As it became clear last year that his time with the Chicago Cubs was coming to an end, and that an uncertain offseason was imminent, Jason Heyward prepared for the possibility of life after baseball.
The 33-year-old defender did not want his career to end. After 13 major league seasons, one All-Star selection and five Gold Gloves, he didn’t think his tank was empty. He still believed he could make an impact on a contending team.
“I know I can still play,” he told himself. “I know I still want to do it.”
What Heyward didn’t know was whether any of Major League Baseball’s 30 franchises felt the same way.
After having one of his best seasons during a pandemic-shortened 2020 campaign to help the Cubs win the National League Central, Hayward’s performance has been a mess the past two years.
He struggled at the plate, dropping to a .211 batting average between 2021 and 2022. He’s been on the injured list multiple times, battling everything from a hamstring strain to a concussion to a right knee problem that ended his 2022 season in late June.
In August, the Cubs decided they would release Heyward this winter, despite still being obligated to pay him $22 million in the final season of his contract.
And while Heyward was optimistic he would find a new home, he also considered the possibility of forced early retirement.
“If no team said they wanted me, that was a reality I had to be prepared for,” Heyward said. “It was unknown.”
Relief, however, came quickly during free agency.
Shortly after Heyward was officially released on Nov. 14, several teams reached out to his camp, interested in adding the veteran for the league minimum salary.
No one pushed harder than the Dodgers, who called his agent three days in a row before signing him to a minor league contract last week with an invitation to big league spring training.
It was a far different outcome than Heyward’s last foray into free agency in 2016, when he signed his eight-year, $184 million deal as one of the most coveted targets that offseason.
But given the crossroads he was facing this time around, he saw the opportunity with the Dodgers as a much-needed reboot, the perfect place to potentially resurrect his career.
“They have a reputation for doing things in a special way, getting the most out of everyone involved,” Hayward said by phone in his first interview since signing with the team this week. “For them to contact me and want me to have the opportunity to be a part of that process made it a lot easier.”
Heyward is under no illusions about his new situation.
He knows he’s not a lock to make the major league roster (although they could certainly use his left-handed bat and defensive versatility in an infield where it’s still unclear who will replace Cody Bellinger in center).
Heyward has reiterated several times that his sole focus now is on maximizing the offseason program, hoping to improve his swing before spring training arrives in February.
“I want to be the best version of myself,” she said. “And the Dodgers, I think, give me a really, really great opportunity to do that.”
Hayward said in his initial Zoom meetings with the team, the club’s brass identified his bat speed and natural athleticism as tools they liked. the building blocks they believe can make Hayward a contributor at the big league level.
Their work together began last week when Heyward flew to Los Angeles to work out at Dodger Stadium alongside the club’s hitting coaches Robert Van Scoyock and Aaron Bates and the strength staff.
“I want to be the best version of myself. And the Dodgers, I think, give me a really, really great opportunity to do that.”
— Dodgers outfielder Jason Heyward
“Pretty much walking before spring training,” Heyward said. “I’ll be spending more time with them the rest of the offseason.”
The other asset the Dodgers hope Hayward can provide. Further veteran presence on a team undergoing a roster transition this offseason.
In Chicago, Hayward’s leadership was popular. In the 2016 World Series, the performance he gave during a Game 7 rain delay became clubhouse history. And even as his role has diminished in recent seasons, his leadership of the Cubs’ young core has been widely praised around the organization.
Still, Heyward admitted his final days weren’t always easy.
As the front office shed longtime teammates and embarked on an apparent rebuild, Hayward struggled with the realities of playing on a losing team for the first time in his career.
And when it became clear he wouldn’t be retained through 2023, Hayward spent much of the second half of last season away from the team, training at home, worried that he could derail his situation if he stayed around the club full-time.
“What I didn’t want was to be a shadow hanging over the team where my situation comes up every day and guys are asked about it,” Heyward said. “I didn’t want it to be part of some guys’ first big league experience because they had a lot of new guys. It was already weird enough… I wanted to respect that space.”
Hayward’s signing with the Dodgers was a breath of fresh air.
He’s back with a contending team. He has a chance to extend his career. And after months of uncertainty, he knows he won’t have to worry about life after baseball for at least another winter.
“I want to be here on opening day and help this team win,” he said. “So [I’ve] I just put my best foot forward, not wasting the opportunity.”