Jason Heyward is Dealing with a Knee Issue – But, When Healthy, What’s His Status as a Regular Starter?

Although it may have seemed notable that outfielder Jason Heyward did not start either of the weekend games in St. Louis, it turns out it wasn’t any kind of shift in organizational philosophy or a changing of the guard.

It was just some rest for a knee issue:

Is it possible the Cubs and David Ross were extra willing to give Heyward some rest because they also wanted to get a different group of outfielders in the games? Sure. It’s possible. But it’s also possible that, if he were fully healthy, Heyward would’ve been out there, starting as he has been against all righties so far this year.

To that point, we’ll have to see if this injury – or anything else – alters the Cubs’ thinking on how often to be playing Heyward, either before or after Seiya Suzuki returns from his finger injury. So far, we’ve been given no indication that the Cubs feel like it’s close to time to move on, despite the terrible 2021 season and the fact that Heyward has hit just .176/.236/.245/37 wRC+ since the end of April.

Cubs President Jed Hoyer was on ESPN radio last week discussing, among many other things, Heyward’s role on the team. Dave Kaplan pressed Hoyer pretty hard on why Heyward keeps playing when you already know what he is, the contract is already a sunk cost, and there are guys you should prefer to be evaluating for the future.

Hoyer, while repeatedly acknowledging that it was a good and fair question, answered this way (me transcribing as I listened):

“We’ve been pretty banged up and as a result he’s been playing a lot. [But you] do have to use these periods to evaluate what you really have to try figure out, in some cases, does this guy have a future with us? In other cases, it’s just about giving the guy the needed plate appearances to make those adjustments. At the same time, I think you can also really hurt a player if they’re simply not ready to do it. You can’t just force any player into the big leagues and say, go ahead and do it …. About Jason, this guy could not be more important to the development of our young players. To mentor those guys. It’s really rare to see a player that is willing to take the time he does to make sure he mentors those guys, and there is value in that. It’s not only a coaching effort, it’s a player effort. And we don’t have a ton of veteran position players, so I do think he has a really strong influence on those guys, and I don’t think that should be entirely minimized.”

So, if I heard it all correctly, the answer appears to be a combination of factors.

For one, the Cubs have not yet been in a situation where they felt it was the right time to give X Player everyday starts over Heyward, either for fear it could hurt that player’s development (perhaps why the Cubs are trying only to put Nelson Velazquez in optimum starting situations?), or because injuries didn’t really permit it (Clint Frazier did miss a lot of the time when he could have been starting, but he also wasn’t starting over Heyward when healthy). This would track a little better for me if Heyward were still an elite defensive glove out there, but I at least understand what is being said.

For another reason, Heyward is valuable in mentoring and helping develop the young position players right now – but does he have to START regularly to do that? I suppose the answer is probably that, if you’re asking Heyward to be a leader to develop these young players, and if you’re already on the fence about who should be getting the playing time at the moment, then you give him the respect of starting him while he is fulfilling that role. I don’t know whether I agree with all that, but it’s an explanation, at least. And I’m sure there are clubhouse dynamics at play that we simply don’t have visibility into from the outside.

When Suzuki returns, however, I think it gets a whole lot more difficult to justify starting Heyward over guys like Christopher Morel and/or Rafael Ortega, which is what would have to happen if everyone was healthy. At that point, as Kaplan’s question underscored, you are taking away valuable plate appearances from guys who need them in order to give them to a guy whose contract is a sunk cost, who has been one of the worst players in baseball the last year and a half, and who is extraordinarily unlikely to play a meaningful part on the 2023 team.

The point isn’t to keep bashing Jason Heyward. It is simply to try to understand why the Cubs are doing what they’re doing, and how it does or does not make sense going forward as the roster and the circumstances change.

written by

Brett Taylor is the Lead Cubs Writer at Bleacher Nation, and you can find him on Twitter at @BleacherNation and on LinkedIn here. Brett is also the founder of Bleacher Nation, which opened up shop in 2008 as an independent blog about the Chicago Cubs. Later growing to incorporate coverage of other Chicago sports, Bleacher Nation is now one of the largest regional sports blogs on the web.

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