Remember when the Cubs signed 26-year-old free agent stud Jason Heyward to an eight-year contract that was assuredly actually just a three-year deal, since he was obviously going to opt out after three years?
Ah. The whimsy of youth and offseason transaction excitement. It made for a really fun few weeks in the winter of 2015, if nothing else.
Thoughts of that opt out, which has come and gone this offseason, retreated far into the background almost immediately upon Heyward actually taking the field for the Cubs, underperforming in a historically woeful way in 2016. He only barely approached playable at the plate over the two years that followed, and left us to confidently consider the coming five years with Heyward under contract.
So … what in the sweet heck happened?
In an offseason that features two other superstar 26-year-olds hitting free agency, Michael Baumann asked that question at The Ringer, ultimately noting that what happened with Heyward’s performance was “a stark historical outlier,” and not the kind of thing that would give you pause about future contracts. “Throughout baseball history,” Baumann writes, “almost nobody that good and that young got this bad this quickly without suffering an injury far more disastrous than what Heyward has played through.”
Of course, those injuries are not a non-factor in what has happened to Heyward, especially the early-2016 wrist injury that mucked up Heyward’s performance, then mucked up his swing, then mucked up his approach, and then mucked up his mind. Indeed, I don’t think it’s at all unreasonable, with time and distance, to claim that Heyward’s disastrous 2016 debut with the Cubs almost entirely traces its origins to the wrist injury.
But, there have been two years since then, and neither looked anything at all like the Heyward whom the Cubs originally signed to a monster contract. So, again … what in the sweet heck happened?
It’s worth a read, even if it’s going to make you sad to see what Heyward was before coming to the Cubs, and to see what has happened to his ability to just hit the dang ball hard the last few years:
Baseball history backs up that youth and performance is a good reason to be positive on Manny Machado and Bryce Harper, and yet they’re counterbalanced by what happened to Jason Heyward.@MJ_Baumann: https://t.co/P6BoElH4Fi pic.twitter.com/Cy0NiQISgO
— The Ringer (@ringer) November 30, 2018
It’s important to point out that Heyward has provided some value in his three years with the Cubs, even if it doesn’t even come close to meeting the expectations of the contract he signed. Such is the risk of big-money free agency, and you take the good with the bad. At least Heyward has continued to play good defense, to run the bases well, and to come close to being a league-average bat in 2018.
It remains plausible that he could be an above-average bat in 2019 and beyond, and thus be an overall very valuable player, starting maybe 70-80% of the games, and moving between right field and center field as the Cubs require.
These kinds of deals are generally supposed to be at their most valuable and impactful in approximately the first three years. Fortunately, because Heyward was so young when he signed this one, he’s not yet 30 even after those first three years. Hope, in this case, is perhaps a little more reasonable. But that’s most of what we’re left with after three years: just hope.
I don’t really think there’s much of a broader lesson here about free agency, given the idiosyncrasies in Heyward’s fall-off, as noted by Baumann. I guess the only thing would be that the margin for error is slightly reduced if the free agent you’re signing is 26 rather than 31, but then, in the current era, those 31-year-old free agents aren’t getting the kinds of eight-year deals you later come to regret. That now seems the exclusive province of much younger players, so I guess if you’re wrong, you’re paying for it either way.
Heck, it makes me wonder at what point older free agents will become so undervalued that you’re best off just trying to keep signing those guys to short-term deals in free agency.