One year after The Rain Delay Speech, the Cubs have enormous respect for Jason Heyward as a clubhouse leader and a Gold Glove defender — while still facing questions about if he will ever again be an offensive presence, whether or not that still makes him an everyday player and how to salvage their $184 million investment.
The hitting coaches who supervised Heyward’s swing overhaul last offseason in Arizona are gone, with John Mallee fired, assistant Eric Hinske taking the lead job with the Los Angeles Angels and Chili Davis and Andy Haines now overseeing an all-or-nothing lineup that scored 822 runs during the regular season and then posted a .530 OPS in 10 playoff games.
With team president Theo Epstein signaling that the hard-to-find prototypical leadoff hitter is probably more of a luxury than a necessity with this group — and admitting trading big-league talent to get much-needed pitching is a real possibility — the Cubs need Heyward to be the well-rounded player they envisioned when they gave him the biggest contract in franchise history.
“It’s good that we have an opportunity to have a lot of the same guys in this room on this team, because that goes a long way,” Heyward said inside the Wrigley Field clubhouse after the Los Angeles Dodgers dominated the Cubs in the National League Championship Series. “You look at teams in history that have done well in the postseason, they make it known they expect to be in October. That’s an awesome thing.
“But I personally am looking forward to having another opportunity to go to work in the offseason and do more to help. I feel like if I get some more done, it’s a different result for this team as a whole.”
Heyward’s uptick in production only left him with a .715 OPS, or 35 points below the big-league average this season. It still represented an 84-point boost from last year’s offensive spiral. He also put up more homers (11) and RBI (59) this season, even while getting 111 fewer plate appearances than he did in 2016.
During these last two postseason runs combined, Heyward went 7-for-65 (.108 average) with zero homers, one RBI and 16 strikeouts, becoming more of a part-time player/defensive replacement than a lineup fixture.
“I definitely see an improvement,” manager Joe Maddon said. “I am absolutely seeing more hand action in his swing. There’s less push in his swing. I think he’s done a lot of really good work and it’s going to keep getting better. The guy’s so committed to getting better.
“His willingness to adjust — to understand or believe that he needed to do something differently — it starts with that. Some guys may be so hardheaded that they’re unwilling to adapt or adjust.
“He was looking for some new answers, and he found some new things. When you make adjustments like that, you’re always wanting to see that instant gratification, and there was some, I thought.
“Give it some time, and this could really continue to get better, because he’s so committed. He’s such a good athlete. He’s so strong, and now he’s starting to feel his hands in a way that he had not for a while. That’s what I’m seeing.”
A big idea behind the Heyward megadeal was that even if he bombed in the first year, he would not have to reinvent himself in his mid-30s and scramble to make up for declining physical skills and health issues. Maddon talks about Heyward being in that sweet spot for a big-league player in terms of ability, knowledge and experience — age 28 — but eventually time won’t be on their side anymore.
“I would like for him to stay on the same path,” Maddon said. “I think he’s growing into the adjustment that he’s made. I think next year’s going to be a pretty good indicator of where he’s at. From where he was last year – to the adjustments he made in the offseason into this season – and now he’ll have another offseason to really fine-tune that.
“When you see him next year, you’ll find out exactly where he’s at developmentally as a hitter.”
Heyward, a finalist this year for his fifth Gold Glove, is still a game-changer in right field, and someone who runs the bases with an alertness and an aggressiveness that can shape an entire team’s mentality.
Though Heyward doesn’t really like to talk about it or promote himself as a leader, the meeting he led in a Progressive Field weight room during last year’s epic World Series Game 7 win over the Cleveland Indians is another sign of the calming, energizing influence he has on teammates.
Epstein wants to believe Heyward can still be the 6-WAR force you saw during four of his first six seasons in the big leagues with the Atlanta Braves and St. Louis Cardinals.
“That’s really the standard,” Epstein said. “By definition, I think he can improve more than marginally from where he is right now, because he’s done it in the past.
“That’s what we want to get him back to – being a six-win player. And in order to do that, he’s got to continue to play his great defense, continue to run the bases really well, (plus) the added benefit of everything he does in the clubhouse and with his leadership and professionalism.
“But to be that type of player again, there needs to be some improvement with the bat to get back to that level. We’d love to see that, which means driving the ball more consistently to all fields and getting on base more and being a little bit more of an extra-base threat.
“He’s done it before, so you’re never going to give up (the idea) that could come back. This is a guy who has a ton of pride and understands that he has contributed to a lot of wins and to a World Series title and to another successful season this year, but that there’s more he can do and wants to do.
“I have no doubt. He’s a proud guy. He’s a talented player. And there’s some room for improvement offensively.”
Heyward, who has no-trade rights through 2018 and an opt-out clause after that season, didn’t take the same victory lap many of his teammates did after the World Series, moving close to the team’s Mesa complex and going back to work in the cage. That attitude won’t change now after a disappointing NLCS that quieted the dynasty talk around Wrigleyville.
“Once you get a taste of it, you want to have it again,” Heyward said. “When you fall short, absolutely, it gives you some more motivation, new perspective.”