Cubs’ Jason Heyward: Next 6 months will answer if overhaul worked

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MESA, Ariz. – On the seventh pitch of an at-bat in the sixth inning Tuesday, the Cubs’ Jason Heyward lined a double into the right-center gap off the Giants’ Matt Cain. In the game before that, Heyward walked three times. In his final at-bat of the game before that, he homered.

So is he fixed? Is the $184 million right fielder who slumped to the worst offensive season of his career in 2016 back to at least career-average form now that the off-season work and nearly all of spring training is done?

“I don’t know,” he said. “You’ll get the answer to that at the end of the season.”

Maybe that’s the nature of these things. It’s certainly the only the only part that matters.

Heyward worked daily for long stretches of the winter with hitting coaches John Mallee and Eric Hinske, trying in part to recreate the swing and success he had in 2012 when he hit a career-high 27 homers.

He seems more at ease in his second season with the Cubs in the clubhouse and, some suggest, on the field. He said Tuesday he likes where he is physically and mentally at the plate, especially in recent games.

And while his swing doesn’t look dramatically different, his hands are lower, giving him a chance to get to the ball quicker, and there’s less wasted movement in his setup than even early in the spring schedule.

But not even he will guess what it produces once the season starts in St. Louis Sunday night?

Depending on the scout you talk to in Arizona, Heyward either looks like the same basic hitter who hit .230 with seven homers and got benched during the playoffs – or he shows signs of renewed life and confidence that could translate to the bounce-back season he and the Cubs are looking for.

“I like what he’s doing right now,” manager Joe Maddon said. “I thought the swings have been really good lately. I see them making constant progress. … I see a lot of difference.”

The Cubs won 103 games and the World Series despite Heyward’s struggles at the plate – but also because of what he provided as a Gold Glove right fielder, heady base runner and with a lunch-pail workman’s example he brought to the ballpark.

If he can raise his career-worst .631 OPS even 100 points, it could be a significant factor in the Cubs’ efforts to repeat.

Heyward said his work the last four months has been both a physical and mental process.

“The last few games I’ve gone up there with the mindset of swinging at every pitch and letting my eyes tell me, `no.’ That’s how you be aggressive in the strike zone,” said Heyward, who had two seven-pitch at-bats Tuesday coming off the three-walk game.

“I’m not talking about results,” he stresses (still hitting just .163 this spring). “Just the mindset and approach of each at-bat. As far as timing and just being able to go up there and react, I feel like [I’ve] been able to do that here, now, these last few games.

“I like how it feels. The approach is good, trusting that, being able to trust myself to lay off pitches not in the zone when you’re being aggressive in the strike zone, swinging at strikes. That’s what I want to do.”

Teammate Jon Lester, who admitted he struggled at times the first season into his $155 million deal, called it “just human nature” for Heyward to have struggled in his first season after the big deal – and to rebound to career norms after.

“You’re coming into a place where you don’t know a lot of guys,” Lester said. “You’re trying to prove you’re worth something. You’re trying to prove to the city, to your teammates, your family, everybody else. …

“Now it’s a matter of he can just go out and play.”

Could that make a difference for the hitter the way it did for the pitcher?

“We’ll see,” Heyward said. “We’ll see what happens.”

 


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