MAJOR LEAGUE BASEBALL
MESA, Ariz. (AP) — Already impressed by what he saw watching Jason Heyward play, something else stood out to Joe Maddon during their initial phone conversation.
It was Heyward's maturity and understanding of the game. Those qualities made it easy for Maddon to envision him in the Chicago Cubs' lineup.
"We had a really good conversation," Maddon said. "It revealed to me a lot of what I thought I was seeing. He was a very thoughtful, intellectual kind of a baseball player."
They talked about Heyward playing center field after winning three Gold Gloves in right, his spot in the batting order and his base-running. To Maddon, he seemed like someone who enjoyed chatting. To the Cubs, he ultimately became one of their biggest offseason additions.
Heyward signed a $184 million, eight-year contract, hoping to help bring a championship to a franchise that last won the World Series in 1908.
The Cubs gave a strong indication last season that the drought could be nearing an end, breaking out with 97 wins and advancing to the NLCS. They appear loaded to make another run with newcomers including Heyward, infielder Ben Zobrist and pitcher John Lackey added to a team that already boasted NL Cy Young Award winner Jake Arrieta and Rookie of the Year Kris Bryant.
And there's Manager of the Year Maddon.
"I've been a part of a lot of good teams. I'm fortunate enough to say that in my career," Heyward said. "You understand that regardless of what it looks like on paper, we gotta go out there and play, and we all understand that here in the clubhouse. But we're all looking forward to trying to work toward one goal."
Heyward has been drawing praise from all sections of the clubhouse.
Teammates marvel not only at his wide range of skills but his approach, his attitude, his ability to connect. They see a player that Chicago is going to love, an elite defender with speed and power and the ability to hit for a high average.
"He's really smart, really advanced," first baseman Anthony Rizzo said. "The way he talks about the game is just impressive."
Outfield prospect Albert Almora said Heyward is "100 percent" willing to help young players.
"As a guy in my position, you kind of wonder how those guys are gonna treat you, but the first day I met him he shook my hand and gave me a hug like he's known me forever," Almora said. "I was like, 'Wow, that's pretty cool.' "
That he is playing for the Cubs is a bit ironic for Heyward.
After all, he got knocked out by them in the division series as a member of the rival St. Louis Cardinals last season, and he made a memorable debut against Chicago while playing for Atlanta.
Heyward hit a three-run homer on his first major league swing, driving a 2-0 pitch from Carlos Zambrano out to right in the 2010 opener. It was quite an entrance for the player Hall of Fame manager Bobby Cox compared to Hank Aaron.
Heyward hasn't lived up to that, but Maddon sees a player wise beyond his years at 26.
He sees a good fit for a lineup loaded with young sluggers such as Bryant, Kyle Schwarber and Rizzo.
"I need to do what I can on a daily basis, whether it's running, whether it's coming up with a big hit, whether it's hitting a home run, whether it's making a play on defense, whether it's just talking about something throughout the game to kind of shine some light on something that we might need and make an adjustment," Heyward said. "Just do what I can, and then the next guy's gonna do his job, and we're all gonna take that seriously as individuals and a good product will come out of that."
Heyward finished with 13 homers while batting .293 in his lone season with the Cardinals, but Maddon believes his production will increase in Chicago.
"You have a guy, 26, set him free, man," Maddon said. "Let him go. Have good conversations with him. Understand what he's trying to do out there. Who would not want to work with an athlete like that? Oh my god, that is exactly what you're looking for to work with. And he's bright, and he's engaging, and he's fun."
He is also making a transition, going from right to center and being counted on to solidify the outfield with Schwarber mainly in left and Jorge Soler in right.
Maddon sees no reason why it can't be a smooth move.
"I don't understand why people have any trepidation about this whatsoever," he said. "I watched this guy cover immense amounts of ground."
Now, he is getting more of an up-close look at Heyward. And he likes what he's seeing.