Cubs still have faith Heyward's hitting will come around
During the season-ending news conference held by Cubs president Theo Epstein last October, I asked specifically about right fielder Jason Heyward.
Heyward's offensive numbers in 2017 were only marginally better than they were in 2016, his first season of an eight-year, $184 million contract with the Cubs.
My question to Epstein was: Considering Heyward's contract and minimal offensive production over two years, was the situation a bigger fix than anticipated or could Heyward improve more than marginally?
Epstein's lengthy answer is worth revisiting here:
"By definition, I think he can improve more than marginally from where he is right now because he's done it in the past," Epstein said. "He was a 6-win player, I think, in four out of five or four out of six years. That's really the standard. That's what we want to get him back to, being a 6-win player.
"In order to do that, he's got to continue to play his great defense, continue to run the bases really well - added benefit of everything he does in the clubhouse with his leadership and professionalism. But to be that type of player again, there needs to be some improvement with the bat to get back to that level, and we'd love to see that, which means driving the ball more consistently to all fields and getting on base more and being a little bit more of an extra-base threat.
"He's done it before. You're never going to give up that that can come back. But this is a guy who has a ton of pride and understands he's contributed to a lot of wins and to a World Series title and another successful season (in 2016) but that there's more he can do and wants to do. He's a proud guy. He's a talented player, and there's some room for improvement offensively."
When Epstein was talking about "6-win player," he meant wins above replacement (WAR). According to fangraphs.com, Heyward reached a 6 WAR twice, in 2012 with the Braves and in 2015 with the Cardinals. Baseball Reference is a little more generous, rating Heyward as a 6-WAR player in 2010, 2014 and 2015.
However you calculate it, there is indeed "room for improvement offensively." During his first season with the Cubs, he had a line of .230/.306/.325 with 7 homers and 49 RBI. And after working extensively with then-hitting coach John Mallee last spring, Heyward put up a line of .259/.326/.389 with 11 homers and 59 RBI.
Heyward won Gold Gloves in both seasons with the Cubs, and his rain-delay speech in Game 7 of the 2016 World Series is the stuff of legend.
But the offensive numbers are a far cry from those in 2012, when Heyward went .269/.335/.479 with 27 homers and 82 RBI with Atlanta.
With the Cubs, Heyward found himself on the bench for some postseason games in both 2016 and 2017, and he's off to a slow start this spring. Entering Wednesday, he was 4-for-26 (.154).
This spring also brought more work, this time with new hitting coach Chili Davis, who replaced the fired Mallee.
"It's been a very easy transition because he played for a long time," Heyward told cubs.com. "He switch hit, he knows how to talk 'feel' and things like that. Sometimes you may not need to talk about a mechanical thing, sometimes you just need to talk about feel or whatever, and it gets you in the right mindset and things fall into place that way.
"At the end of the day during a season, 162 games, that's what you need more than anything. You can work mechanics, you can work drills all you want, but the mindset going into that drill is important and the mindset going into each game and at-bat is important."
If manager Joe Maddon decides to sit the left-handed hitting Heyward against tough lefty pitching, Albert Almora Jr. can handle right field quite competently. Veteran Ben Zobrist has appeared in 392 big-league games in right field.
The big question is what happens if Heyward gets off to a slow start at the plate. Will Maddon stick with him, or does he become an expensive defensive replacement?
The ZiPS projection system has Heyward going .262/.335/.393 with 11 homers and 60 RBI this season. The PECOTA system of Baseball Prospectus projects Heyward at .261/.341/.395 with 11 homers and 52 RBI.
• Twitter: @BruceMiles2112