J-Hey on Deadline: 'I want to be part of this'

Veteran outfielder optimistic about Cubs' young core despite roster overhaul

August 10th, 2021

CHICAGO -- After finishing up a round of batting practice in the Cubs' indoor cage on Monday evening, took a seat on the upper bench in the third-base dugout.

The outfielder kept an eye on the Wrigley Field diamond as he discussed the changing landscape on the North Side. Heyward is one of the veterans still with the Cubs, following a series of trades that dismantled the core, transformed the roster and made it clear that the future is now the franchise's priority.

"I want to be a part of this," Heyward said. "I want every bit of that. I'm chomping at the bit to be a part of this right now with this group of guys."

Heyward's words fit in two ways. In the immediate, he wants to return as soon as possible from the left finger setback that sent him to the injured list. Zooming out further, Heyward wants to be part of the reset that constructs a new core and continues the winning culture he helped establish.

The trades that shipped Javier Báez, Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo to other teams signaled the start of a transition period. They removed the pressure of contending for another World Series trophy right now. They created a two-month runway for development to finish the season.

Heyward pointed to how players like Ian Happ, Willson Contreras, Albert Almora Jr. and others broke into the big leagues with winning as the No. 1 priority. That made development more challenging, and Heyward feels this next wave of younger players can benefit from a transition phase.

"To develop at this level, but be expected to win a World Series -- that's almost impossible to do," Heyward said. "So I think it's a special time for these guys right now. And I think I can play a big part in that for them."

Rookie outfielder Greg Deichmann -- acquired from the A's for lefty Andrew Chafin and called up to Chicago when Heyward landed on the 10-day IL on Friday -- noted how Heyward spent Saturday's game on the bench with him.

"It made me feel comfortable," Deichmann said. "A guy of that caliber, it really speaks to his character."

Cubs hitting coach Anthony Iapoce said Heyward has been more vocal in the team's advance meetings. When going over information about the team across the way, Heyward will chime in with his thoughts, or make sure the young players keeping quiet are absorbing the information.

"He'll be like, 'Do you understand?'" Iapoce said with a smile. "He's making sure, double-checking. Almost like you're talking to your kids."

Heyward remembers the veterans that were there for him. When he broke into the big leagues with the Braves back in 2010 as a highly touted first-round Draft pick, Heyward had players like Chipper Jones, Tim Hudson, Billy Wagner and David Ross (now his manager) to help guide the way.

Even when Heyward joined the Cubs ahead of the 2016 season, he did not have to be the vocal leader. The young, upstart Cubs had guys like Jon Lester, John Lackey, Ben Zobrist, Miguel Montero, Ross and others to help.

Heyward has found his voice as he has grown older both in years and MLB experience -- and as the veterans around the room have left via retirement, trades or free agency.

"He's going to be a leader on this team," Ross said. "He's an example that's been around a long time and knows how to be professional, knows how to come in every day and work and get ready.

"I'm super thankful that I've got him here as somebody that you can lean on as a veteran presence. He's been very much a solid rock for me and this organization, as somebody that's really a true pro."

That said, Heyward is also still processing what happened at the Trade Deadline like everyone else.

"It happened and all you can do is react to it," Heyward said. "It's tough to see people go that you've been through battles with and you spent time with their families, watched some of them become dads, some guys get married, the moments in-between the stuff we've done out here.

"You become accustomed to seeing them embrace this stage and see the stage embrace them back."

Of the players traded, Heyward said he probably talked the most with Rizzo about the business side of things.

There was a point early in Heyward's playing days -- back when he was the Georgia kid playing for his hometown team -- that he thought he would suit up for the Braves for his whole career. He was a standout rookie and All-Star in 2010, and he won two of his five career Gold Glove Awards with Atlanta.

"That was my ultimate goal every single day that I put that jersey on," Heyward said, "was to be a Brave for life. And the business doesn't work out that way."

Heyward was traded to the Cardinals ahead of the 2015 season, then signed a long-term free-agent deal with the Cubs. That, of course, paved the way for his famous rain-delay speech late in Game 7 of the '16 World Series, won by Chicago to end their 108-year drought.

Now in his sixth season with Chicago -- with two more years left on his contract -- Heyward learned he could have a legacy with another team and call a different city home. That was one of his messages to the departing core players, especially Rizzo.

"I can relate with him the most on being somewhere and feeling like it's home and not wanting to move on," Heyward said. "Choose happiness. Don't regret it. That's the advice I gave. I said, 'You've done a lot of special things here. This city should embrace you forever.' It will embrace him forever.

"I just wanted him to know he should always be proud of that, and that will follow him wherever he goes. Have fun. Trust in what you do and don't play for the business. Play for the love of the game."

Heyward also appreciates how tough the past few weeks have been on the Cubs' fan base.

"I feel for the fans," he said. "It's probably more shocking to them, because they don't have the perspective we have on a daily basis. So, I feel for them. I can honestly say I'm happy that they had some players to enjoy.

"I'm happy they finally got their day and their moments where we won the World Series here. They have those players to hold on to for the rest of their lives and time."