ST. LOUIS - When Jason Heyward laces up his cleats as a St. Louis Cardinal for the first time, he'll enter into his sixth season in the MLB. And even though he broke into the majors at an early age, the right fielder continues to search for his best season.
"I don't see a great year in there," the 24-year-old said when asked to name his best campaign. "Not to say the game is easy. I feel like there's room to grow and I feel like your surroundings are a big part of that."
Heyward has two Gold Gloves, was an All-Star in his rookie season and was second in NL Rookie of the Year voting in 2010. Even with those accomplisments, it was clear Saturday he felt his time in St. Louis was an opportunity to reach a new level.
Heyward was jostled around in the Braves line-up last season, batting in the lead-off spot for 94 games and another 54 games in the fifth position. His numbers were pretty consistent in both spots, hitting .270 vs. .274 and slugging .393 vs. .368 respectively. Still, the outfielder said he spent much of the season adjusting to the role of leadoff man.
"I was developed as a guy in the middle of the line-up. I made it to the Major Leagues with some success in that area," Heyward said matter -of-factly. "When you're able to settle in a line-up that's stable and understanding of what your job is every day, I feel like there's a lot to be said about that."
And the Cardinals need his help in the middle. The success of Kolten Wong, Matt Carpenter and Jon Jay gives manager Mike Matheny the option to insert Heyward into the middle of the order to help shoulder the RBI burden thrust upon Matt Holliday.
"I'm looking forward to that opportunity with this line-up. So far, the message I've received [from the organization] is to be myself and not necessarily worry about being a guy that's going to bat lead-off," Heyward said, "I know I can bring a lot to the table - run the base, steal some bases, draw walks when I need to."
That versatility and Heyward's youth make him an attractive long-term candidate for the organization. He's currently in the final year of his existing contract and could opt for a long-term deal with the Birds or seek free agency at the conclusion of the season. There were no shortage of questions fired at the young outfielder about his long-term intentions, and he fielded them calmly.
"This is a city that's a definitely all about baseball, and for me that's exciting to experience," he said. "I hope I love it so much that I won't have to leave. That's how you want to love your job. I love the game of baseball and I'm always going to give 110 percent. I feel like if I love it that much, then it's a good fit."
The Cardinals are certainly being welcoming to their new right fielder, beginning with his jersey. Friday night, Mike Matheny officially gave Heyward number 22, the number he has worn throughout his professional career.
"That was an awesome gesture my Mike, an awesome gesture by the organization. They didn’t have to do it," Heyward said.
The number belonged to a former high school teammate who passed away during Heyward's senior year. He wears it to honor his memory and as a gesture to his friend's mother, who was mentor to Heyward.
"The fact that they recognized how important it was to me and to a lot of other people says a lot about the organization and the class," he said.
With fan and media sessions wrapped up for the new acquistion, he can now focus on the on-field product. Despite uncertainty on where he will end up in the lineup, Heyward heads into 2015 with a simple approach.
"I just try to focus on the basics," he said. "I still want to maintain the focus on driving the ball and kind of get that feeling out of my mind where I feel like I need to be more passive."