The Jason Heyward megadeal reinforces the World Series expectations at Wrigley Field, the gigantic exclamation point to what’s already been a frenetic offseason for the Cubs.
Heyward chose the Cubs over the St. Louis Cardinals and agreed to an eight-year, $184 million contract, sources confirmed Friday, reigniting what should be a great rivalry and showing the baseball world this team is absolutely serious about winning it all in 2016.
In Heyward, the Cubs get a 26-year-old outfielder with three Gold Gloves, a career .353 on-base percentage and a reputation for being a professional clubhouse influence. All those attributes – ideal age, elite defensive skills, an ability to grind out at-bats, off-the-field presence – made the Cubs see Heyward as a sound long-term investment.
Winning 97 games and two playoff rounds changed the equation for the president of baseball operations, who last month publicly ruled out the idea of doing two nine-figure deals this winter and didn’t say that as a smokescreen.
Working in concert with the Ricketts family and Crane Kenney’s business operations department across the last few weeks, Epstein’s baseball group got creative and freed up more money, using postseason revenues to keep the momentum going.
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Heyward reportedly turned down more money – the Washington Nationals were also believed to be heavily involved in the bidding – and received two opt-out clauses. Arizona Diamondbacks general manager Dave Stewart told reporters at the winter meetings that Heyward was “looking for $200 million.”
Yes, Heyward has made only one All-Star team, never driven in more than 82 runs in a season and hit 20-plus homers only once in his career. But at this point, the Cubs don’t need a middle-of-the-order basher with Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant already established as All-Stars.
Heyward is a strong foundation piece in areas where the Cubs are structurally weak, and he wanted to play for a winning team that would appreciate what he brings to the ballpark every day.
Heyward, who grew up in Georgia, debuted with the Atlanta Braves and blasted a three-run homer off Carlos Zambrano in his first big-league at-bat on Opening Day 2010. If the Braves had manipulated the service-time system the way the Cubs did with Bryant, then Heyward wouldn’t have been a free agent this offseason.
While Heyward didn’t necessarily live up to the superstar expectations drawn from that first impression at Turner Field, he’s a well-rounded athlete who’s been top-10 in WAR among National League position players in four of his six seasons.
The Braves traded their hometown, homegrown outfielder to the Cardinals in November 2014, with St. Louis viewing it as a one-year recruiting pitch for Heyward and seeing him as the next core player for an 11-time world champion.
But the Cubs keep selling 1908 and the chance to make history. Zobrist has already said his only goal is to win a World Series in the next four years, and those great expectations will be the same for Heyward.
While the Zobrist move had to be made in concert with the Starlin Castro trade to the New York Yankees, the belief was the Cubs didn’t have a Jorge Soler deal lined up immediately. But this obviously gives the Cubs even more options as they aggressively reshape the team that got swept out of the NL Championship Series.
The New York Mets exposed some free-swinging tendencies in October and defensive issues in the outfield. Heyward can be a left-handed presence near the top of the lineup and a short-term fix in center before moving back to a corner spot.
This comes 12 months after the Cubs gave Jon Lester what had been the richest contract in franchise history, a six-year, $155 million megadeal that accelerated the rebuild in Wrigleyville.
Lester and Lackey will be in a rotation fronted by Cy Young Award winner Jake Arrieta. Heyward can bat in front of a unanimous Rookie of the Year pick (Bryant) and perennial MVP candidate (Rizzo). Joe Maddon – now a three-time Manager of the Year – will be running the show.
After the delirium of an unexpected playoff run, anything less than a World Series title in 2016 will be a big disappointment.