Jason Heyward receives praise from Cubs even before taking field

MESA, Ariz. -- He hasn’t even taken an official swing with his new team yet, but Chicago Cubs center fielder Jason Heyward is garnering praise from all corners of the team's clubhouse. As position players reported for their first day of spring training on Tuesday, Heyward was already winning over his new teammates.

“The guy is a specimen,” pitcher Jason Hammel said Tuesday morning. “This organization has touted themselves on the character they bring in, and he’s no different. He gets it. Hard worker and you can tell that he cares.”

Teammate after teammate heaped similar praise on Heyward, who signed an eight-year, $184 million deal with the Cubs after spending one season with archrival St. Louis. He’s switching to center field after winning his third Gold Glove in right last season. The Cubs have zero concerns.

“He’s played there in the majors, so we were confident,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “We’ll get him as many reps as possible. Given his aptitude, the more he plays there the better he will be.”

The conversation surrounding Heyward always seems to come back to his baseball intellect. The Cubs believe you can’t put a price on it, scoffing at any suggestion that they overspent on a player who hit just 13 home runs last season. His stats don’t begin to tell his story.

“I just can’t focus on offense only,” manager Joe Maddon said emphatically. “I’m just not about that. He can beat you in the five-tool way. And the sixth tool -- just the way he thinks.

“He’s going to hit, he’s going to hit plenty. But all this other stuff he can do nightly to win when he’s not getting a hit, not many people have that part of his resume.”

In fact, Hammel declared Heyward one of just two five-tool players in the game, and the other one is in the AL where “we don’t have to face him much.” Presumably he’s talking about Mike Trout, whom the Cubs will face on Opening Day. That makes quite the center field showdown -- both in ability and salary. Heyward is only missing the home runs. Of course, he’d like to hit more.

“If I hit 40 home runs last year, I’d say I’d like to hit 50,” he said. “I’m not a person that gets complacent. I would like to build on that but also keep that average up. Just be what the lineup needs.”

It’s a notion he has repeated over and over again since arriving early to his first Cubs spring training a few weeks ago. He wants to live up to the "all-around great player" label which has followed him since breaking into the majors in 2010 at age 20. Right now he’s getting to know his teammates off the field, and they’re impressed with those kinds of conversations as much as anything they’ve seen in the batting cage.

“He’s really smart,” first baseman Anthony Rizzo said. “A lot of things we talk about, not a lot of guys talk about. He’s very advanced in the game. He sees everything. He watches everything, which is not easy to do.

“He’s five steps ahead of the game.”

Heyward is flattered by all the attention, but he's taking it all in stride. He’s just one part of the puzzle -- albeit a big one at 6-foot-5, 245 pounds.

“I’m not asking them to say any of it,” Heyward joked of the praise. “It’s cool. They know me as a person. That’s where it starts -- in the clubhouse. We’re family. The camaraderie will get you through the hard times.”

Maddon wants to know more. He’s all about getting to know a player “conversationally,” believing once the trust is there, then the free flow of information back and forth can occur.

“I find him fascinating,” Maddon said. “A combination of physical stature, athletic ability, mind ... it’s an interesting dynamic.”

And he hasn’t even seen Heyward in action with the Cubs yet. That comes Wednesday, when the entire roster takes the field for the first time. The most expensive Cub in franchise history can do a lot for a team, and a starving franchise and fan base are waiting to see it all -- starting with his teammates.

“I was giving him a little shtick about Dexter [Fowler] covering ground in center and he said, ‘As long as there isn’t a wall bigger than me, I’m going to get that ball,’” Hammel recalled. “I said, ‘I like to hear that,’ because there aren’t many bigger than him. He’ll run through a wall to get a ball for us. I can’t wait to see him play.”