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The Heyward Dilemma

What do you do when you make the World Series but your highest-paid position player forgets how to hit?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration
Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Through the first six years of his career, Jason Heyward was basically the same player Adam Eaton was in 2016 — an elite defensive right fielder with only average power but a consistently very good OBP. Heyward is the size of a 3–4 outside linebacker, and after posting a .393 OBP as a rookie (the third-highest mark for a 20-year-old rookie ever, behind Ted Williams and Mike Trout), he has only regressed as a hitter since then. So while Eaton’s enjoying popular acclaim, Heyward has become a controversial figure. But Eaton was a six-win player this year, as Heyward was three times (with another 5.8-win season thrown in) over his first six seasons.

When the Cubs signed Heyward to an eight-year, $184 million contract this past offseason, I thought it was a steal. Not only was he a good enough player to merit an average salary of $23 million, but he was entering his age-26 season, which meant the Cubs were getting his prime, rather than only his decline phase. Considering all of that, Heyward seemed like a guy you couldn’t overpay.

Well, I was spectacularly wrong. Heyward was a slightly disappointing hitter in Atlanta and St. Louis, but in Chicago he’s been an offensive sinkhole, hitting .230/.306/.325 for a wRC+ of 72, the fourth-worst mark among qualified hitters this season. While he’s appeared in every one of Chicago’s 10 playoff games this postseason, he was a mere late-inning replacement three times. Heyward’s reached base only four times (once courtesy of a perplexing intentional walk) in 30 postseason plate appearances.

Therefore, Joe Maddon is in the bizarre position of possibly benching his highest-paid position player in the World Series, and a mid-20s corner outfielder in the first year of his contract at that. Was Heyward bad enough this year to get benched completely? Not with this matchup. But was he bad enough to be reduced to a situational role? Probably.

In the playoffs, Maddon has already shown that he’s willing to bench the left-handed Heyward against tough lefties: Madison Bumgarner, Rich Hill, and Clayton Kershaw. Heyward’s platoon split in 2016 was 61 points of OPS, which isn’t extreme, except he didn’t hit anyone well this year, and his career platoon split is more than double that. But with news that Danny Salazar is on the World Series roster and healthy enough to throw up to 70 pitches, Cleveland’s starting rotation figures to be entirely right-handed. That takes a platoon off the table as a convenient excuse to take Heyward out of the lineup.

One alternative to Heyward is Jorge Soler, the hulking Cuban who caddied for Heyward against Bumgarner and Hill. Soler has huge power, along with contact issues that sometimes keep him from accessing that power in games. Soler hit .238/.333/.436 in 264 plate appearances this season, and is 0-for-8 with two walks this postseason. Over his career, there’s barely any difference in how he’s hit righties and lefties.

The other option is rookie Albert Almora. Unlike Soler, who’s a pretty awful defensive outfielder, Almora’s one of very few people in all of baseball who could step in for Heyward with no noticeable drop-off defensively. The flip side, of course, is that while Soler probably represents an upgrade at the plate over Heyward, Almora doesn’t. The sixth-overall pick in 2012 out of a Florida high school, Almora has had a troubled professional career at the plate. Baseball-Reference says Almora’s drawn 83 walks in 1,929 professional plate appearances, but I’m pretty convinced that’s a typo, because Almora’s about as willing to take a walk as an arthritic bulldog. Almora hit .290 in the minors throughout his career, but it’s an empty .290, which — adjusted for Cleveland’s Bullpen from Hell — doesn’t give me much confidence that he’d be any better than Heyward offensively.

Perhaps the best option to replace Heyward is one Maddon hasn’t tried: Willson Contreras. The rookie catcher hasn’t spent a moment in right field since A-ball in 2013, but he did play 180.2 innings in left this season, and Ben Zobrist could slide over from left to right field. He’d be a lower-grade defender than Heyward, but he posted a 125 OPS+ this season, so he can make up for it with his bat. Contreras will spend some time behind the plate, so he can’t replace Heyward full-time, but it’s an option that Maddon could avail himself of, even if he hasn’t already.

The return of Kyle Schwarber for the World Series might have given Maddon another choice in the corner outfield spots, but that’s not really an option for three reasons: (1) Schwarber’s played 7.2 innings of outfield in the past year, (2) he was a terrible defender even before the knee injury, and (3) this is how he runs now:

If anything, Schwarber’s impact on Heyward’s playing time will be indirect. With him at DH, Soler or Contreras gets freed up to move to an outfield corner during a game. And if Maddon does try to hide Heyward, that’s how I think he’ll do it.

We typically think of platoons as things managers do on a per-game basis: Heyward plays one whole game, then Almora plays the next. But Andrew Miller, the Indians’ scary lefty, isn’t going to face Heyward three times each in Games 1 and 5; he’s going to face Heyward, or at least his spot in the order, once every single game, and that poses a problem that has to be solved in-game.

The good news for the Cubs is that because Contreras, Kris Bryant, Ben Zobrist, and Chris Coghlan all can play several positions, Maddon can substitute the weak spots in his lineup more than once if the situation calls for it. He could pinch-hit Soler for Heyward against Miller, then replace Soler with Almora for speed and defense later in the game. As Terry Francona goes from a right-handed starter to the left-handed Miller to the right-handed Cody Allen, we ought to expect Maddon to play matchups not only with his right fielders, but his catchers as well, calling on Contreras’s bat, David Ross’s glove, or the left-handed Miguel Montero.

If the Cubs can get some offensive production out of right field — whether through Heyward or an alternative — it will go a long way toward shoring up the bottom half of a lineup that is good, but not invulnerable. Ross had a great year, but neither he nor Montero is Yogi Berra. Addison Russell’s prone to strikeouts, and for as hot as Javier Báez has been, I just threw a wadded-up hamburger wrapper in the trash and he swung at it. If Heyward’s an automatic out, it’s a long way back around to Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo. Adding one more average bat to the lineup would be a small edge, but championships are won and lost on small margins.