The Dodgers have held off on small signs of progress this spring, with Jason Heyward’s new look, retooling, and the promising momentum that followed his “ongoing” swing, as manager Dave Roberts called it, looking more like a finished product at the plate. .
Such as when the veteran outfielder hit two home runs in the first week of spring training.
Or during the live batting practice sessions at the beginning of camp, when he connected line drive singles to the other side.
Freddie Freeman began to believe in January, when he and Heyward hit together for the first time in the offseason at Freeman’s El Modena High field in Orange County, with Freeman’s father, Fred, taking turns and throwing to the outfield.
“His first ball was a missile over the center field wall,” recalled Freeman, a longtime friend of Heyward’s going back to his days as a young player with the Atlanta Braves. “It was the sound you heard 15 years ago, where you say, ‘Wow, this guy is special.'”
It’s been enough for Heyward, who signed a minor league deal with the Dodgers this winter, to likely lock down a spot on the club’s opening day team.
Even though his camp performance has dipped in recent weeks, and he’s not guaranteed to produce in the regular season, it’s looking increasingly clear that he’ll play a role in the Dodgers’ outfield in 2023.
“I think it’s a safe bet,” Roberts said of Heyward’s chances of making the Major League team. “He’s come into spring training with this brand new swing that looks like he’s been doing it for a long time.”
Heyward’s mechanics took a big turn last year, when long offensive struggles and a nagging knee injury led to his release by the Chicago Cubs with one season remaining on an eight-year, $184 million deal.
The hands are now lower and further back in their setup position. His bat path is shorter and flatter than before. And when it all clicked, he was able to cover more of the plate and adjust to off-speed pitches, key factors in the Cactus League’s top 10 starting four.
Outfielder Jason Heyward joined the Dodgers after being released by the Chicago Cubs with one season on an eight-year, $184 million contract.
(Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press)
“I’ve been working piece by piece,” said Heyward, who spent the winter pitching with the Dodgers in Los Angeles and working at the facility at Camelback Ranch in Arizona. “Working with the team, trying to give my best.”
That, Heyward quickly did, taking advantage of the center field void that was created in the offseason when the Dodgers didn’t tender Cody Bellinger and Kevin Kiermaier left in free agency.
The team signed two more veteran lefties to minor league deals, Steven Duggar and Bradley Zimmer, and has an excellent opportunity to land an MLB spot in James Outman. But so far, Heyward is leading the team, combining his veteran attitude and five-time Gold Glove defense with enough offensive power to set him apart from the pack.
“It’s no surprise when you’re talking about the character,” Roberts said. “From the day we signed him, he committed to working with our shots, diligently. … flying to Arizona. Flying to Los Angeles. Making sure things were cleaned up.’
However, with opening day just two weeks away, there is plenty of room for improvement in Heyward’s swing.
Since the start of spring, the 33-year-old has caught a terrible cold. He entered his last 16 exhibitions on Thursday. He has struck out eight in 14 at-bats, looking late on fastballs and chasing pitches off the plate.
Roberts downplayed the sudden setback.
“I don’t think anyone expected it to be linear,” the director said. “I think he started really well, and then he hit a little cold, and he’s working on some things.”
Heyward described it as part of his long-term swing change process — a byproduct of trying to replace past short-term fixes with fundamental changes to his game.
“Sometimes you tend to do things where you’re putting a Band-Aid on and you want to get a quick result,” Heyward said. “But when you have the ability, you want to tap into that. That’s what I’m trying to do.’
However, how much ability Heyward has left and how well he can perform before the season begins could be a key subplot for the Dodgers’ upcoming campaign.
At first, Heyward seemed poised to fill a bench role to protect Chris Taylor in center, likely to hit right-handed pitchers and provide defensive versatility late in games.
But with Gavin Lux’s season-ending knee injury, and Taylor now needing to play more shortstop, Heyward may end up in an even bigger role than originally anticipated.
“If he’s still in the strike zone and still working on that swing, clean up that swing, he’ll be fine,” Roberts said. “We are still excited about the route.”