Solid bat, elite defense and a good teammate: Heyward fits the bill for Cardinals

Jason Heyward has lived up to expectations since arriving in camp with the St. Louis Cardinals. 

Steve Mitchell/Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

JUPITER, Fla. — In his first spring training with the Cardinals, Jason Heyward has been just about what his new team expected.

• Good hitter. Heyward singled on the first pitch he saw at Roger Dean Stadium, and has kept his batting average above .300 and his on-base percentage near .400 all month. He has reached base in nine of 12 games even though he has not made more than three plate appearances in any. The starters who stifled him weren’t that surprising, either: Lefties David Price and Jon Niese and a dominant Max Scherzer on Wednesday.

Heyward has only two extra-base hits — and one, a double, doesn’t show up in the stats because the game ended up being rained out. You could say this lack of thump means he’s fitting in with his teammates, but you also could cut him a little slack. For some hitters, the power doesn’t come until they have their timing down and Heyward has enough moving parts in his swing that this could be the case. But his homer Thursday againt the Marlins could indicate he’s starting to figure it out.

• Elite defender. From the games I saw in Florida, Heyward didn’t have many opportunities to show off his Gold Glove defense, but one catch he made in foul ground early in camp was enough for me. Not many right fielders could have made such a grab. Given it was spring training, I’m not sure there were many who even would have tried.

• Good teammate. Watch Heyward when a half-inning ends at Roger Dean and before he steps into the dugout, he waits for the center and left fielders to arrive. He’ll bump gloves with Jon Jay and give Matt Holliday a pat on the backside in a gesture of camaraderie. No big deal, of course, but it does offer a feel of "we’re in this together."

Heyward also has joined the Cardinals’ sunrise club that shows up before 6 a.m. to begin the workday, and he has been approachable, courteous and even respectful with the media, which counts for a little something anyway (at least to the media).

None of this apparently seamless transition surprises a former teammate who knows Heyward about as well as any big leaguer. Chipper Jones was 37 when Heyward broke in as a 20-year-old and, as he did with most of the young Braves, Jones served as a mentor for the rookie right fielder. Not many took to mentoring better than Heyward, Jones recalled.

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"He’s one of those guys that was very easy to take under your wing," Jones said. "He’s got a great head on his shoulders, his parents have done a great job. He was always a sponge with me. He always was one who sat there and listened. I really, really enjoyed my time with him."

Their relationship was a little different from many since Heyward grew up a Braves fan and was the first teammate Jones can remember who hung a poster of Jones in his bedroom.

"I don’t know if he would ever admit to that," Jones said, "But yeah, he probably was the first."

Heyward certainly showed Jones a healthy respect, more even than Jones liked. Heyward didn’t call him Mr. Jones, but he did typically include a "sir" when answering his future Hall of Fame teammate.

"I had to tell him, ‘Stop,’" Jones said. "’No. 1, it makes me feel old. No. 2, you and I are going to be buddies.’ I’ll be damned if I want one of my buddies going, ‘Yes sir’ to me."

During their second season together, Jones had to show some tough love with Heyward in the first half. Bothered by a sore shoulder in the early part of the season, Heyward struggled at the plate, took a cortisone shot, reaggravated the injury and went on the disabled list. During his time out, he told the media that he would play when he was 100 percent healthy.

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This wasn’t exactly what Jones liked hearing, and he went through the media to let Heyward know. When the quotes got out, Jones sat down with Heyward and explained where he was coming from.

"He did great with it," Jones said. "I told him no one is 100 percent all that often and that Jason Heyward at 80 percent was better than a whole lot of guys at 100 percent, and just having him in the lineup made us a better ball club. He understood where I was coming from."

Jones remembers the hype that followed Heyward during his first spring training. Jones hasn’t forgotten how Heyward came through with a game-turning, three-run homer off Carlos Zambrano in his first at-bat in the majors. After Jones retired following the 2012 seaosn, he watched how the Braves thrust Heyward into a leadership role even though he was far from a veteran.

"Unfortunately, guys like him and Freddie (Freeman) were asked to become leaders at 23 or 24 years old; it’s not fair," Jones said. "But now you were starting to see them make progress in that area."

Jones called Heyward "one of the most gifted defenders I’ve ever seen" but added, "offensively, he’s still trying to figure it out."

While Heyward’s still seeking some power, he appears to have figured out just about everything else in his first weeks with his new team.

You can follow Stan McNeal on Twitter at @StanMcNeal or email him at stanmcneal@gmail.com.