Jason Heyward returns to Wrigley, revisits his Cubs teams’ offensive struggles

After being peppered about the Cubs’ offensive regression during his last six seasons, Heyward finally offered up a theory that might make the most sense.

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Jason Heyward follows the flight of his two-run homer on April 3 at Dodger Stadium.

Jason Heyward follows the flight of his two-run homer on April 3 at Dodger Stadium.

Mark J. Terrill/AP

Jason Heyward returned Thursday to Wrigley Field, where he was a part of that historic championship team in 2016.

“A lot of great memories,” said Heyward, who’s getting a second chance with the Dodgers. “I’ll never forget them.”

Heyward was signed to an eight-year, $184 million contract as one of the projected centerpieces of the Cubs’ World Series team that snapped a drought of 107 years.

But the hopes for repeat titles with young talent regressed steadily thanks to an offense that then-president Theo Epstein declared was broken after the second half of the 2018 season.

The Cubs are on their fourth hitting coach since advancing to the 2017 National League Championship Series against the Dodgers, but their team batting average has been .238 or lower in each of the last three seasons — including a .220 mark during the 60-game 2020 season with Anthony Rizzo, Javy Baez and Kris Bryant (who played in only 34 games because of a sprained wrist).

Hope for greater days has returned, albeit in a small sample size, thanks to an offense sparked by leadoff hitter Nico Hoerner.

After being peppered about the Cubs’ offensive decline during his last six seasons, Heyward finally offered up a theory that might make the most sense — the lack of a true leadoff hitter a la Hoerner.

“I will say just from baseball experience, 2015 and 2016, they had a leadoff hitter in Dexter Fowler, who, to me, fit that [role],” Heyward said. “In Atlanta, we had Michael Bourn for 1½ years who fit that spot. It just relaxed everyone in the lineup.

“It’s hard to replace players like that. It’s not an easy thing to do.”

The Cubs tried slugger Kyle Schwarber at the top of the order in 2017, but he failed to the point where he was sent to the minors in late June. Albert Almora Jr. and Ian Happ also were failed experiments, although Happ has blossomed into a productive middle-of-the-order hitter.

“And when you’re expected to win a World Series every single year, it’s a good expectation to have,” said Heyward, who was batting .200 with three home runs in 30 at-bats. “But it’s hard to let things play themselves out. I think that was the toughest part of the group. You want to reset and might have some new faces come in and let guys settle in, [but] there’s no time to settle in.”

That’s why Hoerner’s emergence in the leadoff spot might be the most encouraging development. Hoerner entered Thursday with a .395 on-base percentage, an .808 OPS and nine stolen bases.

“The way he’s played so far is the way he wants to play all the time,” Cubs president Jed Hoyer said. “He’s aggressive.”

Hoerner leads an offense that was hitting an NL-best .286 with a .351 on-base percentage and 22 stolen bases.

Heyward recognized Hoerner’s leadoff abilities as early as 2020, when he and Schwarber were asked to pick lineups.

“I picked Nico to bat leadoff from that team,” Heyward said. “That’s what I thought of him, with his approach on a daily basis. I’m not surprised to see what he’s doing.”

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