With or without an offensively productive Jason Heyward, the Chicago Cubs are poised to be a legitimate contender to repeat as World Series champions.
Much was made this winter over Chicago Cubs outfielder Jason Heyward re-tooling his swing from top-to-bottom. After a career-worst offensive performance in 2016, the veteran went back to the drawing board in hopes of revitalizing his bat.
Despite winning his fourth Gold Glove award and his third-straight at his position, the outfielder struggled badly at the plate. Overall, he batted .230/.306/.325 – with his average falling more than 60 points from the year prior.
In his final season with the Cardinals, he hit 13 homers, driving in 60 runs. He flirted with a .300 batting average, swiping 23 bags – further evidence of his all-around athleticism. This performance led to his record-breaking eight-year, $184 million deal with the Cubs last winter.
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So far this spring, the results have been lacking. In 13 Cactus League games, Heyward carries a disappointing .143/.231/.286 batting line. He has 10 strikeouts to his credit, drawing just three walks in 35 at-bats.
Is it time to panic?
As we discussed at a team level, one’s performance during Spring Training is not necessaarily indicative of what’s to come.
But, at least thus far in Jason Heyward’s Cubs career, it’s meant more than we’d like. Last year, the first impression he made on his new team wasn’t exactly memorable – at least in terms of offensive production.
He put together a less-than-memorable Cactus League in 2016, batting just .164/.217/.436. If you’re doing the math at home, it comes out to nine hits in 55 at-bats. But, at the time, we all shrugged it off, chalking it up to Heyward trying to live up to his new contract.
But with two-straight horrendous Spring Training performances and a horribly disappointing regular season on the books, where do the Chicago Cubs go when plotting a path forward for Heyward?
No pressure for Heyward moving forward
The simple truth is this: the Cubs don’t need Jason Heyward to be an offensive juggernaut to win a division. They don’t really need him to do any more than last season – and they’re still heavy favorites in the NL Central.
Last season, even with his struggles, Chicago ranked slightly above-average in terms of team average (.256). The club did, however, rank third in runs per game (4.99) and runs batted in (767). Of course, they got big-time performances from the usual culprits: Anthony Rizzo and eventual-MVP Kris Bryant.
That’s not what made the difference for the Cubs’ offense, though. Addison Russell broke out in a big way, driving in 95 runs while providing outstanding defense at shortstop. Javier Baez drastically cut down his strikeouts, giving Joe Maddon a versatile weapon up the middle of the diamond.
Good news for the Cubs’ repeat chances
Chicago lost Fowler to the division-rival Cardinals via free agency. But, in the same stroke, they’ll get their first full season of a healthy Kyle Schwarber, who is set to lead off for Maddon.
For Heyward, it’s about getting back to the basics. It has to be about not trying to do too much when he steps to the dish. As for the Cubs fan base, speaking as a lifelong member of this group, I have this to say about Jason Heyward.
In a late-August game, I went to Wrigley Field to take in a game from the bleachers. The team lost, a ninth-inning rally fell short and the Cubs lost. As the players filed to the player’s lot after the game, player by player walked by a group of young fans seeking autographs.
The only one to stop?
That’s right. Heyward.
He signed autographs for kids for nearly 30 minutes that day. He was polite and the definition of an upstanding guy. Despite nearly a full season of poor play weighing on him, he put it all aside for the fans.
Which brings me to my final point. Even if Jason Heyward performs at a below-average level the rest of his time on the North Side, remember this. The Cubs can – and likely will – win without him. And he brings immeasurable value with his clubhouse presence, defense and love of the fans.