It’s no secret that OF Jason Heyward struggled last season. The 7-year veteran endured the worst season of his career, batting .230 with a paltry .306 OBP and -0.3 oWAR (Offensive Wins Above Replacement). If it wasn’t for his Gold Glove defense, Heyward would’ve been worth negative wins, a nearly impossible feat to accomplish considering how many at-bats he accrued.
Dexter Fowler on the other hand enjoyed his most successful season as a big leaguer. If not for a month long absence due to injury, the 30-year-old CF would’ve easily surpassed his career totals in RBIs and walks, and he still amassed the highest OBP and WAR of his career. A staple at the top of the lineup, the Cubs suffered when he went to the DL. In the 36 games he didn’t play, the Cubs played .500 baseball, clearly missing his ability to get on base. Now a St. Louis Cardinal, the team will look to replicate his performance with a platoon of young Albert Almora Jr. and veteran Jon Jay.
Being that Fowler is the only regular in the lineup to not return this year, it’s up to the existing players to help mitigate the loss of his presence. OF/C Kyle Schwarber, who missed all but 3 games last season due to injury, certainly adds another dimension to the lineup. However it’s Heyward who could provide the same, if not even better producton, provided he returns to form.
Looking at Heyward’s past seasons, it’s clear that last year was an outlier. Prior to 2016, the 27-year-old averaged .265/.351/.429 along with 16 homers, 74 runs and 59 RBIs a season. If we apply Fowler’s career averages before last year we get a slash line of .268/.365/.419 with 9 homers, 77 runs and 41 RBIs. Looking at these numbers, Fowler outperformed his career averages in every single category listed above in 2016, and doing so in 7 less games than his career average prior.
While it’s hard to say if Fowler’s 2016 season was also an outlier (most players are in their prime production years at his age), expecting Fowler to be as good/if not better than last season may be wishful thinking. After getting off to a blistering start at the beginning of the season, Fowler cooled off. The batting average and slugging percentage in particular took a significant dip, and if we took away his April numbers and replaced them with his career averages for the month his season numbers would look like this: .253/.365/.412. That slash line is still good, but nowhere near what it would be if you included Fowler’s monstrous April. In fact, when you compare those numbers to Heyward’s pre-2016, then it’s clear that if Heyward can find his swing again and at worst return to his career averages, he can produce near/at the same rate as Fowler did last year.
Heyward has been working hard this offseason to improve his broken swing. Cubs hitting coaches have been working with the outfielder to get his stance back to what it was in 2012, when he clubbed a career high 27 HRs and 82 RBIs. These changes include a lowering of his hands and holding the bat more vertically. Considering that the Cubs offense will provide him with plenty of RBI opportunities, it’s not too far-fetched to assume that he could return to the power numbers he’s previously displayed.
Throw in the fact that Schwarber will no doubt hit beter than Heyward did last year and Almora is already a better defensive CF than Fowler and, miraculously, the Cubs could be even better than they were last year. Scary right?
*All stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference