The situation between the Chicago Cubs and veteran outfielder Jason Heyward felt untenable.
A rebuilding Cubs organization wanting to look at other players did not fit with Heyward and his declining all-around production. What seemed inevitable became reality Monday when president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer announced the Cubs and Heyward will part ways after the season.
Hoyer had an open dialogue with Heyward about the Cubs’ plans, in which a continued union between the sides did not make sense. The Cubs also want to give Heyward the full offseason to find a new team.
“Given where we are as a group and where we’re going to likely be in the corner outfield next year, with Seiya (Suzuki) and Ian (Happ), we’re going to move in a different direction,” Hoyer said. “He struggled last year obviously, and we wanted to see how he bounced back from that and he had an excellent 2020 season. …Obviously he didn’t bounce back well from (2021).”
Heyward, 32, is owed $22 million in 2023, the final season of the eight-year, $184 million contract he signed with the Cubs on Dec. 15, 2015. The Cubs also must pay his $20 million signing bonus over four installations on April 1, 2024-27.
“He doesn’t like it but certainly understands where we are,” Hoyer said. “I think it’s been a frustrating last year and a half, with a lot of the guys that were a big part of why he signed here have been traded away. And so it kind of made sense for both of us and we’ve talked through it and we’re in a good place.”
Heyward was slashing .204/.278/.277 with a 57 OPS+ in 48 games before injuring his right knee in June. He finishes his Cubs career with 744 games played, a .245 batting average, .323 on-base percentage and .700 OPS.
Most memorably, Heyward delivered a speech during the rain delay in Game 7 of the 2016 World Series, giving the Cubs a spark in extra innings to win the franchise’s first title in 108 years. Heyward’s imminent departure will leave manager David Ross, catcher Willson Contreras and right-hander Kyle Hendricks as the only players remaining from the championship team.
“How he impacts the team in a winning way is daily and it’s not always with the bat, which I know we all look at pretty hard and we put a lot of value in that,” Ross said Monday night after a 6-3 victory over the Washington Nationals. “But as the manager, there’s so much more that goes into the winning player that Jason Heyward is.”
Heyward is not expected to return before the end of the season because of inflammation of the right knee, which he isn’t bouncing back well from, according to Hoyer. The Cubs’ 40-man roster is not full, so procedurally they can’t put Heyward, who has been out since June 27, on the 60-day injured list.
However, the time Heyward would need to build back up to be game-ready, combined with the Cubs’ outfield depth, Hoyer has and the organization wanting to reallocate at-bats to other players.
Ross, who played four seasons with Heyward on the Atlanta Braves (2010-12) and Cubs (2016), called it unfortunate that Heyward is unable to contribute.
“I think everybody’s in a good place with it,” Ross said. “You see where everybody’s at, and I think it’s for the best for everybody. … Having that guy around in any capacity, you’re really fortunate. He cares about others. He never passes blame. He’s always accountable. He’s a worker. He’s a good human.
“I don’t know if we’ve got enough time in this postgame for me to say what I think about Jason Heyward, how awesome he’s been to this organization and to myself.”
Hoyer described Heyward as a great professional and leader whom the Cubs wanted to have around the team this year. There were initial conversations about Heyward potentially having a role in the organization once his playing career is over.
Heyward’s investment in the Chicago community will outlast his time in a Cubs uniform. Among his local contributions, Heyward is helping build a baseball academy in the North Austin neighborhood.
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“He certainly had his good moments here, but he had a lot of struggles as well,” Hoyer said, “and when he had those struggles, he never blamed anyone, never stopped working. He was always the guy that showed up in the best shape coming into every season. He was always a guy that was in the cages trying to get better.
“That’s probably how I’ll remember him is that he, from my perspective, never stopped working. He never stopped trying to earn his contract, never stopped trying to be better, and that says a lot.”
Heyward’s sunk-cost 2023 salary was not enough to warrant keeping him around the clubhouse despite the leadership he provided. Baseball is a business, and his 2021 struggles meant his time with the organization was limited after a slow start this year.
The Cubs finally made the decision that had been looming over the roster since the team reported to camp. The emergence of Christopher Morel and Nelson Velázquez gives them strong options in center field for 2023 if the players can finish the season strong. Both players homered in the third inning of Monday’s victory at Wrigley Field.
Hoyer’s revelation Monday ended weeks of vague answers from team personnel about Heyward’s injury and the lack of clarity on his timeline to return. The Cubs were in an awkward spot. They were willing to give him every opportunity to turn around his offensive woes until other options emerged, while Heyward indicated to Hoyer he wants to play beyond this season.
The final eight weeks are about identifying the Cubs’ internal options and getting as much playing time as possible for younger, less experienced players. It led to infielder David Bote, with two years and $9.52 million left on his contract, being optioned to Triple-A Iowa last week.
Few players get to go out solely on their terms. Heyward’s Cubs career didn’t play out like anyone envisioned when he signed his megadeal nearly seven years ago. An amicable split is the best conclusion for both sides.