Jason Heyward's swing is a 'work in progress.' He's still a safe bet to make Dodgers roster
The Dodgers have latched onto the little signs of progress this spring, the promising moments when Jason Heyward’s new-look, retooled and continued “work in progress” swing, as manager Dave Roberts called it, has looked more like a finished product at the plate.
Such as when the veteran outfielder hit two home runs in the first week of spring training.
Or during live batting practice sessions at the start of camp, when he laced line-drive singles the other way.
Freddie Freeman started to believe back in January, when he and Heyward hit together for the first time this offseason at Freeman’s old El Modena High field in Orange County, taking flips from Freeman’s dad, Fred, and launching them around the outfield.
“His first ball was a missile off the center-field wall,” Freeman, a longtime friend of Heyward’s going back to their days as young players with the Atlanta Braves, recalled. “It was the sound you heard 15 years ago, where you’re like, ‘Wow, this guy is special.’ ”
It’s been enough for Heyward, who signed a minor league deal with the Dodgers this winter, to lock down a likely spot on the club’s opening day team.
Even though his camp performance has tailed off the last several weeks, and he remains no guarantee to produce during the regular season, it appears increasingly clear he’ll have a role to play in 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 swing that, it looks like he's done it for a long time.”
Heyward’s mechanics have undergone a major makeover from last year, when prolonged offensive struggles and a nagging knee injury led the Chicago Cubs to release him with one season left on an eight-year, $184-million deal.
His hands are now lower and farther back in his setup stance. His bat path is shorter and flatter than it used to be. And when everything has clicked, he’s been able to cover more parts of the plate and adjust to off-speed pitches, key factors during his auspicious four-for-10 start to Cactus League play.
“I’ve been working on that stuff piece by piece,” said Heyward, who spent time in the winter working with Dodgers hitting coaches in Los Angeles and at their Camelback Ranch facility in Arizona. “Working with the group, trying to put my best foot forward.”
That, Heyward did quickly, taking advantage of a center-field void created this offseason when the Dodgers nontendered Cody Bellinger and came up short for Kevin Kiermaier in free agency.
The team signed two other left-handed-hitting veterans to minor league deals, Steven Duggar and Bradley Zimmer, and has a top prospect pushing for an MLB spot in James Outman. But thus far, it’s Heyward who is leading the group, combining his veteran poise and five-time Gold Glove defense with just enough offensive potential to separate himself from the pack.
“It's not surprising when you're talking about the character,” Roberts said. “From the day we signed him, he committed to working with our hitting guys from that point on, diligently. … Flying out to Arizona. Flying out to Los Angeles. Making sure things were cleaned up.”
Nonetheless, with opening day just two weeks away, many improvements in Heyward’s swing remain to be made.
Since that hot start to the spring, the 33-year-old has cooled off dramatically. He entered Sunday three for his last 25 in exhibitions. He has also struck out 10 times in the last eight games , often looking late on fastballs and chasing pitches off the plate.
Roberts downplayed the sudden regression.
“I don’t think that anyone expected it to be linear,” the manager said. “I think he started off really well, and then he hit a little cold spell and is working through some things.”
Heyward described it as being part of the process of his long-term swing change — a byproduct of trying to replace past short-term fixes with more fundamental alterations to his game.
“At times, you tend to do things where, you’re putting a Band-Aid on stuff and you want to get a quick result,” Heyward said. “But when you have ability, you want to tap into that. That’s what I’m trying to do.”
Still, exactly how much ability Heyward has left, and how well he can extract it before the start of the season, could be a key subplot to the Dodgers' upcoming campaign.
Originally, Heyward seemed set for a bench role backing up Chris Taylor in center, likely to platoon against right-handed pitchers and provide defensive versatility late in games.
But in the wake of Gavin Lux’s season-ending knee injury, and the need for Taylor to now play more shortstop, Heyward could be set for an even bigger role than most initially anticipated.
“If he can still stay in the strike zone and continue to work on that swing, clean that swing up, he’s gonna be fine,” Roberts said. “We’re still excited about the trajectory.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.