The Cubs guaranteed $184 million to a player who has never hit 30 homers or driven in 100 runs in a single season, paying for Jason Heyward’s age-26 upside and Gold Glove defense.
The Cubs also gave a four-year deal to a guy who will turn 35 in May, betting $56 million on Ben Zobrist’s intangibles and versatility all over the field.
Heyward and Zobrist each turned down bigger offers somewhere else, reinforcing the idea that both players will be good influences within the clubhouse and completely focused on winning a World Series at Wrigley Field.
The Cubs also wanted their lineup to evolve. Whether or not they make another significant move this winter, the offensive identity is already beginning to change for a boom-or-bust team that led the majors with more than 1,500 strikeouts and hit .236 with runners in scoring position (or 18 points below the league average).
President of baseball operations Theo Epstein identified that weakness in the immediate aftermath of getting swept by the New York Mets in the National League Championship Series.
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Zobrist handled New York’s power pitching in the next round, lengthening Kansas City’s lineup and vindicating Royals hitting coach/ex-Cubs manager Dale Sveum with a World Series celebration.
“We’re never going to turn into the Royals,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “That’s not going to happen. The nature of our team, somewhat, is we’re going to strike out. But I think there’s room for improvement. Hopefully, we can get out of the 30-spot and move up a little bit.
“We’re never going to be a contact-based team. We have some (hitters and) strikeouts are part of their game. They also have a ton of power.”
The Cubs didn’t overreact to October or try to copy Kansas City’s World Series blueprint. But the Cubs did try to trade for Zobrist at various points last year, never finding the right match with the Tampa Bay Rays in the offseason or the Oakland A’s before the July 31 deadline.
“He helps really kind of shape our offense a little bit more (to) the way we needed it going forward,” Epstein said. “We have a lot of swing-and-miss (guys). We need contact. We need on-base skills.
“We have some free-swingers. And I think we can really benefit from another guy – especially a switch-hitter – who really knows how to manage an at-bat, get on base and can hit different kinds of pitching and good pitching. He obviously plays the entire game and is a winning-type player.”
Zobrist has put up a .751 OPS in 148 career plate appearances in the playoffs. The Cubs hope he can set an example for Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber, Addison Russell and Jorge Soler.
“We have to get better situationally,” Hoyer said. “Some of that is probably things that we can work on in spring training and during the season. And some of it is probably just experience.
“Starting four rookies, you can’t really expect to be amazing with guys at third and less than two outs. That’s part of it. But we can get better.”
Heyward may never again match his 27-homer, 82-RBI season with the Atlanta Braves in 2012. But the Cubs can live with that if he’s a left-handed presence who keeps getting on base 35 percent of the time.
Heyward watched the Cubs crush 10 home runs off the St. Louis Cardinals in the divisional round and decided he wanted to switch sides in the rivalry and become part of this young core.
The exact order doesn’t really matter. Heyward and Zobrist will be setting the table for All-Star sluggers Anthony Rizzo and Bryant, who generated 57 homers and 200 RBI combined last season. The Cubs have given manager Joe Maddon everything he could have possibly wanted when filling out a lineup card. Now will it play in October?
“I think our offense has a chance to be really explosive and dangerous for a long time,” Hoyer said. “The St. Louis series really showed all the best attributes of our offense – getting on base and hitting homers. But plenty of other times we realize – especially when it’s cold in our ballpark or the wind’s blowing in – you’ve got to be able to scratch out runs here and there. That hasn’t been our strength. And we need to get better at that.”