Photo: Chicago Cubs

Heyward in a pretty good place

Jeff Dahn

Published: Wednesday, March 30, 2016

MESA, Ariz. – For a variety of reasons – with God-given talent, intelligence, innate ability and an exceptionally strong work ethic heading the list – Jason Heyward has usually found himself in a pretty good place in his baseball-playing life.

It started as a young boy growing up in McDonough, Ga., about 30 miles southeast of Atlanta. It continued right up through brilliant teenage careers at McDonough’s Henry County High School and with the powerhouse East Cobb Baseball organization.

The comfort zone was still there when he was making his major league debut with the hometown Atlanta Braves as a 20-year-old in 2010 and remained in place in 2015 during his lone season spent with the St. Louis Cardinals, one of the best of his six-year big league career.

A 6-foot-5, 240-pound, left-handed swinging and throwing, three-time Rawlings Gold Glove right-fielder, Heyward is in another new place this spring, and the comfort level is as high as it’s ever been.

An MLB All-Star during his rookie season in 2010 (he finished second in the National League Rookie of the Year balloting that year behind San Francisco’s Buster Posey), Heyward is set to start his seventh big league season next week as a member of the Chicago Cubs. It’s a club many Las Vegas odds-makers consider the favorite to win this year’s World Series Championship.

Heyward signed an eight-year, $184 million free-agent contract with the Cubs on Dec. 15, 2015, and when he spoke with Perfect Game recently from the Cubs’ sprawling Sloan Park Cactus League spring training complex on this city’s western edge, he looked and sounded like he had once again found himself in a pretty good place.

“Timing is everything with a lot of stuff,” he said last week. “You can go through a lot of clubhouses and say over the years they’ve had good teams come through, but it’s just a good time right now to be in Chicago. The front office and ownership is on the same page, and that’s reflected in here. It’s not only the group of players and what you see on paper, but it’s the personalities and things like that. Collectively, we all jell pretty well naturally – good baseball minds, good baseball people.”

By joining the Cubs, the 26-year-old Heyward joins a young every day lineup that includes two-time All-Star first baseman Anthony Rizzo (age 26), 2015 National League Rookie of the Year third baseman Kris Bryant (24), left-fielder/catcher Kyle Schwarber (23) and shortstop Addison Russell (22); centerfielder Dexter Fowler (30) is certainly not quite ready for a rocking chair yet, either.

A veteran pitching staff is led by 2015 NL Cy Young Award winner Jake Arrietta, Jon Lester and John Lackey, the latter who was with Heyward in St. Louis last season. Heyward, Bryant, Russell, Fowler and infielder Javier Baez (23) are all alumni of the PG All-American Classic and PG National Showcase, and Rizzo was at the National Showcase.

The Cubs are coming off a season in which they won 97 games (third-place in the NL Central behind the 100-game winning Cardinals and 98-game winning Pirates) and beat Pittsburgh in the NL Wild Card Game and the Cardinals in the NL Division Series. They were swept in four games by the New York Mets in the NL Championship Series as they looked to win their first pennant since 1945.

Although he is still quite young himself at 26, Heyward’s six full seasons in the big leagues gives him the credibility to be a team leader. And despite the fact he is a new presence in the Cubs’ clubhouse, he’s willing to accept any sort of leadership role required of him.

“I’ve been asked to do that since I was 20,” he said with a knowing smile. “Now, I’m more comfortable doing it, but I think we all bring something to the table; each player does. That’s what’s cool about this group is that everybody is willing to learn from each other, and whatever I have to offer, if anybody needs it, I’ll speak up.”

Heyward thought for a second, and then continued: “If I want to know something from somebody, I’m 100 percent going to ask them because I want to get better myself. I just want to be on the same page, and that goes a long way when you’re talking about jelling and keeping the group together and having that camaraderie, because there are going to be some ups and downs in baseball.”

The young version of Jason Heyward burst upon the national scene when he was named to the Top Prospect List at a couple of PG showcases in 2004 as a 14-year-old and newly minted 15-year-old; he was named to the TPL at both the 2004 and 2005 PG National Underclass Showcase and at the 2006 PG Southeast Top Prospect Showcase.

The showcase experiences were of great benefit to the young Heyward but many of his PG scouting reports were generated while playing in 11 PG WWBA tournaments with East Cobb Baseball, two early ones with the East Cobb Aztecs and then nine with the championship-winning East Cobb Astros. He was with the Astros at the PG WWBA World Championship in Jupiter, Fla., in both 2005 and ’06.

Those tournaments not only provided Heyward with much sought-after exposure but also placed him in a setting where he was playing with and against the best of his peers. He soon learned that wearing “East Cobb” or “Astros” across the front of his jersey put a sizable target on the back of it, and that lesson carried over into his major league experiences. In the bigs, nobody’s hiding and nobody’s safe.

“It’s competition at its best and coming at a young age that was great, for myself and for a lot of us, to go out there and compete against each other, and to feel not only how hard it was but how fun it was to be on that stage,” Heyward said.

And then there were his appearances at both the PG National Showcase in Fayetteville, Ark., and at the PG All-American Classic in San Diego during the summer of 2006. The class of 2007, which the players in attendance at those events were a part of it, was especially elite.

Eighteen of the 38 prospects that populated the East and West rosters at the 2006 PG A-A Classic went onto become first-round picks in subsequent MLB drafts and 16 of them made major league debuts, including Heyward, Madison Bumgarner, Matt Harvey, Freddie Freeman and D.J. LeMahieu.

“I didn’t know where I would end up or what it was going to be or anything like that. You just shoot for the best and fall where you fall,” Heyward said, reflecting back on that magical summer. “It was just impressive baseball. We didn’t know what our group was going to be but now you can look back at it and you can say (we were going to be pretty good) but at the time we didn’t know. …

“When it’s said and done you just know that you worked hard to get there, you know it’s not easy to get there, and how many good baseball players there are, and now you’re able to look back and say that was a pretty special draft.”

The Braves grabbed the 17-year-old Heyward with the 14th overall pick in the first-round of the 2007 MLB Amateur Draft and he made his big-league debut as a 20-year-old a short time later, on April 5, 2010; he went 2-for-5 with a home run and four RBI in that debut, against the Cubs.

In his six seasons he has produced a slash-line of .268/.353/.431, with averages of 16 home runs, 26 doubles, 59 RBI, 74 runs and 14 stolen bases over those seasons (in played in only 128 games in 2011 and 104 in 2013); he won Rawlings Gold Gloves with the Braves in 2012 and 2014.

He was at his best last season in St. Louis, slashing .293/.359/.439 with 160 hits, 13 home runs, 33 doubles, 60 RBI, 79 runs and 23 stolen bases in 154 games; the hits, doubles and stolen bases were career highs. And to top it off, he won his third Rawlings Gold Glove. 2015 NL Manager of the Year Joe Maddon realized immediately what sort of player he was getting when the Cubs signed Heyward.

“What impresses me about him is that he’s a complete baseball player,” Maddon told Bruce Miles of the Daily Herald in an article published online on Feb. 27. “Again, I think people get hung up on batting average and all this other stuff a little bit too much, although I think he’s going to hit for really high numbers in all the necessary areas as he moves it along.

“He’s a really good outfielder. He throws really well. He runs great routes. He’s communicative on defense,” Maddon continued. “He’s one of the best baserunners in the National League, actually maybe the best.”

Heyward struggled at the plate in his first 16 Cactus League games this spring, hitting .191 (9-for-47). But seven of his nine hits went for extra bases (3 HRs) and he drove in 14 runs and scored 11. And despite those numbers, Heyward insisted that he’s been enjoying springtime in the desert as he gets to know his new teammates and as they all dial-in on the goal of reaching – and winning – the World Series. In other words, Jason Heyward is in a pretty good place.

“It’s been a lot of fun, to say the least, and Joe (Maddon) sets the tone in the best way possible for us every day to come in and enjoy, but to work hard, work smart and don’t take it for granted,” he said. “To be in one of these situations for someone like myself that has put in enough time now playing … right here we have a good thing and it feels pretty special.”

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