CHICAGO — Last offseason, the Chicago Cubs spent more on a free agent position player than any other team that winter: Jason Heyward for eight years and $184 million. The former St. Louis Cardinal, who came up with the Atlanta Braves, was just 26 and supposed to blossom as a center fielder in Chicago.
But Heyward, who played primarily right field after the Cubs re-signed Dexter Fowler, was not in the Cubs’ lineup for Game 3 of the World Series on Friday night, the fourth straight time Manager Joe Maddon has elected to leave him on the bench.
“It does not mean that Jason’s not going to start at any point,” Maddon said before Game 3. “It’s just for tonight. Again, I’m trying to do this one moment at a time.”
But it is reasonable to wonder when that moment to start Heyward might be, and what challenges he faces in the offseason to overcome what was a poor offensive year and a horrible offensive postseason. His stretch of not starting began with Game 6 of the National League Championship Series, when Dodgers lefty Clayton Kershaw could have proved a tough matchup for the left-handed-hitting Heyward. But the Cleveland Indians have started only right-handers in the World Series, including Game 3 starter Josh Tomlin.
Maddon cited Tomlin’s “reverse splits” — he’s a right-hander who actually gets out left-handed hitters more easily, allowing them a .229 batting average as opposed to .299 for right-handed hitters. But it is a measure of Heyward’s struggles that Maddon chose as his Game 3 right fielder Jorge Soler, who entered the game 0 for 10 for the postseason.
“At this time of year, every decision is just made to try to win the game for the team and for the organization,” said Theo Epstein, the Cubs’ president of baseball operations. “There’s no egos involved. No other consideration beside what’s the best thing we can do to win.”
After Heyward hit .230 in the regular season with an on-base-plus-slugging percentage of .631 — a number that ranked 144th of the 146 players who had enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title — his struggles grew worse in the postseason. He entered Friday’s game 2 for 30 with one walk and nine strikeouts. In his past two starts, Games 4 and 5 of the NLCS in Los Angeles — games in which the Cubs scored a combined 18 runs — Heyward went 0 for 9 with four strikeouts and four infield popups.
“He’s a fantastic teammate,” Epstein said. “He’s handling it really well. It’s got to be tough for him, but he’s a big part of the club even if he’s not in the lineup with a bat in his hands.”
The Indians are prepared to use just three starting pitchers to cover what could be a seven-game series, meaning everyone would have to pitch on three days’ rest. First up is Corey Kluber, who won the series opener Tuesday night and will pitch again Saturday night in Game 4.
Kluber already pitched on three days’ rest once this postseason, and he lasted only five innings, giving up two runs, in Game 4 of the American League Championship Series in Toronto. But Cleveland Manager Terry Francona believes that experience will help him this time. Kluber told Francona that he had been conscious of preserving his legs against the Blue Jays, but he actually ended up tiring them out.
“He understands now that it was probably mental, and I think he’ll have a lot more sense of being able to be himself going into this start than he did the first time,” Francona said. “And I thought the first time he did just fine.”
Trevor Bauer, who couldn’t escape the fourth inning of Game 2 on Thursday, is scheduled to start Sunday’s Game 5.