The Chicago Cubs have accomplished a lot this offseason to improve on an already good team for next year. So much so, in fact, that several publications are calling them the best team in baseball.
Most notably, they’ve acquired Ben Zobrist, John Lackey, and Adam Warren, all while making Jason Heyward and his huge 8-year/$184 million deal – largest in Cubs history – the pièce de résistance.
The total bill for their indulgence – $276.25 million – is the largest commitment in baseball to date, but was it the wisest use of resources?
Each and every team has made their own moves to improve – or to
get worse rebuild – and each trade, signing or other move offers its own unique value. In order to determine the merit of each move or collection of moves, ESPN’s Jayson Stark polled 35 MLB executives on the various offseason transactions of every MLB team.
The results of the poll, as the title suggests, might surprise you quite a bit. It’s definitely worth a read.
But before we get to the unusual stuff, let’s talk about what the MLB executives liked about the Cubs offseason; namely, the improvements. Of the most improved teams in the National League, the Chicago Cubs finished second overall. Their 13 votes trailed only the Diamondbacks* (22), while leading the Giants* (6).
Still, with a bright young, cost-controlled core and a deep farm system, there’s nothing not to like about the Cubs ranking among the most improved teams.
Among the other promising poll results, the Cubs land two players in the top five best free agent signings of the 2016 offseason, though, it may not be who you think. According to Stark’s reporting, 8 MLB executives view Ben Zobrist as the best free agent signing in MLB, while 9 execs give the honor to John Lackey. Those vote totals are good for fourth and fifth in baseball, and trail only Zack Greinke (14), David Price (13) and Howie Kendrick (10). (If you’re counting up and wondering: yes, some execs cast votes for multiple transactions.)
On Zobrist, one MLB executive said, “Perfect NL Player. Great on a young club. Perfect fit at the perfect time.” From what we know of the Cubs needs, their manager and their desired versatility, that sounds like a perfectly apt description. Sometimes, filling in the gaps with the right player is more important than spending the most to get the best player, overall.
That said, let’s get to the transaction I’ve been building up to: Jason Heyward.
According to a poll of 35 MLB executives, the Cubs’ signing of Jason Heyward was the second worst free agent signing of the 2016 offseason. Indeed, that wasn’t just one or two stray executives; eight different, legitimate, MLB executives believe that the Cubs made a mistake by bringing in Jason Heyward on his deal. And, mind you, this isn’t even just about his contract (more on that, in a bit). Instead, the question was simply whether the signing was a bad move or not.
But, to be completely fair, 26 different players received at least one vote, 12 received at least two votes, and more than one executive claimed, “Anyone who got an opt-out” or “Any pitcher over five years [was the worst contract signed this offseason].” That strikes me as incredibly short-sighted and rigid, but everyone has their preferences – underscored by the fact that 13 different players received votes for being both the best and worst signing of the offseason.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t end there.
In a separate poll asking which athletes received the most outrageous contracts of the 2016 MLB offseason, Heyward’s 8-year/$184 million deal received another 8 votes, making it the second most outrageous contract of the offseason – “one of the stunners of the winter.”
As one NL executive put it, “I just don’t see it. I just don’t see seven years for guys like that. Nice player, but not that kind of player.” This is one of those comments that simultaneously makes me shake my head and be grateful that the Cubs have that kind of front office.First and foremost, going seven or eight years on a 26-year-old free agent is not only one of the few times it is actually encouraged, it is one of the few times where it is the only possible way to complete a deal. When that same player has acquired the 11th most WAR from 2010-2015 (his age 20-25 seasons), and projects to continue the same high-level performance for many more years (with upside still!), there’s not really a question on why that’s an advisable length of contract.
Alternatively, I could completely understand if the issue takend by the executives was with the nature of the two opt-outs in Heyward’s deal after years three and four. As much as opinions have evolved on their overall benefit to the player (and doing what it takes to get a deal done), there is no doubt – like, at all – that they are an overall negative for the team on the day they are signed.
You know the argument: If Heyward takes that step up into the next tier of players over the next three years, he will opt out of his contract with the Cubs and sign a new deal for far more money. If he gets injured or becomes ineffective, he will stay in Chicago and be overpaid.
Or, let me put it another way, I’d prefer if Heyward’s contract were a straight up 8-year/$184 million deal. Even if there is more money guaranteed, and thus more risk, the Cubs actually get to hold onto the upside. I, for one, wouldn’t bet against Jason Heyward continuing to be a star.
So, in that respect, I can understand the dislike for the deal, thanks to the early opt-outs.
But that isn’t necessarily what these executives are really saying. Stark sums up the exec responses thusly: “He’s one of those guys whose skill set will never appeal to everybody.” Seriously.
The best defensive right fielder in baseball with a career 10.8% walk rate, 18.5% strike out rate .268/.353/.431 slash line and just nearly 100 stolen bases and home runs before his 26th birthday isn’t the type of skill set that will appeal to everybody?
Good to know that everybody isn’t in charge of the Chicago Cubs.
We live in an era that grants an amazing amount of access to advanced statistics, new-age analytics and fresh new ways of valuing players. I understand that there will always be a general resistance, and I even (truly and freely) admit that there are large gaps in sabermetrics that can be filled only by experience, feel and/or scouting.
But that isn’t even what’s happening here.
You don’t have to dive into Heyward’s batted ball data, exit velocity, spray charts, plate discipline, UZR, wOBA or wRAA to determine that he’s a good, valuable player. You just have to look beyond the three triple crown stats – batting average, home runs and RBIs – that have led us to misvalue players for decades.
Jason Heyward is an excellent, well-rounded baseball player. And, from what we know of the offers from the Cardinals and Nationals (reportedly up to 10 years/$200 million), the Cubs aren’t the only ones who feel this way.
Expect Heyward to do great things with the Cubs; they are lucky to have him.
*For what it’s worth, in terms of 2016 free agent dollars, the Giants spent the third most ($251M), while the Diamondbacks spent the sixth most ($206.5M).