NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Will Jason Heyward become the next domino to fall for the Cubs?
That remained the biggest question for baseball’s new glamour team as the winter meetings ended Thursday at the Opryland and executives, agents and reporters headed toward Nashville International Airport.
A deep playoff run, some creative accounting and an aggressive mindset has pushed the Cubs into the middle of the Heyward sweepstakes and what’s again becoming a red-hot rivalry with the St. Louis Cardinals.
In another twist, CBSSports.com first reported the Washington Nationals are also pursuing Heyward, who may already have a $200 million offer.
The Cubs got ahead of the pitching market with John Lackey’s two-year, $32 million contract before hitting what team president Theo Epstein called a “multiple bank shot” this week when they signed super-utility guy Ben Zobrist to a four-year, $56 million deal and traded former All-Star shortstop Starlin Castro to the New York Yankees.
The Cubs won’t stop there.
“We’ve had a lot of discussions with our business side,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “They’ve been really wonderfully cooperative and (they’re) certainly trying their hardest to come up with as many resources as possible.”
The tone changed between now and last month’s GM meetings in South Florida, where the Cubs sounded a lot more pessimistic about adding big-ticket items, worried about their immediate financial flexibility and the drag of another megadeal on their future payrolls.
Those feelings haven’t completely gone away, of course, and the Cubs haven’t magically transformed into the Los Angeles Dodgers or Boston Red Sox overnight. Maybe Heyward winds up staying with the Cardinals for the richest contract in that franchise’s history or another mystery team emerges.
But there have been some brainstorming sessions with chairman Tom Ricketts and president of business operations Crane Kenney, knowing this talented class of free agents is much deeper than next winter’s group, so it might make sense to cram almost two offseasons into one.
At the age of 26, Heyward is seen as a safer long-term investment. His Gold Glove defense could play in center field for at least a year and his on-base skills would complement Zobrist’s knack for grinding out at-bats at the top of a lineup that already includes All-Stars Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant.
“Certainly, they’re doing everything they can to give us all the resources they can,” Hoyer said. “You have a budget number. That number is going to change. What we always say is: ‘It can’t go down. Once you give us a number, it’s got to at least be that.’
“But they’re always trying to find additional dollars. Whenever they do have additional dollars, they let us know about it. That’s kind of been the dialogue this winter.”
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It’s not like Theo and the boys used to just sit around a hotel suite drinking beers and eating Doritos during the winter meetings. But the Cubs are operating at a dizzying pace now – a Heyward signing would potentially be synced up with a Jorge Soler trade – and not just trying to make sign-and-flip deals or foreclosing on seasons before pitchers and catchers even reported to Arizona.
Super-agent Scott Boras put it this way: “From the past approach of the Cubs, I would say that they’ve certainly got off the frontage road where all the stop signs are and they’re on the good freeway to a better team.”
The Cubs have a Manager of the Year (Joe Maddon), a Cy Young Award winner (Jake Arrieta) and a unanimous Rookie of the Year (Bryant). Coming off a 97-win season and a breakthrough into the National League Championship Series, this is not the time to step off the accelerator.
“We know we have a good team,” Hoyer said. “We proved it last year. We got a great manager, great players and our ‘now’ is very bright. So I think that we have to take advantage of that. That balance is different now. And as that balance shifts, I do think that creates more urgency.”