As part of the elaborate presentation during Jon Lester’s recruiting visit to Wrigleyville, the Cubs unveiled a diamond diagram projecting their 2016 lineup – with Jason Heyward playing center field.
At that point, Kris Bryant, Addison Russell and Kyle Schwarber hadn’t made their big-league debuts yet. Jake Arrieta hadn’t developed into a Cy Young Award winner. And Joe Maddon hadn’t managed a game in a Cubs uniform.
Lester would have to take a leap of faith with Cubs executives Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer – who watched him grow up in the Boston Red Sox organization – to believe in a team that had finished in fifth place for five straight seasons and hadn’t won a World Series since the Theodore Roosevelt administration.
This was November 2014 – the same month the Atlanta Braves traded Heyward to the St. Louis Cardinals – and 13 months before he would sign the biggest contract in franchise history.
“They kind of broke down their ultimate plan,” Lester said. “(Heyward) was kind of their big guy they pitched to me.”
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Lester signing the richest contract in franchise history – at least until Heyward’s decision last month – marked a significant turning point in the rebuild. For $155 million guaranteed across six years, the Cubs would get an All-Star lefty to front their rotation, account for 200-plus innings and help a young team play meaningful baseball in September and maybe win around 84 games.
The Cubs smashed all external expectations and internal projections for last season by winning 97 games and advancing to the National League Championship Series.
“Really, this year was their plan,” Lester said. “We weren’t supposed to do what we did last year. (But) I think it put that (sense of) urgency into this year.
“That’s what their ultimate plan was in 2016 – they were going to go all-in for this year. And they definitely have.”
Heyward became an obvious target because of his age-26 potential, left-handed contact skills, .353 career on-base percentage and Gold Glove defense. That made the Cubs so much more comfortable with this eight-year, $184 million investment – and he wouldn’t have to be “The Man” in Chicago.
“The biggest move we made this winter,” Epstein said, “didn’t feel like signing a free agent. He’s a day younger than Anthony Rizzo. It felt like adding another huge piece to our core of young players.
“It fits our identity. That’s really what defines us right now – a group of young position players that we really, really believe in, on the field and off the field. He adds to that mix.”
In the same way that Lester declined an offer from the San Francisco Giants in the range of seven years and $168 million, Heyward turned down a reported $200 million guarantee to return to Cardinals Nation, where at least one fan posted to Twitter an image of his red No. 22 jersey on fire.
The Cubs also used 1908 to help convince two other big-name free agents – pitcher John Lackey and super-utility guy Ben Zobrist – who had bigger offers out there. Pitching coach Chris Bosio even said Trevor Cahill passed on a two-year offer to start for the Pittsburgh Pirates before accepting a one-year, $4.25 million deal to be a swingman for the Cubs.
“There’s something special about what’s happening,” chairman Tom Ricketts said. “All these guys that came in this year – and some of the ones that came in last year – had more money somewhere else. But they all want to be part of this team. So having a good, young nucleus and a great manager makes it easier for Theo and Jed to recruit.
“I had lunch with Jason Heyward the day he signed. I’m like: ‘Jason, so tell me, what about Chicago brought you in?’ And he’s like: ‘Well, I want to be part of a winning culture.’ And I’m like: ‘Wow, no one’s ever said that to me before.’”
Epstein thinks of it as confidence when Lester calls him arrogant. Whatever. The Cubs aren’t all talk anymore.
“I like that,” Lester said. “You come in and you stand up tall. You stick your chest out and you go: ‘This is what we see. This is what we believe in. These are our guys.’ That blew me away.
“It’s not, ‘Well, if this guy does this…’ No, everything was: ‘When this guy comes up, he’s going to do this.’ They couldn’t have been more right.”