Dodgers ‘consider’ in Jason Heyward; can swing change revive his profession?

PHOENIX — In his first stay batting follow of spring coaching, his palms positioned additional again than common, his weight firmly on his again leg, Jason Heyward turned and exploded on an providing from All-Star Tony Gonsolin, rocketing the pitch over the right-field wall at Camelback Ranch. 

The house run supplied an early glimpse into what Heyward’s new coaches and teammates had raved about for weeks.

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

Heyward is just not getting forward of himself. This is a time for optimism for all 30 groups and each participant combating to assert a spot on an lively roster, however the 33-year-old veteran has performed lengthy sufficient to know to not make an excessive amount of of a late February at-bat in a simulated setting. 

Still, the blast offered tangible proof of what these round him see — a swing change that would breathe new baseball life into the discarded 13-year veteran.

“We’ve got to let that play out,” Heyward mentioned. “I know I’ve got to do these things, right, like ‘A-B-C,’ to go out and get the best swing off each time. There’s going to be bad swings, plenty of them, but over and over, am I in a good position to be as consistent as possible?”

That’s what the Dodgers sought to assist him discover this winter. 

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

“If you have the last year and a half the way I had,” Heyward mentioned, “you’d expect to make changes.”

Van Scoyoc was not shocked by Heyward’s mindset. 

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

In the six seasons earlier than signing an eight-year, $184 million contract with the Cubs, Heyward averaged a .784 OPS whereas hitting beneath league common simply as soon as. Over the previous seven seasons in Chicago, he averaged a .700 OPS whereas hitting above league common simply as soon as. 

The low level got here final 12 months, when he slashed .204/.278/.277 with one house run in 48 video games. He was mired in a 4-for-34 droop after an 0-for-4 day on June 24. That turned out to be his last sport of the 2022 season. Heyward was positioned on the injured listing with knee irritation days later. By August, the Cubs introduced they’d be shifting on from him within the offseason. Heyward nonetheless had one 12 months remaining on his deal. 

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Freeman noticed a possibility. 

Around that point, he began lobbying Dodgers president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman to try his good pal and former Braves teammate.

“I put Jason’s name on the radar, then I put it on again and just kept going and going and going,” Freeman mentioned. “Then, Jason and I started talking pretty much every day. He was filling me in on the offseason and his route getting to the Dodgers. I just made sure to let Andrew know how wonderful of a man that guy is.”

While figuring out in Los Angeles in January, Heyward made a further cease earlier than flying again to Chicago. He drove to Newport Beach to stick with Freeman and work out for per week. 

Heyward and Freeman have been tied on the hip on their path to the majors. They have been drafted within the first and second rounds, respectively, by Atlanta in 2007. They each debuted in 2010. That 12 months, Heyward completed second in Rookie of the Year voting. Freeman completed second the next season. After 4 straight seasons lacking the playoffs, the Braves made it to the postseason three of the primary 4 years with Freeman and Heyward on the squad. 

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

There wasn’t a lot of that towards the top of Heyward’s tenure in Chicago. His offensive deficiencies performed a task, although he’ll all the time be remembered for the rousing speech he gave earlier than the top of the Cubs’ curse-crushing Game 7 World Series victory in his first season with the membership. 

The following 12 months, the Cubs misplaced within the National League Championship Series. They by no means made it previous the wild-card spherical in any of Heyward’s last 5 seasons. Over the final two years, they misplaced 179 video games. Meanwhile, Heyward’s struggles worsened. When he made contact, he may nonetheless do harm — his 115.3 mph max exit velocity in 2021 ranked within the league’s prime 5% — however his stroll fee dipped. His strikeout fee ascended. He started chasing at an alarming fee. 

This winter, the Dodgers heeded Freeman’s recommendation and prolonged Heyward a possibility. On a minor-league deal, the chance was minimal. 

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“Obviously a really strong track record, fantastic athlete, excellent defender,” Dodgers common supervisor Brandon Gomes mentioned. “From just the industry and obviously Freddie, a tremendous teammate. Layering on the fact that our hitting guys were like, ‘Hey, we feel like there are some things we can get after,’ and Jason’s open-mindedness to do those things, those were all big pluses.” 

In Los Angeles, Heyward knew he would compete for enjoying time. He knew he had an opportunity to win. 

Most importantly, he knew he had a group that also believed in him. 

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

Heyward seen similarities between Los Angeles and St. Louis, the place he performed for one 12 months previous to signing his mega-deal in Chicago. In 2015, he slashed .293/.359/.439 and helped the Cardinals to a 100-win season. His keep in St. Louis was transient, but it surely was one which pitcher Michael Wacha received’t overlook. 

At the time, Heyward was already an achieved major-leaguer who “would get all the good cleats,” as Wacha remembered. Wacha, then a promising 23-year-old, simply so occurred to put on the identical measurement 13. “I got you,” Heyward would inform him earlier than slipping him a brand new pair. 

“J-Hey was one of the better teammates that I’ve ever had,” Wacha mentioned. “He’s the best right fielder I’ve ever had out there. He saved me a lot of runs. Just a great dude. Professional. Goes about it the right way, sets an example for whoever’s watching.” 

Those are traits the Dodgers are in search of, significantly in a clubhouse in search of new leaders after Justin Turner’s departure. Before their first full-squad exercise of spring coaching, Heyward was among the many gamers supervisor Dave Roberts summoned to handle the group. Heyward talked concerning the joys of being in a spot you’re anticipated to win. 

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

Of course, he’ll have to do greater than that to stay on a Dodgers group with championship aspirations. 

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The Dodgers signed outfielder David Peralta this offseason, however they didn’t make a splash signing in middle subject after Cody Bellinger’s departure (coincidentally, to the Cubs). Instead, they left the competitors open for enjoying time at each outfield spots reverse proper fielder Mookie Betts. They introduced Heyward, Bradley Zimmer and Steven Duggar in on minor-league offers to compete with Peralta, Chris Taylor, Trayce Thompson and intriguing prospect James Outman. 

Right now, all indicators level to Heyward making the roster, particularly with Taylor more likely to spend extra time within the infield after Lux’s ACL harm. 

“I’m very bullish on the swing, the player, the person, how he’s going to help our ballclub,” Roberts mentioned. 

That confidence grew as Heyward spent extra time across the Dodgers’ hitting coaches, who wished him to be extra environment friendly in his motion and discover a extra direct path to the ball. Heyward believed within the swing changes, a lot of which he had explored or thought of earlier than. 

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

“What’s been good, it’s been pure. Trust my skill. Trust that these positions that you simply have been in at one time limit, that works. That stuff performs. Also, that, like, I can do that s—.”

The early returns carry promise. 

Home runs in spring may not mean much, but they carry more weight when they come against major-league pitchers. A week after homering off Gonsolin, Heyward turned on another pitch Wednesday afternoon against Andrew Heaney, taking the Rangers pitcher deep in Cactus League play.

Coming off their stunning early playoff departure, the Dodgers hope they’ve found something in an outfielder coming off his own abrupt exit. 

“I actually consider in Jason and his expertise,” Van Scoyoc said, “and I believe what we are able to get out of it may be particular.”

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

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