JUPITER, Fla. Jason Heyward has heard the talk about him being on the cusp of a breakthrough season, and he isn’t crazy about it.
“I don’t know how good I can be yet, and that’s that,” the St. Louis Cardinals’ new right fielder said. “But I’m not looking to do a breakout season. I want to play this game to the best of my ability for as long as I can. I’m not even worried about a breakout season. I’m taking care of one day at a time and I’m trying to get the best out of myself each day.”
The Cardinals aren’t placing unusually high expectations on Heyward’s wide shoulders. But deep down, they know there is so much he can provide.
Cardinals manager Mike Matheny, for one, appreciates the 6-foot-5, 245-pound Heyward’s one-day-at-a-time approach.
“I don’t think guys that have that big, breakout year, or whatever you want to call it, go into it saying, ‘I’m going to have a breakout year,’” Matheny said. “I think they just go out and put their piece in and let their talents kind of shine.
“For Jason, this is a new environment, a new group of guys surrounding him. All those (factors) can help. There are situations where it hasn’t helped guys in the past. But I don’t see that here. I see a great environment for him to go out and just be our right fielder, be one of the eight position players in the lineup that has a chance to do something every at-bat. He’s done a nice job of blending in this spring.”
That was Heyward’s mission entering spring training.
“It’s an easy place to like, an easy place to get your work done,” he said during training camp in Jupiter. “I’m just coming in and having fun, being a part of the family. It’s awesome to be a part of. We have common goals, Everyone wants to play into October and go for a World Series. We’ll lean on each other throughout the season. It’s been very easy to adapt to and fit in.”
The Cardinals wouldn’t have targeted Heyward, 25, were it not for the untimely death in October of Oscar Taveras, who perished in an alcohol-induced accident in his native Dominican Republic.
Heyward was made available by the Atlanta Braves, who feared they would not be able to sign him to a long-term contract before his current pact expired at the end of this season.
The Cardinals absorbed that risk when they dealt right-hander Shelby Miller and minor-league right-hander Tyrell Jenkins to the Braves for Heyward and reliever Jordan Walden.
Heyward welcomed a chance to escape Atlanta, where he spent five seasons and batted .262 with 84 home runs and and 292 RBIs in 681 games. His biggest season came in 2012 when he hit .269 and set career-highs with 30 doubles, 27 home runs, 82 RBIs and 21 stolen bases when he predominantly batted third.
“I don’t feel like I’ve been able to comfortably settle in yet,” Heyward said. “That’s not to say you’re going to settle in and you’re going to be clicking (toward) the Hall of Fame. But just in general. I don’t feel I had the chance to settle in with a stable team, a stable lineup, a stable approach as a group. I don’t think I’ve been able to gel yet with any situation.”
Heyward refuses to speculate about whether the Braves would have traded him had they not found a willing partner in the Cardinals.
“You have to go ask them,” Heyward said, repeating the statement for effect.
In too many instances in Atlanta, Heyward said the focus was on him rather than on the team.
“The difference between here and there is there’s high hopes as a group here to go play in a World Series as a team,” Heyward said. “You hope to go win and do big things as a team, together. That (Atlanta) situation was more, ‘Look at what this one person is going to do.’ I feel like that’s a big difference and there’s something to be said about it.
“(The pressure has) been there. I’m better for it. It’s not the way you would draw it up, but five years in, I’m definitely better off for it at 25. What an organization to have another chance with.”
Heyward projects as the Cardinals’ No. 2 hitter, behind Matt Carpenter. Matheny considers Heyward a second No. 3 hitter, ahead of Matt Holliday.
The truth is, Heyward has the skill set that would make him a fit at any spot in the order. Plate discipline, an ability to work the count and speed make him an asset at the top of an order, where he spent most of last season with the Braves. The power to hit 25 to 30 home runs make him an attractive option in the middle of the lineup.
“Wherever you put me, whether it’s one through nine, I just want to settle into a lineup and have a (firm) mindset throughout the season going forward,” Heyward said. “For me, it’s going to be, ‘Can I stay healthy enough going forward and put the experience together with the environment?’ That will be the biggest part right there. For me, it’s going to be a lot of fun.
“So I don’t care about the lineups. People can make whatever deal out of it they want to make. I’m hitting in front of Matt Holliday, and everyone can’t say that. I’m fortunate enough to be hitting in front of him right now and it is what it is. It could change tomorrow or it could change a month from now.”
Holliday lauds Heyward’s personality and work ethic.
“He’s a good young player, a great guy in the clubhouse,” Holliday said. “I think we’re all excited to see what that looks like over a full season. So far, it’s been fun to watch.”
Heyward always had fun coming to St. Louis, where he gained an appreciation for the environment at Busch Stadium in his rookie year of 2010.
“When you think about baseball, you think about the St. Louis Cardinals,” Heyward said. “A lot of people have come through here and impacted the game, people and players as well. It’s old-fashioned baseball, which is something I think the fans appreciate.
“The grass isn’t greener everywhere, but this is definitely one of the places it’s nice to see for the game. The fans understand and appreciate the front office and ownership. (The World Series) is their goal and mindset. I believe it starts there. It’s passed down through the organization. It’s an awesome experience for the player and anyone rooting for the team and the game.”
Of course, any conversation about Heyward isn’t complete without talking about defense. He already owns two Rawlings Gold Glove awards for his prowess in the field (2012, 2014).
“No one’s going to control what you do on defense,” Heyward said. “You’re not stepping in the box and (seeing) the pitcher pitch the ball. Defense is something I feel I should never slack off. You can always make a difference for your team on defense: holding runners to their base, making a diving play, saving a run so you still have a two-run lead vs. a one-run lead. So for me, it’s always something I challenge myself with.”
Heyward prides himself on not letting a bad at-bat affect him on defense.
“It’s not easy, as a hitter, to go through struggles or have a big at-bat and not come through and then go out to the field,” he said. “But I just try to always think about putting my team first when it comes to that. I feel like defense is definitely for the team. Your at-bat is your at-bat, and everyone knows you want to come through to help your team in the situation. But when it comes down to it, on defense, the whole time, you can help the team.”