CHICAGO -- He’s never finished higher than 15th in the MVP voting and he’s only had one 20-plus home run season, but new Chicago Cubs center fielder Jason Heyward can live up to expectations by simply being what he has been up to this point in his career: a really solid baseball player.
It might be the ultimate irony that the most expensive player in franchise history doesn't have to carry this team. In fact, he’s not likely to hit in the middle of the lineup, as the Cubs have Rookie of the Year Kris Bryant and perennial MVP candidate Anthony Rizzo. They, along with emerging hitters like Kyle Schwarber and Jorge Soler, will provide the power. So Heyward’s move comes at the perfect time for him. He’s not required to be the face of the franchise -- even though he signed an eight-year, $184 million deal.
“Transitions are always difficult for everyone,” Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer said recently. “He’s transitioning to another team and different expectations. With Jason we feel exceptionally confident. He’s an elite player who does so many things on the field to help teams win.”
How can Heyward live up to expectations? It actually starts with defense. He is being asked to move from right field -- where he’s won three Gold Gloves -- to center. The Cubs wanted to improve their outfield defense after a poor showing in the postseason.
“I’m going to have a blast playing some center field, if that’s what I end up playing every day,” Heyward said after signing his contract in December.
If he can play lockdown defense up the middle, he’ll earn a big portion of his mammoth contract. At the plate, it’s about contact and getting on base more than hitting home runs. He already excels at those two things, having struck out less than 100 times in each of the past three seasons, and has a career .353 on-base percentage. That's great for the Cubs, considering they led the league in strikeouts and had trouble putting the ball in play at crucial times. Cubs hitting coach John Mallee marveled at Heyward from the other dugout while Heyward was playing for the Cardinals last year. Now Mallee gets to work with him.
“Just how tough an out he was,” Mallee recalled. “Low strikeouts, high walks. The way he runs the bases. His instincts are tremendous.”
And if the home runs come, then Heyward really might have a huge year. That’s the beauty of having a team full of home run hitters: If your most expensive player provides a few more, that's just gravy. What other team can say that?
And the Cubs believe Heyward’s all-around game, combined with a facing little less pressure than most free agents do, will help him with his transition to his third team in three years.
“We watched with Jon [Lester] last year,” Hoyer said. “It took Jon till May to settle in and be excellent for the rest of the year. We watched it with other free agents in other places.”
Lester said being traded to Oakland the year gave him an idea what it would feel like to switch teams, but he still wasn't familiar with the National League, so it took him a while to get comfortable. Heyward, on the other hand, has spent his entire career in the NL, and in 2015 he wasn’t far from Chicago, playing against the Cubs 23 times, counting the postseason. Maybe he’ll hit the ground running.
“It is an important thing to remember with any kind of transition, sometimes it takes time,” Hoyer said.
Of course, once Heyward gets going, he might blow by some career numbers. Given a little luck with the wind at Wrigley Field, 20-30 home runs is very possible. Heyward has never scored or driven in 100 runs, but last year’s leadoff man, Dexter Fowler, scored over 100 for the first time in his career hitting ahead of the Cubs' sluggers. If Heyward doesn’t reach the century mark in runs scored, either he’s having a bad year or a bunch of hitters behind him are. That’s not likely with the talent the Cubs have assembled.
“We’re fortunate to have a developing identity that’s based around some young players,” president of baseball operations Theo Epstein said. “That’s what made it such a great fit for Jason.”
He’s just one of the guys now. That has to be a nice feeling after being the face of the Braves and then a huge cog with the Cardinals. Heyward will be a big part of what the Cubs do in the coming years, but he won’t be the guy. There’s a big difference.
“Knowing the core is young and those guys are going to be around for a while is very exciting,” Heyward said.