I thought it would happen. And then I didn’t. And then I changed my mind. Then I flipped back. And forth. Over the course of the last few weeks, I vacillated back and forth when it came to the Cubs’ ability and willingness to land the most coveted free agent position player on the market. I wish I could say that I’d called this from the start, but I was skeptical up until the moment my tireless refreshing of Twitter yielded an answer. But that’s exactly what the Cubs wanted.
Like a great poker player, the Cubs slow-played this situation masterfully. Whether they had the cards (well, the Cards were certainly had in this case) from the start or whether they made their hand on the river in the form of the additional resources from the business side, the front office really didn’t let on to how serious they were in their pursuit of Jason Heyward.
We saw that the Cubs had come in third to the Red Sox and Cardinals for the services of David Price, and the amount the Cubs offered gave an idea for how much they really had to spend. But arms are a little risky, and perhaps they felt that betting $31 million/year was like chasing a busted straight draw. They stuck to the smaller pots, bringing in John Lackey and Trevor Cahill and then trading Starlin Castro to the Yankees for Adam Warren.
Nothing sexy, mind you, but enough to solidify both the rotation and the bullpen without really putting them into a decision for their chips. But with a need to upgrade outfield defense and fill out a lineup to which they’d already added Ben Zobrist, the Cubs knew they couldn’t pass up a 26-year-old outfielder whose glove might be the best in baseball (at least as far as right field goes). And so they pushed all their chips in.
Contract details will be forthcoming, but it’s believed Heyward turned down $200 million with Washington and that he signed for less in Chicago. It had been previously reported that he was looking for something like $24M/year for 7 or 8 years, which not cheap. Does giving him that much tell us that the Cubs think Jason Heyward is the best position player in baseball? While Dave Stewart probably believes so, this is very much a function of the market and the circumstances. That’s not to say Heyward is really, really good, just that the timing of his free agency was pretty darn perfect for him.
I know I’m sort of flipping the whole metaphor around here, but adding Heyward gives the Cubs a full house that boasts a bit more consistency and experience than last year. They’ve got a lineup of Zobrist, Kyle Schwarber, Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Jason Heyward, Miguel Montero, Addison Russell, and a third outfielder (who may or may not be Jorge Soler). I don’t know about you, but that’s not a group I’d want to face (and don’t @ me, bro, that was not necessarily a projected order).
There’s been a lot of talk about Heyward’s lack of power, but I don’t think you need to worry about that being a thing. Not only will the Cubs have more than enough thunder to go around, but their newest outfielder is still a guy with potential to hit 25+ home runs. He’s also a guy who has increased his contact rate in each of the last three seasons (from 75.2 percent in 2012 to 84.2 in 2015) while markedly decreasing his swinging strike percentages (from 11.4 percent in 2012 to 6.5 last season).
And after posting K-rates in the low 20’s over his first three seasons in Atlanta, Heyward has posted percentages of 16.6, 15.1, and 14.8 over the last three campaigns. While his walk rates have dropped in each of the last few seasons, he’s still got a career average of 10.8 percent. Contrast those with the Cubs’ 2015 averages of a 24.5 percent K-rate and 9.1 percent BB-rate with an 11.8 percent swinging-strike rate.
Not into the behind-the-scenes metrics? Prefer to look at the 13 home runs and 60 RBI last year and wonder why someone would give a quarter billion dollars to Chris Coghlan? Fair enough. I’ll direct you then to a slash line of .293/.359/.439 and a wRC+ of 121 (career average 118). Over a six-year career, Heyward has totaled 27.8 WAR, which is 11th in MLB during that time (Zobrist’s 28.5 is 10th, for what it’s worth). Mike’s got some more info on Heyward’s excellence in today’s Rundown too. If I didn’t know any better, I’d say we’re looking at a guy who significantly improves the lineup.
What’s more, Heyward is still becoming a better hitter and he is only now entering his prime seasons. Sounds kinda like something we could say about five or six other guys on the roster. Not only does this addition make the Cubs stronger in a number of areas, it makes the Cardinals weaker. St. Louis dealt Shelby Miller to Atlanta to acquire Heyward and now are without much of anything to show for it. Sure, they had a 100-win season that some among the Best Fans in Baseball will tell you makes them the rightful world champs, but they were then unceremoniously drummed out of the playoffs by Heyward’s new team.
Did he see something during that NLDS or throughout the season that made him want to sign in Chicago? Perhaps it was the fond memories of hitting a three-run homer in his first MLB at-bat against Carlos Zambrano and the Cubs in a 16-5 romp back on April 5th, 2010. Maybe, like the bizarro Ryan Theriot, he simply wanted to be on the right side of the rivalry. Whatever the case, Jason Heyward will be calling Wrigley Field home for the forseeable future.
The Cubs probably aren’t done making deals yet, but this move signifies that they are now officially all-in, full speed ahead, pedal to the metal, and whatever other going-for-it idiom you can think of. There may still be a small measure of hope remaining, but it’s not been replaced in large part by expectation. That’s not to say anyone is justified in burning Theo Epstein in effigy if the Cubs don’t win the World Series in 2016, but that the organization itself has made a very public paradigm shift.
This past season showed us that the Cubs are still infinitely lovable, but their somewhat premature success and the aggressiveness with which they’ve attacked the offseason have showed us that they intend to remove the loser tag for good. Or at least for the next several years.
Update: Initial reports have the deal at 8 years and $184 million, which comes out to $23 million per season. If we use the value of $8 million per win, Heyward need only average 3 WAR per year to out-perform that amount. Using his average fWAR of 4.64, he should be worth $296 million. So that’s nice, but it doesn’t really tell the whole story. WAR is a cumulative stat, so Heyward’s injury-shortened seasons (128 in 2011 and 104 in 2013) have lower totals than the others. As such, I chose to look at a per-game average and then extrapolate that over eight 150-game seasons. In that scenario, we’re talking about a value of just almost $320 million.
But since it’s not realistic to assume Heyward will remain healthy for the length of the contract, let’s figure out the minimum he’d have to produce to “earn” the big deal he’s about to ink. Assuming the same per-game WAR production he’s averaged over the first six seasons of his career (.0333), Heyward will only need to average 86.33 games played over the next eight years (.0333 WAR/game x 86.33 games x 8 years x $8 million/win = $184 million) to make this a good deal. Boom. Okay, no one will be happy if the guy only plays half of each season, but I’m making a point.
And now it’s off to the gym I’ve been avoiding for the last 3 hours.