Jason Heyward was considered by many to be among the top free agents this off-season. The left-handed 26-year old’s blend of speed, defense and on-base skills made him a coveted name. Somehow the Cubs were able to beat out big money teams like the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim and the Washington Nationals. Most surprising was that Heyward spurned his former team, the St. Louis Cardinals who had traded for him the year before and offered him a bigger guarantee, citing a better chance at winning. Let’s take a look at the shiniest new toy of the off-season.
Power is the name of the game for many of the Cubs top hitters. Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber and Jorge Soler for the most part rely on the long ball and strike out a lot when they don’t hit the ball a mile. The Cubs paid a huge price for Jason Heyward, eight years, $184 million to be exact. That may seem like a lot of money for a contact hitter, but Heyward along with their other free agent signings Ben Zobrist and Dexter Fowler add some balance to the lineup and hopefully will teach the others some more patience.
Last season, Heyward had a solid year batting .293/.359/.439 with 33 doubles, four triples, 13 home runs, 60 RBI and 23 steals. He posted career highs in batting average, hits and stolen bases. At 26, the J-Hey Kid is at the start of his prime and depending on where he hits in the lineup, could get even better. He’s batted mostly in the top three spots during his career and figures to do the same again this year.
As alluded to in our center field preview, Jason Heyward is arguably the best defensive right fielder in the game. He’s won the Gold Glove for his position two years in a row and is grated out as elite with an 18.4 UZR/150 rating in his career. With Wrigley Field playing smaller than most big league parks, it’s debatable that number could get even better for Heyward this year.
Obviously the biggest loser in the outfield picture is Jorge Soler. Soler was the incumbent starter in right field until the signing of Fowler bumped him into the short end of a platoon with Schwarber in left field. The change can be largely explained by an uneven season. He batted .262/.324/.399 with 18 doubles, one triple, 10 home runs, 47 RBI and three stolen bases. Not bad for a rookie season, but considering he smashed five home runs in just under 100 at-bats in his initial debut the year before, it was a little disappointing.
It’s possible he never really got into a solid rhythm as Soler spent about six weeks on the DL with an ankle and oblique strain. His plate discipline and defense also left a lot to be desired. He walked just 32 times while striking out in 30 percent of his at-bats. On defense he was well below average and looked lackadaisical in the field at times, enraging fans on more than one occasion.
Soler did show signs of figuring it though as he looked like a different player at the plate in the playoffs. In seven games, he batted .474 with three doubles, three home runs and five RBI. He also walked six times to five strikeouts. Soler was actually better against righties last year, so his platoon with Schwarber might not be traditional, but probably more based on who is hitting better.
In addition to Soler and Heyward, teammates Ben Zobrist, Kyle Schwarber and Kris Bryant are also candidates in right field. With Heyward’s defensive prowess, obviously any playing time the trio would receive would be due to injury or if he was out of the lineup for a rest.
Ben Zobrist is probably the best option of the three. He’s played 336 career games in right and is considered just a step below Heyward defensively. As a switch hitter, he’d be an easy everyday option. As for Bryant and Schwarber, both don’t have a ton of experience at the position with just 11 games combined. In their brief time, with Bryant, being a little more athletic would be a better choice on defense, but Schwarber’s arm profiles well in right as well. It will probably depend more on the matchup than anything else.
As profiled in our center field preview, Matt Szczur, John Andreoli and Juan Perez are in a likely battle for the last roster spot. Last Friday, the team announced the signing of Shane Victorino to a minor league deal to add to the mix. All four are fairly solid defensively in the corners and it will likely come down to which one hits the most this spring and earns the job.
The 35-year old Victorino trained with Bryant and Dexter Fowler in the off-season and says he’s in great shape again. That’s an important consideration because Victorino looked like his career was about over last year. In 71 games, he batted .230/.308/.292 with four doubles, two triples, one home run, seven RBI and seven stolen bases. He’s suffered a variety of leg injuries the past two years which have robbed him of his speed for the most part. Because of this, he’s played right field almost exclusively and hasn’t played center field since 2013. Also in that year, he gave up switch-hitting and batted solely from the right side. But he says he’s healthy enough now to switch-hit again. He’s going to have to prove if there’s any gas left in the tank and he can get back to be versatile enough to play all three positions.
With Soler moving into a reduced role and his name already being listed in a variety of rumors this off-season, it’s possible he could be on the trading block again come the trade deadline. If that’s the case, a top prospect that may be in line for an increased role is Billy McKinney.
McKinney was not invited to Major League Spring Training, but is still considered among the club’s top three prospects and listed on many publications top 100 lists. He split his season last year between High-A Myrtle Beach and Double-A Tennessee. In 106 games, he hit .300/.371/.454 with 31 doubles, three triples, seven home runs and 64 RBI. Scouts love the left-handed batter’s pure hitting ability, including his coordination, bat speed and approach. There’s some debate among them how much overall power he will end up producing, but 15-18 home runs per year is likely. On defense, the 21-year old has average speed and a fringe arm, but his aggressiveness and instincts have made up for those. He projects as a corner outfielder.
The addition of Dexter Fowler had an auspicious effect on right field. By adding another patient hitter to the lineup, Heyward is able to be moved down and provide more balance. With a happy Jason Heyward in his natural position and an already scary lineup that much better, the Cubs are coming and it may be hard for the rest of baseball to keep them away from their quest for a championship.
2016 Cubs Spring Training Previews
- Starting Pitchers
- Relief Pitchers
- First Base
- Second Base
- Third Base
- Left Field
- Center Field
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