After the Cubs were knocked out of the 2017 postseason, team president Theo Epstein was asked what right fielder Jason Heyward had to do to become the player the Cubs thought they had when they signed him to an eight-year, $184 million contract before the 2016 season.
Epstein replied that Heyward needed to return to being a six-win player, as in a six-wins-above-replacement player.
It hasn’t happened, and most projections for this year agree that it is not going to happen.
Here are Heyward’s hitting lines for each of his first three years of his contract:
2016: .230/.306/.325 with seven homers, 49 RBIs and a 1.0 WAR.
2017: .259/.326/.389 with 11 homers, 59 RBI and a 1.0 WAR.
2018: .270/.335/.396 with eight homers, 57 RBI and a 2.0 WAR.
It’s true that Heyward has improved over his time with the Cubs, but that improvement has been only incremental, and this season, he turns 30. Most projections have his numbers being about where they’ve been.
So what do the Cubs do? There’s not much they can do.
They will run Heyward out to right field every day and benefit from his defense. Heyward’s streak of four straight Gold Gloves was snapped last season, and his UZR/150 (ultimate zone rating over 150 games) dropped from 17.5 in 2016 to 10.4 in 2017 to 7.8 last year.
Heyward also is an undisputed clubhouse leader. But his drop-off in offensive production from his days with the Braves and Cardinals is mystifying. It also has been a bit of a rough start to spring for Heyward, who had to deal with a family situation early in camp before coming down with an illness.
He entered Tuesday 3 for 14 with an RBI in Cactus League play.
Heyward will be working under his third hitting coach in three years. John Mallee was fired after the 2017 season, and Heyward seemed to hit it off with Chili Davis last season. Now, Anthony Iapoce will be charged with getting more out of Heyward.
FanGraphs.com also remains perplexed by Heyward.
“I’m still waiting for that major power breakout, and I’m willing to wait until Heyward retires,” wrote author Mike Podhorzer. “I’m still baffled how a man of his size and with his prospect pedigree peaked so early in the power department and has been a below average hitter for the past three seasons.
“He’s still young enough to enjoy that major breakout we have been waiting all too long for, so don’t completely give up hope. Of course, he used to at least steal some bases as we waited, but those swipes have disappeared, leaving no downside cushion.”