The Cubs’ Jason Heyward problem is masked for now. But it will take a title to keep it under wraps.
It was the top of the 9th, and all of baseball saw the inevitable unfold.
Javier Baez stepped in to face Giants reliever Hunter Strickland. Four other pitchers had already tried unsuccessfully to stave off a heroic four-run Cubs comeback in the frame. By this point, it felt more like a battle against time for San Francisco — a team which, just minutes earlier, looked to be on the verge of continuing its own historic comeback, following a 2-0 NLDS deficit.
Baez, having already parked an iconic game-winning home run in Game 1 of the series, quickly went down 0-2. He took a deep breath and stepped coolly back into the box, glancing for a moment at the man on second base. After fouling off the previous pitch, this time Baez locked in, roping a low fastball back up the middle. The runner rounded third and scored easily, handing the Cubs a 6-5 lead and eventually, an NLCS berth.
If the Cubs do indeed take the World Series this year, as predicted, Baez may have carved a place for himself in the annals of Chicago baseball lore. After all, conquering a 108-year championship drought tends to breed epic figures along the way.
Undoubtedly, however, some of Baez’s rostermates would be forgotten. Perhaps none quicker than the player who scored the winning run on Tuesday: Jason Heyward.
Once labeled a generational talent in the Atlanta Braves’ farm system, Heyward looked to have it all as an amateur. Built like an NFL tight end with the speed to match, he projected as a true five-tool star. At a young age, he was anointed to become the next standard-bearer for Atlanta’s illustrious winning tradition.
Initially, it seemed like he was going to fulfill the lofty expectations set before him. As a 20-year-old rookie in 2010, he batted .277 and whacked 52 extra-base hits. More impressively, he walked 91 times and led all rookies in fWAR (4.7). Among a rookie class which included contemporary stars like Buster Posey and Giancarlo Stanton, Heyward represented the cream of the crop.
The following season, Heyward struggled at the plate. But it was easy to label his declining numbers across the board a fluke, or even a sophomore slump traceable to injury. There were red flags, though — specifically a 50-point drop in batting average and a severely inflated soft contact rate.
In 2012, Heyward appeared to return to form. He clubbed 27 long balls, swiped 21 bases and enhanced his play in the field drastically. He showcased his arm frequently and paced all NL right fielders with 11 assists. But again, alarm bells rang. His walk percentage had dropped by nearly half from his rookie season while his strikeout rate continued to grow. And though he added more power into his arsenal, it was often rendered ineffective when pitchers pounded him with fastballs.
Then, he stopped hitting completely. The power he was nurturing disappeared. Over the next three years, he hit 38 home runs, a 35 percent drop from his first three years in the MLB. He took fewer strikeouts, but settled for much more soft contact. In his final season before joining the Cubs, Heyward managed a measly 13 round trippers and 60 RBI in 610 plate appearances.
He played great defense, though, and parlayed a cult admiration of his exploits in right field into a mammoth eight-year, $184 million contract to reward him through his age-33 season. It’s tied for the 14th most lucrative deal in baseball history.
Which brings us to 2016. Heyward’s been a singular disappointment on an otherwise untarnished Cubs team. In a lineup chock full of emerging talent, he sits alone as a beacon of player development gone awry. Just recently turned 27 years old, he posted his worst season to date with career lows in average (.230), home runs (7), OPS (.631) and wRC+ (72). Not only have his offensive woes ballooned out of proportion, his defense has begun to waver as well. His disappointing performance was enough to drop his bWAR a full five points from the previous season to 1.5, nestling him between Chris Owings and Mark Reynolds on the league leaderboard.
Of the nine other position players who have been awarded as much or more money than Heyward, none had a worse age-26 season. And of the same list, none performed as poorly in the first year of their contract.
All this to say: the outlook is not bright. When Cubs president Theo Epstein signed Heyward this past offseason, the reasonable expectation was a passable version of what he did for the Cardinals in 2015 repeated over the length of the contract. Instead, Heyward’s offense has bottomed out and his defense has started to trend downward as well, He could conceivably provide replacement level value as soon as next year.
So what is manager Joe Maddon to do? Does he have the go-ahead to let his $184 million man languish on the bench if necessary? Will he begin to edge him out of the organization in favor of up-and-comers like Albert Almora and Eloy Jimenez?
The Cubs are staring straight down the barrel of a very, very expensive gun. It’s time to find out if they’re prepared for it to go off.
As Baez waited in the on-deck circle in the top of the 9th on Tuesday, Heyward took his warmup cuts in the left-handed batter’s box. Only, he wouldn’t need them.
With no outs and Willson Contreras camped at first, fresh off a two-run, game-tying single, Heyward squared around to bunt on lefty Will Smith‘s opening delivery. He cracked the pitch solidly off the bat right back at Smith, who immediately turned around and delivered a throw to second base to get the force out. Shortstop Brandon Crawford received the ball and whipped a dart to first in hopes of getting Heyward, but the throw sailed wide, giving him a free base instead of an out.
Three pitches later, Heyward hurtled around third pumping his fist in ecstasy as he crossed home for the winning run.
Some will remember this image of Heyward scoring. Most will forget. Right now, he’s a $184 million afterthought. But perhaps that’s for the best.