On April 5, 2010, baseball’s number one prospect and McDonough, Georgia’s own 21-year-old Jason Heyward stepped into the left handed batter’s box at Turner Field for the very first time against Carlos Zambrano and the Chicago Cubs. I was in the very last row of the 400 section as I watched a 2-0 fastball rocket off Heyward’s bat and into the Atlanta bullpen for a three-run home run to tie the game. From that moment on, expectations rocketed to out-of-reach heights and the weight of living up to the hype sat heavily on Heyward’s shoulders.
The league was always waiting and expecting his bat to take the turn and make him a top hitter in the league. His glove and defense have always been elite; we were all just waiting for his offense to follow suit. After a disappointing season in 2014, the Braves decided it would be best to trade Heyward to receive something in return rather than lose him for nothing when he became a free agent after 2015, much like the Cubs ultimately decided to do with Javier Baez, Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant. They made a deal with the Cardinals, and in 2015 he batted a career-high .293 and was key in the Cardinals winning a very competitive NL Central. In the NLDS that year against the Cubs, he batted .357 but St. Louis fell short to the Cubs. He then became a free agent.
After what was to be believed his breakout season, he was the most coveted outfielder to hit the market, and plenty of teams were interested in paying big money. In the end, he chose Chicago and signed an eight-year deal worth $184 million with the Cubs, which was not the highest offer on the table.
Jason Heyward begins his Chicago Cubs career with a World Series ring
In 2016, Heyward struggled at the plate, batting .230 which was the lowest average of his career at the time. However, his defense was as advertised, and he was instantly respected as a leader in the clubhouse. He also is rumored to be the leading force in calling a player’s only meeting during the infamous rain delay during game seven of the World Series, eventually helping the Cubs win its first World Series since 1908.
Since then, he has continued to be a mid-.200 average guy at the plate, and a stellar defensive player in the outfield. He has always been a leader and great to have in the locker room. But no one cares much about the off-field stuff, because the price tag to bring him here was so large and the expectations were so high.
The reality of the situation is that the expectations from the third pitch he saw in the big leagues to right now have always been unobtainable for Heyward, and there is no doubt in my mind that the mental anxiety of not living up to the hype has much to do with the lack of offensive performance. But also, I think the Cubs absolutely knew they were overpaying to get the biggest name on the market at the time. The big splash put fans in the seats and told the baseball world the Cubs were here and ready to win.
Chicago Cubs: Jason Heyward isn’t to blame for his contract – period
Even through the adversity, Heyward has answered the call and delivered some memorable moments with his bat and his glove. He has multiple walk-off home runs, clutch hits, and remarkable catches to save games. The focus, unfortunately, continues to be on his shortcomings in other spots.
The Cubs have come to an offseason where the free agency market is going to be loud and lucrative for some big time star players. The conversations fans are having are wondering where the spending is going to go, but also Heyward eating up $22 million each of the next two years. It’s not exactly a movable contract for a career .259 hitter.
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In the end, his agent got him the deal and Theo Epstein agreed to pay him. Heyward could have gone to a few different places, even for more money, and he chose to come to Chicago. He ingrained himself into the community and became a Chicago guy. He lives here year round and calls it home. Offensively, the numbers don’t match the contract. But defensively, his role as a leader, and his selflessness in the community should absolutely be considered as well. The Cubs are not here without Heyward’s help.