Heyward open to extension talks with Cardinals

Speaking at this weekend's Winter Warm-Up, right fielder Jason Heyward (foreground, in front of manager Mike Matheny at the kickoff event) sounded thrilled to have landed in St. Louis.


ST. LOUIS — If Jason Heyward performs on the field as well as he handled himself off the field in his first public appearances with his latest team, the Cardinals’ new right fielder will be a certain All-Star.

Heyward sounded thrilled to have landed in St. Louis. He was appropriately impressed by the fans and the city’s tradition as a baseball town. He was genuinely humbled that manager Mike Matheny gave up No. 22 for him. He smiled widely and frequently. Heck, he even brought his parents with him for the whirlwind introductions. 

Heyward’s answer to the question everyone wants to know showed an ability to think quickly and say the right thing. As a featured guest at the kickoff of the Cardinals Winter Warm-Up on Friday night, he participated in a Q-and-A with fans at Ballpark Village.

When one asked if he would be willing to sign a long-term deal to stay with the Cardinals, he did not hesitate.

"I hope to love it so much here I never want to leave," said Heyward, who is due to become a free agent for the first time at the end of the season.

Excellent answer. Honest, yet suitably noncommittal.

On Saturday, at a media session at the Winter Warm-Up, Heyward also showed he can be consistent. Asked again about staying in St. Louis on a multi-year deal, Heyward gave the same answer.

"You know, for me, I hope I love it so much I won’t have to leave," he said. "That’s the way you want to love your job. I love the game of baseball and for me, I’m always going to go out there and give 110 percent. I feel like if I love it that much, then it’s a good fit."

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Heyward, who will make $8.3 million in 2015, has said the same since the Cardinals traded for him in November, and who can fault him? Before he comes out and says he wants to be a Cardinal for life, it would be nice to spend a little time around the team. At least spring training, anyway. Heyward did not rule out that he would negotiate during the season, but neither did he sound exceptionally eager to do so.

"I couldn’t tell you how any of that is going to go," he said Saturday. "Right now, I’m just looking forward to getting settled in with my teammates. The goal for me and I feel like for everyone involved is to be playing in October for a World Series. If all that takes care of itself, I feel like a lot of good things would come from it."

While the Cardinals already have expressed hope that Heyward will be with the team long term, general manager John Mozeliak isn’t rushing anything, either. He wants Heyward to experience the team and the city and besides, he said the two have yet to even meet. "It’s always awkward to start talking about his future even before he and I have ever talked," Mozeliak said.

It has been reported that a key reason the Braves traded the 25-year-old who already has been an All-Star and played five full seasons in the majors was because he was set on testing the free-agent market after the 2015 season. But Heyward said he would have talked long term with Atlanta, but the club didn’t make much of an effort to do so. 

"This is the only question I’ll answer about it because I want to look forward," Heyward said Saturday. "I was never opposed to it. Being from Georgia, I grew up playing baseball in that state, grew up watching the great teams in the ’90s, I got to play for the Hall of Fame manager (Bobby Cox) that helped build that organization. There wasn’t a lot of time put in on their part, I feel like, getting to know me as a person and getting to know my mindset on it. They had their ways on how they want to go about it and they followed through. Here I am in a good situation. I’m definitely not complaining."

Heyward doesn’t seem like the sort to complain about much. That includes where Matheny slots him in the batting order, another topic Heyward can expect to be asked about fairly often. He already has, in fact, and his standard reply again is what you’d want to hear if he’s someone on your payroll. "I’m a team player," he said. "I’ll fit right in wherever I’m asked."

Although he came up as a middle-of-the-order hitter, Heyward was asked to hit leadoff last season because he has a discerning eye and the Braves lacked other options. He embraced the challenge by lowering his strikeout rate and raising his contact rate to career bests. 

But his on-base percentage actually was better hitting out of the five-hole (.368 to .343 in the leadoff position) and his home runs dropped to a career-low 11. He averaged a homer every 52.1 at-bats in 2014, compared with one every 21.7 in 2012, when he went deep a career-best 27 times.

Unlike many hitters who say they don’t change their approach based on their place in the batting order, Heyward readily admits he is a different hitter out of the top spot.

"You’re forced to," he said. "It’s different. You have the pitcher hitting in front of you every other inning except for the first at-bat and the game is sort of dictated for you. You want to get on base every time. That is your mindset. That’s a lot different from hitting second, third, fourth, fifth where you’re saying, ‘Let me get a pitch to drive somewhere.’ You can’t do that much in the leadoff spot."

With Matt Carpenter coming off an excellent season as a leadoff hitter, the Cardinals don’t need Heyward to lead off. Matheny, understandably, has said he wants to see the team in spring training before he decides on a batting order. The manager, however, might have dropped a hint at the kickoff event Friday night when he said he sees Heyward hitting out of a production spot in the order. That could mean just about anywhere, of course, except the very top of the order.

That would be better than fine with Heyward.

"I was developed as a guy in the middle of the lineup and I made it to the major leagues at 20 years old with some success in that area," he said. "That’s what I know."

Heyward has played in 12 games at Busch Stadium — with two homers and a .234 batting average — so he already has experienced the sea of red as an opponent. His first trip to St. Louis as a member of the Cardinals did nothing to dispel the fans’ reputation as some of the most devoted in the majors. 

"It felt very homey, it was welcoming," he said. "(You see) fans that understand and appreciate someone who’s going to play the game hard for ’em. That was a good feeling. I’m looking forward to it a lot."

So, too, are the Cardinals and their fans. They won’t be disappointed if Heyward performs on the field like he has at the podium.

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