t need to pay [trade rumors] any mind. It’s funny because going into last offseason, there were trade rumors about me, but I had a full-on trade clause. It’s whatever. I talked to Theo, I talked to Jed just in general about the team, after this past season. Just talked about what we can do to improve and what we can do to be healthy. That kind of stuff. I said, like, 'Hey, if you want to trade me, come talk to me.'”
It's a bleak picture right now. There's no questioning that. However, if we're searching the couch cushions for silver linings, Heyward presents a few. He's coming off his best year in Chicago, one that saw him return to league average production at the plate and put together a WAR equal to his two previous seasons combined. He continues to cut down on the strikeouts, and was, by FanGraphs' measurements, the best baserunner on the team last year. His power is a thing of the past, but his contact numbers continue to improve, and he's hitting the ball to all parts of the field more than he ever has in his Cubs tenure. He was not exempt to the team-wide offensive slump in the 2nd half, but having encouraging peripherals is never a bad thing. With a steadfast offseason approach, there's reason to believe his best Cubs years may still be yet to come.
"You’re always going to do stuff different," he said, when asked about his offseason routine. "Honestly, I mean, if you do things differently, you’re still doing the same thing so to speak. You know, I’ve had my routine and the kind of things I like to do in the offseason, you always have to add. You get older -- I started playing when I was 20, and now I’m 30. This is Year 10. You have to work hard, work smart. Same stuff, same training. Get ready for the season, be aware of how the game is changing, so to speak."
The Cubs don't need Heyward to be a middle-of-the-order bat. Trotting out Javy Baez, Kris Bryant, and Anthony Rizzo every day affords them such luxuries. But is 2014 Heyward -- someone who hit .271/.351/.384 with a 735 OPS, 109 wRC+ and terrific defense -- too unrealistic to expect? Given how much money the Cubs invested in Heyward, not to mention the (relatively) limited time they have to get out from under it, that's probably where he needs to be if he wants to stay in the Cubs' plans.
"If [a trade] comes about, and they want to, then they’re going to do it. That’s how they are," he said. "That’s how front offices are. I can honestly say, and I don’t take it for granted, that this front office is going to do what they think is best for this team and this organization. That’s comforting to know. But right now? What do you do? You have all these guys that have put up a number of wins over these last few years. They’ve made trades at the deadlines, they’ve signed guys, they traded guys. That doesn’t happen everywhere. We keep meeting them halfway, and they’re going to keep rewarding us with those moves that try and help the team win."