The Chicago Cubs could be aggressive shoppers in the free agent market this offseason, so it’s worth taking a look at some of the players who could be of potential interest to the team. These players present possible fits for the Cubs, at a range of potential costs and talent levels.
Performance in 2015
We are moving on from starting pitchers, for the time being, and checking in on the top position player hitting the free agent market this winter, Jason Heyward. Heyward had a fantastic walk year for the St. Louis Cardinals, accumulating 6.0 WAR in the process. His defense was its usual excellent self, and he really showed up on offense, as well. At just 26 years old, Heyward will be getting paaaaaid this offseason. It’s actually going to be pretty fun to follow, because we so rarely see free agents at his age anymore.
Back to 2015: he was very good. His slash line of .293/.359/.439 shows a balanced approach of average, patience and power. He hit just 13 home runs, but snuck in 33 doubles and 4 triples, on his way to a .146 ISO. He has a very solid 9.2% walk rate and a very, very strong 14.8% strikeout rate. Combined with excellent defense in right field, as well as over 50 innings in center field, it’s not hard to see how Heyward managed to accumulate the 11th most WAR amongst position players last season (just behind Kris Bryant).
Expectedly, his batted ball data looked pretty good in 2015, as well. His line drive rate was better than his career mark, though he was hitting a lot more ground balls than usual. Both increases came at the expense of his fly ball rate, which was almost 10 percentage points lower than usual. Although his hard% was just a bit lower than usual, his med% was up enough to keep the soft% from rising a significant amount. There was some luck sprinkled in there last year, to be sure, but make no mistake, Heyward was legitimately great in 2015.
Performance before 2015
Before 2015, Jason Heyward was also good. While there was some up and down performances, making it difficult to determine if he was truly elite or just very good, he was brought up when he was just 20 years old and has produced in just about every season, since.
To elaborate, he was worth a total of 27.7 WAR in his six seasons since 2010, averaging 4.6 WAR/year. In fact, 2015, wasn’t even his best year, by fWAR. In 2012, he managed to reach 6.5 WAR when he was just 22 years old and received down the ballot MVP votes. In 2010, he finished second in Rookie of the Year voting to Buster Posey, and has already won three Gold Glove awards (2012, 2014, and 2015) for his defense in the outfield (right field).
2015 was a very good year for Jason Heyward, but it was definitely in line with what we’ve come to expect of him at this point in his career.
Projection for 2016 and Beyond.
From my perspective, a player’s “prime years” have historically been identified as ages 27-31; however, that thinking has changed a in recent years. Essentially, the new way of thinking is that most of a player’s skills peak early on in their twenties and essentially decrease – at varying rates – from there on out.
Even if that is true, Jason Heyward projects to be very good for a good deal longer. At 26 years old, you probably shouldn’t expect a sudden power explosion, but he certainly has some room to grow, as we can see in his projections, and you can expect him to play at a high level for many more years.
Steamer agrees (2016): .280/.357/.451, 10.0% walk rate, 15.0% strikeout rate .171 ISO over 603 PAs 4.7 WAR
While they project a bit less WAR in 2016 than 2015, that’s mostly being clipped out of his defense, which we know is hard to measure at all – let alone project. Jason Heyward is probably a pretty safe bet.
Possible Contract/Existing Rumors
It’s not much of a question; Jason Heyward will get close to $200M over the life of his next contract. In these four prediction pieces, pundits have his contract at 10/$200M, 9/$195M, 8/$170M and 9/$180M. In those pieces, he’s been projected to return to the Cardinals (who don’t usually like to give out contracts greater than 5 years) as well as the Yankees and Tigers. Additionally, like just about every free agent out there, he’s been connected to the Cubs multiple times.
The weird thing is the average annual value of those contracts seems a bit low, honestly. The first one listed is $20M AAV, the second is $21.6M AAV, the third is $21.25M AAV, and the last is $20M AAV. I know the total dollar and years commitment is pretty steep, but for a player so young, you can fit those average annual values into a heck of a lot of budgets.
And that ties into why Heyward will probably seek, and might get, an opt out built into his contract after a three or four seasons.
Heyward missed some time due to a thumb injury after sliding into a base in May 2010. Still, that year, he managed to get 623 PAs across 142 games. When injuries occur by means of outside forces like that, they’re not typically something you need to worry about if they don’t cause a recurrent problem. However, that is not the end of his injury history.
In the Spring of 2011, Heyward was diagnosed with a degenerative condition in his lower back, while also experiencing some shoulder soreness, which ultimately led to an MRI on May 12. The results indicated an inflamed rotator cuff, but no structural damage. He received a cortisone shot and just rested, but was forced to the disabled list just ten days later.
That season (456 PAs) was definitely Heyward’s worst as a Major Leaguer. He did, however, come back strong in 2012 (6.5 WAR over 158 games – 651 PAs), having reportedly taken extra precautions, which included better preparing his shoulder and changing his diet. These are the types of “good makeup” things people value in players.
He had an appendectomy on April 22, 2013, which forced him to the 15-day disabled list, from which he returned on May 17. Later that season (August 21), he was hit in the face with a pitch from Jon Niese, fracturing his jaw in two places and requiring surgery and more missed time. In 2013, he played in just 104 games, but again, these weren’t exactly the types of injuries that can accurately label a player “injury-prone.
He was healthy in both 2014 and 2015, playing 149 games and 154 games, respectively.
Fit For Cubs
Perhaps the market is underestimating his actual contract, but if it ends up at around $20M AAV, that would be mighty difficult to pass up. Of course, whether the contract alone has value isn’t the entire question. There is the problem of Kyle Schwarber and Jorge Soler being all but restricted to the corner outfield, in addition to Kris Bryant, who might eventually (if we’re talking about a 5+ year window) move to a corner spot himself. Additionally, it’s fair to wonder whether that is the best use of obviously limited funds, given the Cubs’ needs elsewhere (the rotation).
When it comes down to it, I can see Heyward making sense for this team, especially if he plays center field, but I won’t begin to theorize how likely that is. The issue with going for Heyward full force – as a corner outfielder – is that it almost necessarily would require a trade of Schwarber or Soler. That presents a multitude of problems, none of which is the question of if the Cubs even want to trade either player or sign Heyward.
I have a feeling that the Cubs have a series of plans or roadmaps for the offseason that begin with different headliners. For just a couple of extremely rough examples:
Plan A: Sign Heyward; attempt a trade for a younger starting pitcher with upside and control, using one of the corner outfielders or perhaps even Starlin Castro or Javier Baez; wait out the market and grab a pitcher from the second tier, for much less money.
Plan B: Sign a starting pitcher in the top tier (David Price, Zack Greinke, Johnny Cueto, Jordan Zimmerman); attempt a trade for a lesser pitcher, using less impactful parts or prospects; keep Schwarber and Soler in the corners and march into 2016 with some kind of fill-in player in center field.
Or, you know, none of that can be in the plans and the Cubs might do several surprising things that we didn’t anticipate at all. Furthermore, neither plan is easy to pull off, even if it was exactly what the Cubs wanted to do; there are just some things that will always be outside of their control.
The truth is that the real plans are certainly more complex and intertwined than they are stated above. The point of this exercise, though, is to remind you of the complexity and difficulty in predicting where a player will end up or determining the fit he has with a given team. There are just so many downstream impacts at this time of the year to make anything more than an educated guess.