JUPITER, Fla. • When describing how stymied he felt at times batting leadoff for the Atlanta Braves, Gold Glove-winning outfielder Jason Heyward borrowed an analogy from the field. It’s playing long toss and really wanting to cut loose with a full-strength throw but having to hit a target 90 feet away.
“You feel like there’s a governor on you and you’re not letting it ride,” Heyward said. “You have to think of other ways.”
Consider the governor released.
The Cardinals want Heyward to “feel free.”
Cardinals manager Mike Matheny, who rarely makes declarations about his lineup in February, said he has no intention of hitting Heyward leadoff this season. He told the new right fielder that much after talking with Heyward about the hitter he’d like to be. Heyward has been candid about how he felt batting first for the Braves last season – while necessary – limited his approach and contributed to a decline in slugging even as it increased his walk-rate.
The manager’s statement “came after, ‘Where do you see yourself?’” Matheny explained Saturday. “That’s where we’re going to start this. What kind of hitter does he want to be? Where does he feel that he can bring the most to this team and bring out his talents? It’s in a (middle-order) spot, at least in his own mind, and he can get in there and drive the ball. ... He’s been very clear he wasn’t comfortable there. We’d be idiots to not at least acknowledge that.”
Heyward made 94 starts last season for the Braves as their leadoff hitter, and in 428 plate appearances there batted .270 with a .343 on-base percentage and .393 slugging percentage. He had 41 walks, 47 runs, and 39 RBIs atop a lineup that wheezed. Heyward felt compelled to work deeper into counts as a leadoff hitter and became reluctant to let go, as he had when he popped a career-best 27 homers in his third season. The Cardinals want to reach what they feel is the 25-year-old’s untapped production.
To Heyward, Matheny likened his spot in the lineup to Carlos Beltran’s, saying that Beltran hit second in the lineup but had the approach of a No. 3 hitter. While Heyward may want to have a steady spot in the lineup – he could hit anywhere from No. 2 to No. 6 – Matheny suggests he should just establish a steady approach, regardless of spot.
The Cardinals don’t need it to be leadoff because two-time All-Star Matt Carpenter hits there, or the club can audition center fielder Jon Jay if Carpenter moves down in the lineup.
“We could have some flux in what happens with our lineup,” Matheny said. “Believe me I’d like to throw eight guys out there and say you’re going to be out there for 150 games, give me 12 where I can play around. That would be fun. ... I want (Heyward) to show up here with freedom, freedom to be a ballplayer.”
GARCIA EYES APRIL, REGARDLESS OF ROLE
Fresh from his first bullpen session for Cardinals officials and his emphatic statement that he intended to compete for a starting job, lefty Jaime Garcia said he would welcome the chance to be a reliever too. Whatever it takes, he said, to be in the majors in April.
Garcia, who missed most of the previous two seasons with shoulder trouble, flashed solid strength and arm action Friday during his first time on the mound in a Cardinals uniform this spring. His arm did not fatigue the day after his outing, and several Cardinals officials were struck by how Garcia appeared ahead of schedule.
He said he prepared to be a starter – and to be ahead of other pitchers.
“A lot of these guys are trying to get ready for April 5. I’m trying to get ready for March,” Garcia explained. “I’m coming here to compete, to win a spot on this team. If it’s something else than a starting pitcher, then I’ll be happy to do it. ... I want to let my work out there do the talking.”
MARTINEZ CHALLENGED TO LEAD
Each spring, Matheny organizes his groups of hitters and pitchers to expedite workouts and send a message. The name listed atop each group is considered its leader, and during the previous three spring Matheny has used that role to challenge a young player to accept a larger role. On Saturday morning, listed alongside veterans and returning players John Lackey, Lance Lynn, and Trevor Rosenthal was a newcomer to the lead spot, Carlos Martinez.
The Cardinals are showing as much expectations as confidence behind the 23-year-old righthander, who they would like to see emerge from spring as the fifth starter.
“Pushing him a little bit,” Matheny said. “That’s a big responsibility. We’ve been very clear that we want to give this kid a shot. That’s us showing him he can have a leadership position. If you’re one of those five (starters), that’s a leadership position, whether you like it or not and whether you have enough (service) time to deserve it or not.”
Before the start of official workouts Friday, the Cardinals had to swap out all of their in-stock baseballs, which had outgoing commissioner Bud Selig’s name on them, and replace them with the new Rawlings baseballs that had commissioner Rob Manfred’s signature. The Cardinals ordered 850 dozen of the Manfred model baseballs for spring. ... All 26 of the pitchers in camp completed their first round of formal bullpen sessions without any hitches in their health. ... The Cardinals trucked down some Busch Stadium grounds crew equipment to south Florida so that it can be organized and shipped to the team’s new facility in the Dominican Republic.