February 3, 2023

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As Morel shines, Heyward adjusting to role

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CHICAGO — Jason Heyward has been around long enough to understand the Cubs’ current landscape. His numbers are what they are, and Chicago has younger players the front office wants to evaluate as the focus on the field increasingly shifts to the future.

Standing at his locker on Wednesday afternoon, when the veteran outfielder was reinstated from the injured list prior to the Cubs’ 4-3, 10-inning win over the Brewers, Heyward said he appreciates having David Ross, his former teammate and friend, as his manager. Heyward trusts Ross will be transparent with him.

“What I see more and more all the time,” Heyward said, “is that front offices have their plan and their idea. And I think Rossy — being on both sides of that now — he understands, one day at a time. Whether it’s guys dealing with injuries, or seeing people that the front office wants to see play on a daily basis, he’s going to shoot me straight on that.”

For Wednesday’s game, Heyward was penciled into the lineup in right field — the spot where he earned five Gold Glove Awards — to fill in for Seiya Suzuki (sprained left ring finger). Rookie Christopher Morel, who has made a quick impact with his high-energy play and production, was starting in center.

With second baseman Nick Madrigal back from his own IL stint now, the versatile Morel will move off the infield and get most of his looks in center. That is where Heyward had been playing — a move he made to accommodate Suzuki’s arrival via free agency this year.

After Wednesday, Heyward knows it will be a day-to-day decision.

“Today, I’m starting in right field. That’s what I’ve got,” Heyward said. “Tomorrow will be tomorrow. That’s still the way I believe in taking it. That’s the way it should be, and I have. But [Ross and I] shoot each other straight. And as a ballplayer, as a grown person, as a man, you want to hear that, because you can take that.

“That’s nice for me to have, but I don’t think either one of us knows what every day is going to look like until we get here.”

Morel’s promotion from Double-A Tennessee on May 17 might have been considered a temporary fix for a pile of injury issues at the time. Now, the rookie has earned the right to stay. He has found a home in the leadoff spot, played strong defense, added an element of speed (six steals) and reached base in each of his first 15 career games (a Cubs record to start a career).

On Wednesday evening, Morel was at it again, delivering a walkoff sacrifice fly — one that scored Heyward — to set off a mob scene on the field in the 10th. In the first inning, the outfielder led off with a walk against Milwaukee’s Jason Alexander and later scored when Brewers catcher Omar Narváez made a throwing error on the rookie’s steal of third.

“When the young guys come up,” Heyward said, “it’s awesome to allow them that natural feeling, that natural vibe, to rejuvenate other guys. We’re having fun.”

While Suzuki is on the IL, there is a natural place to play Heyward, who had a single in four at-bats on Wednesday.

“Slide Heyward over to right,” Ross said. “I asked him, was he comfortable out there? And he laughed at me. I think he’s good.”

Ross added that he also plans on mixing in both Clint Frazier and Rafael Ortega into the right-field mix, weighing matchups on a game-by-game basis. Both Heyward and Ortega have been used mainly as versus-righties options, but Frazier will not be in a strict platoon setup.

The 32-year-old Heyward thrived against right-handed pitching in the abbreviated 2020 season, posting the best OPS+ (129) since his rookie year with Atlanta in 2010 (131). The veteran’s production dropped significantly in 2021 (68 OPS+ in 104 games) and he headed into Wednesday’s game with a 58 OPS+ this year.

As a hitter who relies so much on rhythm and timing, Heyward believes playing regularly can give his offense a boost.

“I’ve got to play,” he said. “That’s the thing for any of these guys. That’s a part of the game that is changing. We’re not as allowed to settle into a routine, into a rhythm. That’s not what you control. You control what you can, do that and sometimes it’s going to call for more patience as an individual.

When Suzuki is ready to return, the Cubs will have a decision to make on their roster.

In the meantime, Heyward (under contract for $22 million in 2023) knows he has seen and experienced the most among the players in Chicago’s locker room. He understands there is value in leading on and off the field and being a veteran voice — like Brian McCann, Chipper Jones and others were for him when he was a rookie.

“There’s no doubt I can help a ballclub,” Heyward said, “by being a voice, by being eyes and ears, by pointing out all the details and leading by example on good days, bad days, whatever. You don’t have good days without going through the bad ones. But, I’ve got to be on the field.”

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