Chicago Cubs: Could Jason Heyward become the leadoff man?

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CHICAGO, IL - MAY 25: Jason Heyward
CHICAGO, IL - MAY 25: Jason Heyward /
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Many would immediately say “no”, and who could blame them? Jason Heyward hasn’t done enough at the plate to warrant the idea. But maybe the change of hitting coaches and some time will make the difference.

Jason Heyward’s first two years of his eight-year contract with the Chicago Cubs have been frustrating. He came to Chicago following a career year in St. Louis and expectations were high. A slow start bled into a slow season in 2016, and his 2017 campaign wasn’t much better either. Now, with a new hitting coach and more-humble expectations of him, Heyward is in a position to show Cubs’ fans why he received the contract he did.

There’s a lot standing between Jason Heyward and the leadoff role. Joe Maddon won’t dropping him in there opening day. Heyward will spend at least the first month or two of the season in the latter end of the lineup. But if—big if—Heyward can revert to something reminiscent of his pre-Cubs career, he might find himself as the most capable leadoff hitter they have.

A possible platoon partner

Take Heyward’s 2015 season with the Cardinals as an example. He slashed .293/.359/.439 with 23 stolen bases. By comparison, Albert Almora Jr.—a guy likely to see himself in the one hole throughout 2018—.292/.330/.445 in his 440 major league plate appearances.

The numbers are very similar to Heyward’s career year, but there’s a convenient difference between the two outfielders: one’s a righty and one’s a lefty. Should Heyward prove to be a capable offensive threat in 2018, Maddon would have the ability to advantageously platoon the two based on the opposing starting pitcher.

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Despite still falling short of what he’s being paid to do; Heyward was pretty significantly better in 2017 than 2016. Of his eight years in the majors, he posted his fourth best season batting average in 2017.

Realistic expectations

The most fans can hope for is that he’s on an upward trajectory. Perhaps his work with new hitting coach Chili Davis can identify whatever it is preventing Heyward from being the player he was before moving to Chicago.

But alas, Cubs’ fans should keep their expectations of Heyward in check. In the offseason following the Cubs’ historic World Series, we all saw the side-by-side of his 2016 swing next to his offseason adjustments. Many thought him to be fixed before he even arrived at spring training.

And even with his mediocrity, the Cubs are not nearly reliant on Heyward as his contract may suggest. Of course, it’s unlikely that Heyward comes back in 2018, plays as he did for the Cardinals in 2015 and retools himself as a productive leadoff hitter. But the Cubs will be okay if Heyward spends all eight years of his contract playing as he did in the first two.

There are plenty of other internal leadoff options

The Cubs’ leadoff role has far more potential candidates than may be immediately recognizable on the surface. Switch hitters Ian Happ and Ben Zobrist could both be serviceable there if they’re playing well offensively. Albert Almora Jr. is a known top of the order foe to left-handed hitting. Even the redesigned Kyle Schwarber may get another chance if he can prove 2017 isn’t an accurate representation of the player he is.

Next: Chicago Cubs: Is there a case to be made for adding Jaime Garcia?

Theo Epstein has appeared reluctant to spend on a leadoff hitter, calling it a luxury rather than a necessity. If the leadoff role continues to be the revolving door it was in 2017; he may change his tune on that. But in all likelihood, the leadoff hitter is already on the roster. It’s just a matter of months until we see who it might be.

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