The Dodgers have recognized the small signs of progress this spring, the auspicious moments when Jason Heyward’s new look, retooled and continued “work in progress” swing, as manager Dave Roberts called it, came out on the plate more like a finished product looked .
Like when the veteran fielder hit two home runs in the first week of spring practice.
Or during live batting practice early in camp when he was lacing line drive singles the other way.
Freddie Freeman began to believe it back in January when he and Heyward met for the first time this offseason at Freeman’s old El Modena High Field in Orange County, taking flips from Freeman’s father Fred and shooting them across the outfield.
“His first ball was a rocket off the midfield wall,” recalled Freeman, a longtime friend of Heyward’s who dates back to his days as a young player with the Atlanta Braves. “It was that sound you heard 15 years ago that made you think, ‘Wow, this guy is special.’ ”
Heyward, who signed a minor-league contract with the Dodgers this winter, was enough to secure a likely spot on the club’s inaugural team.
While his camp performance has slipped in recent weeks and he has no guarantees of producing during the regular season, it seems increasingly clear he will have a role on the Dodgers’ outfield in 2023.
“I think it’s a safe bet,” Roberts said of Heyward’s chances of making the major league team. “He’s come to spring training with this new, revamped momentum that looks like he’s been doing it for a long time.”
Heyward’s mechanics received a major overhaul from last year, when persistent offensive struggles and a nagging knee injury prompted the Chicago Cubs to release him on an eight-year, $184 million contract with one season remaining.
His hands are now lower and further back in his setup stance. Its bat trail is shorter and flatter than it used to be. And when everything clicked, he was able to cover more parts of the plate and set himself up for off-speed places, key factors during his promising four-on-10 start in the Cactus League.
“I’ve been working on this stuff bit by bit,” said Heyward, who spent some time over the winter working with Dodgers hitting coaches in Los Angeles and at their Camelback Ranch facility in Arizona. “Working with the group and trying to do my best.”
Heyward did that quickly, taking advantage of a gap in midfield created this offseason when the Dodgers failed to call out Cody Bellinger and Kevin Kiermaier fell short in the free hand.
The team signed two other left-handed veterans to minor league deals, Steven Duggar and Bradley Zimmer, and has a top contender in James Outman pushing for an MLB spot. But so far, it’s Heyward leading the pack, combining his veteran demeanor and five-time Gold Glove defense with just enough offensive potential to stand out from the crowd.
“It’s not surprising when you talk about the character,” Roberts said. “From the day we signed him he made a commitment to work diligently with our racquets from that point forward. … fly to Arizona. Departure to Los Angeles. Make sure things got cleaned up.”
With Opening Day just two weeks away, however, there are still many improvements to be made to Heyward’s swing.
Since the hot start of spring, the 33-year-old has cooled off dramatically. He signed up for his last 16 shows on Thursday. He’s batted eight times in 14 at-bats while looking late at fastballs and chasing pitches off the plate.
Roberts has downplayed the sudden regression.
“I don’t think anyone expected it to be linear,” the manager said. “I think he started really well and then a little cold spell hit him and he’s working through some things.”
Heyward described it as part of the process of his long-term swing change — a by-product of trying to replace earlier short-term fixes with more fundamental changes to his game.
“Sometimes you tend to do things where you want to put a band-aid on stuff and get a quick result,” Heyward said. “But if you have skills, you want to use them. That’s what I’m trying to do.”
However, how much ability Heyward has left and how well he can pull it out before the start of the season could be an important subplot of the Dodgers’ upcoming campaign.
Originally, Heyward appeared set to a bench role to support Chris Taylor at center, who would likely platoon against right-handed pitchers and provide defensive versatility late in games.
But with Gavin Lux’s knee injury at the end of the season and the need for Taylor to play more shortstop now, Heyward could have an even bigger role to play than most originally anticipated.
“If he can still stay in the hitting zone and keep working on that swing, clean that swing, he’ll be fine,” Roberts said. “We’re still excited about the trajectory.”
Source : www.latimes.com