Does Chili Davis have key to unlock Jason Heyward’s bat for Cubs?
For months, the Cubs’ focus has been on filling roster holes and on which big-name player might be coming next.
But whether they head to spring training with a new starting pitcher, such as Yu Darvish or Alex Cobb, or a new closer, such as Greg Holland, the list of questions involving players already on their roster is just as long and might loom just as large.
The three-day Cubs Convention, which ended Sunday, only served as a strong reminder of that, whether involving questions about the leadoff spot, the closer role or Kyle Schwarber’s new waistline.
But the $184 million elephant in the room as the Cubs get to Mesa, Arizona, figures to be Jason Heyward. His modest improvement last season after a miserable 2016 needs to accelerate under new hitting coach Chili Davis to keep him from becoming a payroll burden during what should be at least another four years in this competitive window.
Davis, who has been working at least weekly with Heyward in Arizona since November, wasn’t hired specifically with Heyward in mind. But Cubs president Theo Epstein suggested Davis’ line-drive approach as a big-league hitter has a chance to resonate.
‘‘[Davis is] another voice and a really good hitting coach,’’ said Epstein, who had no plans to replace hitting coach John Mallee until Davis became available when he was fired in a coaching-staff shakeup with the Red Sox. ‘‘He works well with guys who are line-drive hitters, who drive the ball more so than maybe guys who launch the ball. So they have a good chance to mesh. We’ll see.’’
As Heyward begins to age out of traditional career-prime years after this season, this might be the last, best shot for him to find the physical adjustment or mental approach to become the hitter the Cubs envisioned when they signed him.
Davis said he has spent more time evaluating and communicating with Heyward and Schwarber than any other Cubs hitters.
‘‘I need to learn Jason more than Jason needs to learn me,” said Davis, a three-time All-Star who had a .360 on-base percentage and hit 350 home runs in 19 major-league seasons. ‘‘We’ve talked a lot about his swing, and we’ve looked at videos. But I think more what Jason and I are trying to do is to get Jason to understand the type of hitter that will make him the best offensive player that he can be.’’
Davis said he thinks Heyward has drifted away from some of the natural ability he showed early in his career, when he hit 27 homers and had an .814 OPS for the Braves in 2012, as he tried to make adjustments.
‘‘We’re trying to bring him back a little closer to that,’’ Davis said. ‘‘But I’m a hitting coach. I don’t see fastballs and sliders and all that anymore. It’s going to be up to him.
‘‘One thing we stress a lot every day with him is working with a purpose and working with focus and maintaining both of those two things. I like what I see right now.”
And as much as anything, Davis is reserving judgment as he and Heyward get to know each other.
‘‘I’ve heard a lot of different opinions about Jason Heyward,’’ Davis said. ‘‘The one thing I want to point out to him is that I’m the kind of person [who doesn’t] care what anyone says about you.
‘‘Relationships, to me, are kind of like meeting your wife or girlfriend: Whoever she dated prior to you doesn’t matter. It’s what happens from that point on.’’
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