So About Jason Heyward’s Contract and Those Opt-Outs

What a wild afternoon we had on Friday, huh? I had already put in to take the afternoon off a couple weeks earlier, so the timing couldn’t have been better for me. So there I was, laptop and phone both burning up beneath my hot little hands as I refreshed and retweeted and researched, my heart racing all the while. Seriously, those final couple hours of the Jason Heyward saga were pretty flippin’ exciting. Then, one by one, the teams started to fall away until only the Cubs were left standing.

So often in these situations, it’s the highest bidder who comes out on top. While that’s still the case here in a way, the Cubs didn’t offer the most money overall. Both the Cardinals and Nationals reportedly offered $200 million over what is believed to be 10 years. But Heyward agreed to join the Cubs for two fewer years and 16 million fewer dollars. Why? Well, I’m guessing the ability to be a part of something awesome at the corner of Clark and Addison factored heavily. Oh, and the opt-outs. Yeah, the opt-outs were big.

As a part of their offer, the Cubs gave Heyward the ability to walk away from the deal after either three or four years. It’s like, if you love something, set it free. If it leaves, it was never really yours to begin with. If it still comes back to you, it, like, really loves you and stuff. I suppose it’s a bit incongruous to compare Heyward to a bird though, since he just flew the coop on the Cardinals. But the fact remains that the Cubs structured this deal in such a way that it was more amenable to Heyward than those offering a good deal more security.

As of post time, little is known of the pact beyond the macro details of years, total value, and the options. A write-up in MLB Trade Rumors seems to feel the structure presents a great deal of risk to the Cubs, though I’m not so sure I agree with that. I had seen a rumor earlier that the first three years of the deal were thought to be at $18 million apiece, which would indicate an escalation in the fourth year and then again at the fifth. Whether it stays level or appreciates slightly from there is really immaterial to the conversation at this point, but I’m guessing it’s somewhere between $26-28 AAV over the last half.

Before I proceed, I’d like to dispense right away with any thoughts that this deal resembles Jim Hendry’s signing of Alfonso Soriano in any way, shape, or form. I mean, both deals were the richest ever signed by a Cub at the time and both players are outfielders, but that’s where it stops. I’ll dispense with the tedium of contrasting the two because you’re all smart enough to get it. But where the two deals dovetail is in the potential to be viewed with disappointment, which is where I’d like to turn now. Despite the infinite potential for nuance over the next eight years, there are really only three true outcomes for the contract between the Cubs and Jason Heyward.

The first possibility is that he performs well enough to want to bypass a boatload of money in year four and then beyond, it’s reasonable to assume the Cubs will have been doing quite well. If he leaves, the Cubs got a bargain for either three or four years and they’ll be able to roll the money they’d have spent on Heyward into extensions and/or another free agent. Keep in mind that this would also be around the time of increased revenue from the new network and more freedom from the debt-service payments that are part of the structure of the purchase agreement.

This is really the middle-of-the-road scenario, as it’ll mean the Cubs got a few prime years from a guy who out-performed what was about to become an even more lucrative deal but will have to find a way to replace him. They’ll be in a good way financially though, so it’s really a no-lose situation. It may not be an exceptional win, either, as you’d want to hang onto a player who’s played himself into more than $25-ish million/year over 4 or 5 years.

The next, and clearly the worst, scenario entails Heyward flailing around during the first several years of this deal and then clinging to the options like the world’s most expensive life preserver. That’s pretty unlikely, but who really knows how the future will play out. I mean, if the karmic vitriol from the BFIB becomes manifest, Heyward will either a) tear one or both ACL’s; b) get hit in the face with multiple fastballs; c) die; or d) be outed as homosexual. I’m not really sure what the latter has to do with his ability to play baseball, but the claims were all over Twitter Friday afternoon, so I guess angry, small-minded people consider it a handicap.

I know $184 million sounds like a really big number and it is for those us who toil away at “regular” jobs, but this really isn’t all that much given the economics of today’s game. And Heyward isn’t necessarily a guy whose performance is predicated on a single factor, like power or speed. The latter is certainly part of it, but he’d really have to fall apart to fail to live up to the pact. Six years is long enough to establish a pretty solid track record, so it’s highly unlikely that we’ll suddenly see this guy fall off a cliff, production-wise. More likely is the possibility that Heyward’s performance only breaks even with the money he’s making. In that case, he’ll opt in for the final years and increase the possibility that the Cubs will have overpaid for him.

But here’s the thing: this would be the pitfall of a contract that didn’t offer opt-outs too. Say Heyward took a deal that just had a flat AAV and no options and then stunk it up. The Cubs are still paying him, just without him making the choice to make them do so twice during the course of the deal. So the “danger” of this situation is really moot because signing any player to any deal is to run the risk that said player won’t live up to it.

The final, and easily the best, scenario is that Heyward outperforms the deal he signed and still opts in for the final years. This isn’t really pie in the sky either, particularly when you consider the motivation that led to the signing in the first place. There are, after all, reasons a guy turns down more money from two other teams. I have no doubt the presence of the dual opt-outs played a role, but I believe the desire and ability to be a part of a team built to win both now and in the future factored heavily as well. You can’t discount the Joe Maddon factor either, and that includes the obvious camaraderie the Cubs displayed.

I can’t pretend to know Jason Heyward, but I trust that those who do felt that he’d be a good fit with the Cubs’ young core. I would be willing to bet he felt the same. It makes sense then that a guy who has already opted to take less money once for a what he felt was a better situation would be willing to do so again. Right? Think about it: if Heyward plays well enough during his first three or four seasons to command more on the open market that then $X he’s scheduled to make with the Cubs, it probably means the team is doing really well. Sure, it’s possible that the rest of the roster just falls flat around him, but that’s highly unlikely. There’s going to be a great deal of intrinsic value to a guy who’s playing well and who’s already on a winning team, enough that he may not even want to bother testing the waters elsewhere.

Call me crazy, but I actually think that latter scenario might be the most likely of the three. I’m not talking about multiple World Series titles or anything when I talk about “winning,” but, again, given the economics involved and the lineup the Cubs have put together, it’s very plausible that Heyward plays well and still wants to be a part of this team. This is the dream, right? Sure, it’s a little scary for some to have those out-clauses built in, but how many things that are truly worthwhile come without at least a small measure of fear? Getting married is scary. Having kids is scary. In those cases (at least the first time around), you’re heading into an unfamiliar endeavor without much of a roadmap.

In signing Jason Heyward to a big deal and giving him the power to opt out on two different occasions, the Cubs are pushing their chips to the middle and betting big on the soundness of their plan. They were willing to give the opt-outs because they know the odds of the deal working out well are in their favor. This was less a gamble than a highly calculated risk, one that could pay off in a very big way. By back-loading the deal, the Cubs not only keep their costs a little lower during a time when revenue isn’t at its peak, they are essentially underpaying for Heyward’s services during the prime years of his career. They’re hedging their bets that he’ll not only be worth the raises he’ll be in line to receive, but that he’ll want to receive them from the Cubs.

It’s really a pretty brilliant gambit and I can’t wait to watch this play out.

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