NASHVILLE, Tenn. – The Cubs have envisioned Jason Heyward batting leadoff and playing center at Wrigley Field, according to a source familiar with the team’s thinking, but it will take several steps to turn that dream into a reality.
Heyward’s appeal is obvious as the rare free agent who’s only 26 years old. Beyond age, he checks so many other boxes for the Cubs as a Gold Glove defender, a left-handed hitter with a .353 career on-base percentage and a professional clubhouse presence.
Heyward’s market hasn’t really defined itself yet as teams splurged on pitching before the winter meetings began on Monday at the Opryland in Nashville, Tennessee. It’s hard to put a price tag on defensive metrics and a prime-age player who’s hit 20-plus homers only once, never coming close to driving in 100 runs in a season.
But there’s no doubt the Cubs have had Heyward on their radar for a long time, and they wouldn’t have to try to turn him into something he’s not with a lineup already anchored by Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant.
Jed Hoyer wouldn’t get into specifics when asked about the Cubs pursuing a top outfielder now, but the general manager did say: “We have some available resources. That much is clear.”
The Cubs don’t have all that much financial flexibility – or even a big-market payroll – but if enough pieces fall into place maybe they can steal Heyward away from the St. Louis Cardinals.
It already started with John Lackey’s two-year, $32 million agreement, a reasonable investment at a time when the Boston Red Sox and Arizona Diamondbacks sunk nearly half a billion dollars into David Price and Zack Greinke.
Hoyer said the Cubs don’t feel a sense of urgency to add another established starter to their rotation at this point and can instead focus on overall pitching depth.
President of baseball operations Theo Epstein has talked about creatively structuring long-term contracts – which would essentially be borrowing against the next TV deal – while working with the business side to free up more funds for 2016.
While Hoyer dismissed most of the rumors on Twitter – “It’s like an alternate universe half the time with some of the stuff that comes up” – he did say the Cubs are in active talks with 10 or 12 teams after narrowing their focus for pitching. Infielder Javier Baez and outfielder Jorge Soler appear to be the most obvious trade chips.
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But to really compete for Heyward – and beat a St. Louis franchise that appears ready to spend big in free agency – the Cubs would also probably have to move some salaries. Between infielder Starlin Castro, catcher Miguel Montero and pitcher Jason Hammel, that’s almost $80 million in future commitments.
With five seasons left on Jon Lester’s six-year, $155 million megadeal – and Jake Arrieta only two years away from free agency – the Cubs had concerns about going to the absolute top of the pitching market. Epstein’s front office has also been much more comfortable spending capital on hitters, and Heyward is seen as a solid long-term investment.
“When it comes to pitching, we are always thinking about the length of deals and who’s coming up at what time,” Hoyer said. “You want to have a balance of dollars available for hitting – and dollars available for pitching – and not get too locked in.
“That was a consideration. We’d be lying (if we didn’t) say that as we thought through the really, really huge pitching contracts, of course, we were thinking about not only Jon’s contract, but who we might want to extend, or who we might want to add in the future. Those things have to come into play.”