Dodgers ‘believe’ in Jason Heyward; can swing change revive his career?

PHOENIX – In his first live batting practice of spring training, with his hands further back than usual, his weight firmly on his back leg, Jason Heyward turned and exploded with an offering from the All-Star Tony Gonsolin, blasting down the right field. field wall at Camelback Ranch.

The home run provided an early glimpse of what Heyward’s new coaches and teammates had raved about for weeks.

“You’ll see why he was a first-round pick,” Freddie Freeman said. “He wants to be that good, too. He’s in there, and I think he might have unlocked something.”

Heyward is not getting ahead. This is a time for optimism for all 30 teams and for all players fighting to claim an active roster spot, but the 33-year-old veteran has played long enough to know not to over-hype end of February to a simulated setup.

Still, the outburst provided tangible proof of what those around him see: a game-changer that could breathe new life into baseball for the discarded 13-year veteran.

“We have to let this happen,” Heyward said. “I know I have to do those things, like ‘ABC,’ to go out there and get the best swing every time. There’s going to be bad swings, a lot of them, but time and time again, am I in a good position to be as consistent as possible? “

That’s what the Dodgers tried to help him find this winter.

They signed Heyward to a minor league deal in December. Within days, Heyward was in the cage working with Dodgers hitting coach Robert Van Scoyoc in Pasadena. The five-time Gold Glover was receptive to new ideas.

“If you’re in the last year and a half like I am,” Heyward said, “you’re going to expect to make changes.”

Van Scoyoc wasn’t surprised by Heyward’s mindset.

“I think that’s become a little more common when you’re at the end of your career and you don’t want it to end,” Van Scoyoc said. “Why don’t you try?”

In the six seasons before signing an eight-year, $184 million contract with the Cubs, Heyward had a .784 OPS while hitting below league average just once. Over the last seven seasons in Chicago, he averaged a .700 OPS while hitting on top league average just once.

The low point came last year, when he slashed .204/.278/.277 with one home run in 48 games. He was mired in a 4-for-34 slump after going 0-for-4 on June 24. This turned out to be his last game of the 2022 season. Heyward was placed on the injured list with knee inflammation days later. In August, the Cubs announced they would waive him during the offseason. Heyward still had a year left on his deal.

Freeman saw an opportunity.

Around that time, he began lobbying Dodgers president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman to take a look at his good friend and former Braves teammate.

“I put Jason’s name on the radar, then put it back and moved on,” Freeman said. “Then Jason and I started talking pretty much every day. He was telling me about the offseason and his route to the Dodgers. I just made sure to let Andrew know how wonderful this guy is.”

While working in Los Angeles in January, Heyward made an additional stop before returning to Chicago. He drove to Newport Beach to stay with Freeman and work out for a week.

Heyward and Freeman were linked at the hip on their way to the majors. They were drafted in the first and second rounds, respectively, by Atlanta in 2007. Both debuted in 2010. That year, Heyward finished second in Rookie of the Year voting. Freeman finished second the following season. After four consecutive seasons of missing the playoffs, the Braves reached the postseason for the third time in the first four years with Freeman and Heyward on the staff.

“He just wants to win,” Freeman said. “I think anyone who knows Jason knows that’s all he cares about.”

There wasn’t much of that towards the end of Heyward’s tenure in Chicago. His offensive shortcomings played a role, though he will always be remembered for the rousing speech he gave before the end of the Cubs’ World Series blowout Game 7 victory in his first season with the club.

The following year, the Cubs lost in the National League Championship Series. They never made it past the wild-card round in any of Heyward’s last five seasons. Over the last two years, they have lost 179 games. Meanwhile, Heyward’s struggles worsened. When he did make contact, he could still hurt — his max exit velocity of 115.3 mph in 2021 ranked in the top 5% of the league — but his walk rate dipped. His strike rate increased. He began to chase at an alarming rate.

This winter, the Dodgers took Freeman’s advice and offered Heyward a chance. In a minor league deal, the risk was minimal.

“Obviously a very strong track record, a fantastic athlete, an excellent defender,” Dodgers general manager Brandon Gomes said. “Just from the industry and obviously Freddie, a tremendous teammate. Layered on top of our hitters saying, ‘Hey, we feel like there’s some things we can accomplish,’ and Jason’s open mindedness to doing those things were all big pluses.”

In Los Angeles, Heyward knew he would compete for playing time. I knew I had a chance to win.

Most importantly, he knew he had a team that still believed in him.

“They called first,” Heyward said. “They called first, second and third.”

Heyward noted similarities between Los Angeles and St. Louis, where he played for a year before signing his mega-deal in Chicago. In 2015, he slashed .293/.359/.439 and helped the Cardinals to a 100-win season. Your stay in St. Louis was brief, but it was one that pitcher Michael Wacha won’t forget.

By then, Heyward was already an excellent major leaguer who would “get all the good spots,” as Wacha recalled. Wacha, then a promising 23-year-old, wore the same size 13. “I got you,” Heyward told him before fitting him with a new pair.

“J-Hey was one of the best teammates I’ve ever had,” Wacha said. “He’s the best right fielder I’ve ever had. He’s saved me a lot of runs. Just a great guy. Professional. He does it the right way, he’s an example for anyone watching.”

Those are traits the Dodgers are looking for, especially in a club looking for new leaders after the departure of Justin Turner. Before his first full-squad practice of spring training, Heyward was one of the players Dave Roberts called up to address the huddle. Heyward talked about the joys of being in a place where he is expected to win.

“If he’s successful and does really well for us, it’s impactful not just for the 2023 season, but for many, many years beyond that,” Freeman said. “What he can do for a Gavin Lux, a Miguel Vargas, the young guys, those are the things that most people don’t see. He already took Gavin and Miggy out to lunch while he was there the two weeks in Los Angeles. . It’s just the little things, how you can connect.”

Of course, he’ll have to do more than that to stick on a Dodgers team with championship aspirations.

The Dodgers signed outfielder David Peralta this offseason, but didn’t make any center field signings after the departure of Cody Bellinger (coincidentally, to the Cubs). Instead, they left the competition open for playing time at both outfield spots in front of right fielder Mookie Betts. They brought in Heyward, Bradley Zimmer and Steven Duggar on minor league deals to compete with Peralta, Chris Taylor, Trayce Thompson and intriguing prospect James Outman.

Right now, all signs point to Heyward making the roster, especially with Taylor likely to spend more time on the field after Lux’s ACL injury.

“I’m very optimistic about the swing, the player, the person, how he’s going to help our club,” Roberts said.

That confidence grew as Heyward spent more time around the Dodgers’ hitting coaches, who wanted him to be more efficient in his movement and find a more direct path to the ball. Heyward believed in swing adjustments, many of which he had explored or considered before.

“The goal is to be in a good position consistently,” Heyward said. “When you get to that landing spot, being able to shoot the right way instead of putting Band-Aids on it and trying to trick a ball and wanting to compete so bad that you don’t focus on what’s important in the box. .

“What’s been beautiful, it’s been natural. Trust in my ability. Trust that these positions you were in at any given time work. Also, I can do this…”.

The first returns are promising.

Home runs in the spring may not mean much, but they carry more weight when facing major league pitchers. A week after hitting a home run against Gonsolin, Heyward returned to action Wednesday afternoon against Andrew Heaney and brought the Rangers pitcher into the Cactus League game.

After their impressive early exit from the playoffs, the Dodgers hope to have found something in an outfielder coming off his own abrupt exit.

“I really believe in Jason and his talent,” Van Scoyoc said, “and I think what we can get out of it can be special.”

Rowan Kavner covers the Dodgers and NL West for FOX Sports. He previously served as editor of the Dodgers’ digital and print publications. Follow him on Twitter at @Rowan Kavner.

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