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Everyone expected it to happen eventually.
Heck, many Cubs fans have been clamoring for it to happen all season. The news itself, then, didn’t come as a shock. But you’d be lying if you said you were ready for it to come Monday afternoon.
When president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer met with the media in the home dugout at Wrigley Field, he was asked about Jason Heyward and his ailing right knee. Heyward hadn’t played since June 24 due to inflammation in the knee, and this seemed to be just a regular check-in on his status.
But then, Hoyer dropped a couple of pieces of news that were bound to shake Cubs Twitter. The first? Heyward has likely played his last game for the Cubs this season.
“I think it’s unlikely we see him play again this year, given the knee and the time it’ll take him to get back,” Hoyer said. “And then also, you look at our outfield depth right now, we want to kind of reallocate at-bats in other places.”
As surprising as that revelation was, it makes sense after giving it time to breathe. It’s been nearly a month and a half since Heyward went on the IL, and there’ve been no real updates of progress in the knee. Perhaps a minor league rehab assignment would’ve been in the cards, but his knee just wasn’t bouncing back the way the Cubs wanted it to. Barring improvement in his condition, it was always possible that Heyward wasn’t going to see the field again this year.
But then, when he was asked what this development could mean for Heyward’s future on the North Side, Hoyer dropped the bombshell: Heyward has likely played his last game for the Cubs, period.
“I’ve talked to Jason about this, and he’s been such a great pro with us and a leader, and we want to have him around the team this year,” Hoyer said. “But we’re not going to have him with the team next year.”
Apparently, the Cubs will bite the bullet on the $22 million remaining on the eight-year, $184 million contract Heyward signed in 2016, and that’s probably for the best.
Before going down with the knee injury, Heyward was having the worst season of his career. According to FanGraphs, his wRC+ is at a career-low 59. His .556 OPS would be the only time that’s ever been below .600 if he doesn’t bat again this year. He was down to negative-three defensive runs saved overall in the outfield, which would also be a career-first.
For a team that’s focused on the future, Heyward doesn’t have much of a place. The at-bats and playing time he could be getting if he was healthy should go toward players like Christopher Morel and Nelson Velázquez, so the Cubs can get a full sense of what they might have to build on. If Heyward isn’t seen as a piece for competitive teams to come, then it’s fair to admit that it’s time for both sides to move on.
“It felt like the right thing to do, given where we are as an organization,” Hoyer said. “I’ve had a pretty open dialogue with him about this. Jason, he’s a fantastic human being. He doesn’t like it, but he certainly understands where we are. I think it’s been a frustrating last year and a half. A lot of the guys that were a big part of why he signed here have been traded away. I think it made sense for both of us. We’ve talked through it, and we’re in a good place.”
As his Cubs career comes to an end, perhaps it’s time to consider how he’ll be remembered on the North Side.
No, Heyward isn’t going to be remembered as some other-worldly (and as his 88 wRC+ in seven seasons with the Cubs shows, not even league-average) hitter in Chicago. So, what should he be remembered for? That comes in the first two words out of Hoyer’s mouth when asked that question Monday — “great teammate.”
Go ahead and roll your eyes at that answer if you want, but that certainly has value on a major league ballclub.
Heyward has been the consummate teammate ever since he arrived on the North Side six years ago. The biggest example is his famous rain-delay speech that rallied the troops on the way to the Cubs ending their 108-year World Series drought in ’16, but even in this season alone, there’ve been times when teammates gushed about what Heyward has done for them.
A few days after Ian Happ was named to the National League All-Star team in July, he was asked about the journey he’d been over the last calendar year. He talked about the lows of the pre-trade deadline portion of the season to the turnaround over the final two months of 2021 that led into his breakout 2022. He said that there were plenty of people that helped him along the way, but he made sure to mention one teammate in particular: Jason Heyward.
“Mentally, [Heyward helped] a lot,” Happ said. “Being able to talk through things with him, and the friendship, the advice, some stuff that only he’ll understand. Been a part of this team, this organization, and such a selfless, unbelievable human. I can’t say enough about how much he’s helped my career from Day 1, but especially in the last 12-18 months.”
When Seiya Suzuki signed with the Cubs in March, Hoyer made it clear that they wanted him to be the everyday right fielder. The only problem? Heyward had manned that spot since he signed with the Cubs.
But maybe that wasn’t a problem at all. As expected from everyone on the team, Heyward graciously moved out of Suzuki’s way to let him play the position in which he’d be most comfortable. And it was Heyward who Suzuki mentioned as being one of the biggest contributors to helping him make adjustments to Major League Baseball, adjustments that led him to being the NL’s Rookie of the Month in April.
“He’s the guy that came to me on Day 1 [of spring training] and just taught me everything, what happens in the clubhouse and what happens on the field,” Suzuki said Tuesday via interpreter Toy Matsushita. “He was a huge figure, and I’m just really sad right now that I won’t be able to be in the outfield with him, and also just hang out with him in the clubhouse.”
He wasn’t the hitter the Cubs wanted him to be, and by the end of his tenure, he wasn’t the same Gold Glove-caliber defensive player, either. As far as FanGraphs goes, 2022 was the first season in which Heyward was an overall negative-WAR player (-0.3). But as far as being a leader in the clubhouse, there’s not one player anyone can definitively say commands more respect from the rest than Heyward.
That’s the type of presence Heyward can still have, even if he’s not doing much to impact the team on the field. It’s why manager David Ross said he’s glad Heyward will still be around for the rest of the season.
And there are several other reasons to remember Heyward in a positive way, too.
“He certainly had his good moments here, but he had a lot of struggles as well, and I think when he had those struggles, he never blamed anyone, he never stopped working,” Hoyer said. “He was always the guy that showed up in the best shape coming into every season, he was always the guy that was in the cages trying to get better. That’s probably how I’ll remember him, is that, from my perspective, he never stopped working, he never stopped trying to earn his contract, never stopped trying to be better. I think that says a lot.
“Obviously, he was part of a group of players — and in a lot of ways, an emotional leader of a group of players — that broke the curse here and provided fans memories for a lifetime. So, I think he should be remembered that way as well.”
Beyond that, Heyward is a community leader whose contributions include the Jason Heyward Baseball Academy set to open this offseason in the North Austin neighborhood of Chicago. He was also the Cubs’ nominee for the Roberto Clemente Award — given out by MLB “to the player who best represents the game of baseball through extraordinary character, community involvement, philanthropy and positive contributions, both on and off the field” — in each of the last two seasons. What he does as a person is bigger than what he does as a player.
No, he didn’t live up to that big contract. It’s OK and, honestly, more than fair to say that. But there’s so much more to Heyward outside of baseball. Regardless of how you feel about him on the field, the off-the-field value he’s brought to the organization is what he should be remembered for.
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