CHICAGO (AP) A year ago, Jason Heyward was one of the main attractions at the Chicago Cubs' winter convention. The outfielder had just agreed to a big free-agent deal, and he was hoping to play a key role in the team's first championship in more than a century.
The team got that title, but for Heyward, it was a bumpy road all the way to the very end.
Heyward played Gold Glove defense in right field and was a solid clubhouse presence as Chicago claimed its first championship since 1908. But he was awful at the plate, and it wasn't long after the Cubs outlasted the Indians into November that Heyward started retooling his swing.
''It's going well,'' Heyward said Friday as fans gathered at a downtown Chicago hotel for this year's convention. ''It's only offseason though. A lot of hard work and time put into it, a chance to refresh, get away from the season and start over and have fun with it.''
Heyward didn't have much fun at the plate last season. He hit just .230 with a career-low seven homers in the first year of a $184 million, eight-year contract.
It got worse in the playoffs, with Heyward batting .104 (5 for 48) with 13 strikeouts in 16 games. But he grabbed his own little slice of Cubs history for his role in a team meeting during Game 7 of the World Series. Heyward spoke during a 17-minute rain delay after the ninth inning to "remind them who they were." Not long after, Chicago finished a dramatic 8-7 win in Cleveland.
''Regardless of Game 7, it was just the time to say something,'' Heyward said. ''I feel like we all did a great job of standing up and saying our piece and doing our part when it came to certain things in that season and right there, it was just kind of my time.''
Heyward, who turns 28 in August, could be one of the biggest keys to Chicago's chances of becoming the first repeat World Series winner since the New York Yankees won three in a row from 1998-2000.
Hitting coach John Mallee and assistant hitting coach Eric Hinske worked with Heyward over the winter, with the goal of returning him to the form that produced a career-high 27 homers and 82 RBIs in 2012 with Atlanta.
''So if you look at him now compared to '12, '12 he was in a better position to strike the ball,'' Mallee said. ''In '16, somehow that got away from him a little bit and then he started rushing and hurrying and doing those things.''
One example of how Heyward's swing had gone astray over the years has to do with how he re-grips the bat with the pitcher in the windup, Mallee said.
''Over time, you don't even realize it, then you re-grip the bat and you get a little turn in there,'' he said, ''and now his re-grip is trying to get him back to the re-grip that he did in '12. He did the same thing, he just didn't make it as pronounced.''
For all the talk about his swing, Heyward might be helped even more by having consecutive years in one place. He played for three organizations over the past three seasons.
''It goes a long way,'' he said. ''Last year was my first spring training in Arizona. Completely different setup than how it is in Florida. Yes, things are closer, but that means you try and get a little bit more out of each day. Just different setup.''
''This is family now,'' he continued. ''These guys are my boys. We go at it, we fight together through anything. Coaching staff as well, everybody. Just being familiar with the city, my surroundings, this is home.''
Jay Cohen can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/jcohenap