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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

A ‘perfect marriage’ between team and player

Jason Heyward signed a minor-league contract with the Los Angeles Dodgers during the off-season. He has produced his best slugging percentage since 2012.

By Scott Miller

The harmonic convergence between the resurrected Jason Heyward and the rampaging Los Angeles Dodgers crystallized beautifully one evening in Baltimore last month.

It was in the top of the second inning at Camden Yards when Heyward smashed a three-run home run off right-hander Tyler Wells, opening the gates to a five-run inning.

An inning later, Jake Marisnick pinch-hit for Heyward.

Injury? No. Ejection? Nope.

The Orioles had changed pitchers, inserting left-hander Cole Irvin. And the Dodgers, being the Dodgers, adjusted accordingly.

“I told him the situation, that my bet was that they were going to use a lefty the rest of the way,” said manager Dave Roberts. “I told him, ‘You did your job to help us win this game.’ And he was like, ‘Doc, I’m in.’”

Roberts added: “For me, that’s everything, to have a player of his stature have complete buy-in.”

For Heyward, 34, the personal victories in his 14th season in the bigs have come in the small moments. He no longer plays every day, and he’s not the middle-of-the-order beast he had always seemed destined to become. But he can still help a team, which is more than the Chicago Cubs seemed to think when they decided to cut ties with him last August.

“It’s been a fun year of baseball,” Heyward said of his time with the Dodgers during a recent road trip to San Diego.

Discounting the pandemic-shortened 2020 campaign, Heyward’s on-base plus slugging percentage (.797) is his highest over a full season since 2015. He has produced the best isolated power (.216), home run percentage (4.2%) and walk rate (11.5%) of his career. And earlier this month, against Oakland’s Kirby Snead, Heyward socked his first home run against a lefty since May 2021.

Best of all, Heyward is clearly enjoying the ride.

It was a little over a year ago when Jed Hoyer, Chicago’s president of baseball operations, informed Heyward that the Cubs would release him after the season. With one year still remaining on the eight-year, $184 million deal he signed with the Cubs before the 2016 season, it was an ignominious ending to a chapter of his career that had its disappointments, but which also included his leadership playing a key role in the team winning its first World Series in 108 years.

Things began to fall apart quickly. The Cubs started to break in younger players while unsuccessfully defending their world title in 2017, they platooned a bit more and, Heyward said, they “started to try to be shape-shifters.” Some players accustomed to playing every day were asked to take on different roles, which led, in Heyward’s opinion, to an “identity crisis.”

“I understand transition — nothing is constant, nothing lasts forever,” Heyward said. “But that was the tough part of that group, especially with some of the younger guys.”

By 2019, it was clear that those Cubs were in need of a major overhaul. When Heyward’s OPS dropped to career lows in consecutive seasons — .627 in 2021 and .556 in 2022 — it was evident that his time there was done.

Because of a right knee injury, he played his last game for the team on June 24, 2022, having batted .204 with a .278 on-base percentage over 48 games. When Hoyer spoke with him in early August, Heyward wondered if his career was finished.

“You don’t know if someone’s going to offer you the chance to play,” Heyward said. “So I was realistic about that.”

The Dodgers called in early December and invited him to spring training on a minor league deal. They made no promises, but they laid out their vision in clear, concise terms.

“This is what a role would look like for you,” general manager Brandon Gomes said. “This is what our hitting guys are thinking. It would be you coming to L.A. and Arizona this winter and spending a lot of time attacking some swing changes, and we feel if you can do that, then there’s real upside left in how you can perform.”

The Dodgers loved what they knew of Heyward’s work ethic and his reputation in the clubhouse. Freddie Freeman, friends with Heyward since they played against each other in youth baseball tournaments when they were 16, heartily endorsed him.

“It felt like the perfect marriage between our culture, what he could bring on the field, off the field in the clubhouse, and his ability to just get to work with our group and kind of do a trust fall for what they saw for him,” Gomes said. “And now we’re seeing him perform at an incredibly high level.”

Maybe to some, it would have been easy for Heyward to take his five Gold Gloves, his World Series ring and the millions he had earned and just disappear. Especially after years of listening to outside critics eviscerate his Cubs contract as one of the game’s worst.

“I think when you look at contracts and players and the game of baseball, looking at career numbers, there are a lot that are below mine,” Heyward said of where his contract ranks historically. “There are a lot worse that have played out a lot worse. Guys have been on the field less. All that kind of stuff. And that’s not by any means to point the finger away from me. I’m right there in the thick of it. I love to play the game, and I understand the failures.”

Besides, the most difficult part of his descent with the Cubs, he said, wasn’t even his own personal failures. It was the rebuild over his final seasons in Wrigley.

“The toughest thing for me was not trying to win every day,” he said.

When he took that Dodgers phone call, he knew they would do everything to win. So setting aside his ego and accepting a minor-league deal was easy, he said.

“The beauty of it is, it’s a collaborative effort,” Gomes said. “It’s, ‘Hey, here’s what we’re thinking.’ And then Jason saying, ‘Well, I’ve either tried that before, or I can’t quite pull it off. Do we have another way to go about it?’ An open conversation that both parties run into with an open mind.”

Heyward has excelled at the specific role the Dodgers have carved out for him. The fixes in his swing, the at-bats against right-handers, the defensive agility that remains. In the clubhouse, he is everything the Dodgers hoped.

“I’ve leaned on him a lot over the course of the year,” said James Outman, a rookie outfielder. “Baseball mentor. Life mentor, really. He wants to win. And you can tell he wants his teammates to do well. And it’s coming from a super-genuine place.”

From Outman to Mookie Betts to David Peralta and Clayton Kershaw, Heyward name-checks veterans and newcomers alike, praising the Dodgers for their ability to match talent with character.

“The thing that’s cool is to have a group with a lot of veterans with some young guys mixed in, a lot of good examples,” Heyward said. “I feel like we all feed off of each other. And, of course, it’s fun to play with Freddie again, to have that come full circle.”

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