In my spare time, when not rooting for the Phillies, I’m entranced by the Cubbies, in part because they are now managed by my Lafayette College classmate, Joe Maddon, in part because I am in Chicago once or twice a year, and in part because they have not won a World Series in over a century. The Cubs came dangerously close this past year, and they are gearing up for a serious run in 2016. But a recent splurge to sign Jason Heyward to a bloated long-term contract is not going to help them. It’s a step backward, IMHO.
Nothing against Heyward, or any athlete who accepts the money that professional sports owners are foolish enough to dole out. It’s a business. I get that; but I still don’t have to like it. I don’t begrudge Heyward the $184 million over eight years. It’s just that only a few teams can afford that kind of coin, so it skews the competitive side of things (or would, if the teams spent their money wisely). And these ridiculous contracts contribute to inflation at the ballpark. Soon it will be hard to find a decent seat for under $50 bucks at Wrigley. Oh, I’ll gladly pay it, fool that I am. That’s not the point. The point is, there is some kid whose dad or mom won’t be able to afford that; whole families will forego a trip to a major league baseball game; like football the game will continue to lose its proud working class roots, and become entertainment for the privileged classes. Which sucks.
What makes this worse is that Heyward is nowhere near worth that kind of money. I’m not sure any outfielder who is not Bryce Harper or Mike Trout is worth that salary commitment. Definitely not Jason Heyward, a .268 lifetime hitter, with all of 97 HR in six full major league seasons. He has never driven in more than 82 runs in a season. Last year for the Cardinals he drove in 60 and scored 79 in a full season, with 13 HR. He was an All-Star once, in his rookie year. If you prefer better metrics, he is one season removed from slugging .384 and an OPS of .735. Mediocre. Oh, and in the post-season, a robust .208 BA.
Some would point to his speed, but this is a dude who is 6 foot 5 and 245 pounds. His 23 SB last year were the most ever. His average of 75 runs scored per year does not suggest blazing speed or wizardry on the base paths, either. He’s not a bad player; but his total offensive contributions have been modest, to be kind.
Which leaves us with his much-touted defensive abilities. He’s won three Golden Gloves as an outfielder, including last year, when he was fourth in OF assists with 10. The advanced metrics are inconclusive. His range factors, career and last year, are slightly below the league average. His fielding average is slightly above the league average. According to Baseball Reference, he was worth four fielding runs above average last year. By a different measure, he saved the Cardinals 24 runs.
By the “Wins Above Replacement” metric, Heyward gained St. Louis two defensive wins in 2015 beyond what a typical OF would have yielded. Based on the above stats, it’s hard to see where those two wins would come from, even in a 162 game season. The total “WAR” figure is 6.5, good for 9th in the league, which, if I understand the math, means that Heyward somehow gained 4.5 more wins offensively, as compared to a replacement player. That’s even harder to see, given that he was well into the middle range of offensive statistics. My problem with WAR is that is doesn’t really tell you how a player makes the team better. I find it hard to believe that the Cardinals won that many games, solely due to Heyward.
An issue for the Cubs is where to play Heyward. His natural position is RF, which fits with his strong arm and limited range. The incumbent there is Jorge Soler, an exciting young player with vast potential, already signed to a long-term contract. It makes we wonder why the Cub management would overpay Heyward, when they are already set, and with a player who arguably has a higher ceiling. Neither guy should be sitting on the bench next season.
LF will be manned by Kyle Schwarber and/or Kris Bryant, two young sluggers whose offensive production promises to far exceed Heyward’s. Each is a defensive liability in the OF, but those limitations can be hidden in LF. Schwarber can also catch, and Bryant played acceptable 3B last year, but each is expected to get time in the OF next year. The Cubs also have 2009 Rookie of the Year Chris Coghlan (Heyward was second in 2010), who has similar career numbers to Heyward (.268 BA, .340 OBP, .411 SLG vs. .268, ,353, 431 for Heyward); but is considered a below-average fielder and more of a fourth OF.
And the Cubs signed two-time All Star Ben Zobrist as well. Zobrist’s career OPS of .786 is equivalent to Heyward at .784. He is a super utility guy who can play 2B, 3B, and all three OF positions. At $14 million bucks a year, he is not going to sit the bench, even for a guy making $23 million. In theory he was signed to play 2B; but the Cubs have a bunch of young talented infielders, even after trading Starlin Castro away. Javier Baez has power and speed and vast potential. Addison Russell presumably takes over for Castro at SS. Zobrist will play plenty of games in the OF, mostly in CF.
With this group, I’m not convinced that Heyward is an everyday player. Meaning, if I were Joe Maddon (we both attended Lafayette College at the same time; but his success – richly deserved – has far surpassed my modest legal career), I would not sit Zobrist, or Bryant, or Schwarber, or Soler, or Baez, just to play Heyward. Sure, Heyward is in the mix, but he is not the dominant player that his contract would suggest. He does not stand out offensively, and the case has not been made that his defense would justify sitting any of the others. None of the aforementioned would qualify as the mediocre “replacement” player in the WAR computations.
My point is, the Cubs, having added Zobrist and John Lackey, had a great chance to run the table in 2016, without Heyward. Why pay such an obscene amount of money to a guy who, on merit, might not crack the Opening Day lineup for this team? They are among the wealthiest of MLB teams, but that is a lot of money to pay for what amounts to a spare part. Clearly management sees Heyward as a key part of the everyday lineup, but where? Speed at the top, sluggers (including Anthony Rizzo as the cleanup hitter) in the middle, the highest I could see Heyward would be 7th, maybe 6th, but not enough pop for 5th in that lineup.
One thought I do buy into is that losing Heyward hurts the Cardinals more than signing him helps the Cubs. Heyward’s offensive contributions were more important in a weakened St. Louis lineup last year. Only Matt Carpenter topped 2o HR, and no one drove in more than his 84 RBI. The Cards are looking at an entirely new outfield of Stephen Piscotty, Tommy Pham, and Randal Grichuk, LF to RF. Each has the potential to eclipse Heyward someday. None has played a full season in the bigs.
At the end of the day, which is to say the end of the season, St. Louis may miss John Lackey as much as Heyward. They’re clearly expecting Adam Wainwright to pick up where he left off, as a dominant #1 starter. That might happen. They are also counting on four younger starters to pitch as well as they did last year, when each of Wacha, Martinez, Garcia, Lynn arguably enjoyed a career year. That might happen too. Or, as the stat heads would say, they could, collectively, regress to the mean.
Chicago should be the favorite to win the Division in 2016, over the Pirates and the Cards; but not because of the Heyward signing.