As I sit here mulling, I can come up with two clubs that could be in a position – financially and competitively – to try their hand at a bad contract swap for the kinds of players the Cubs would be looking to swap. That is to say, guys like Jason Heyward or Tyler Chatwood – far, far more costly than they would get in free agency, but maybe worth a roll of the dice in the years ahead if the money makes sense.
We’ve already taken a look at one of those teams with respect to Tyler Chatwood, the Toronto Blue Jays. While considering offers for guys like Marcus Stroman and Aaron Sanchez, the Blue Jays are rebuilding and could swap out Russell Martin’s salary for Chatwood’s, meaning they get a near zero-cost roll of the dice on a guy will unquestionably excellent stuff who only just turned 29. Maybe he turns it around and becomes a nice trade chip for the Blue Jays (there’s more upside there in potential value than with a back-up-ish veteran catcher who turns 36 in February), or even a usable part of a competitive rotation in 2020. For the Cubs, they get a veteran back-up catcher who can contribute and also help with Willson Contreras’s continued development, and they do it at a savings in total salary commitment. Win, win, win.
But what about Jason Heyward? Is there realistically a team out there that would want to take on the next five years of his contract, even at a steep savings?
Well, as a preliminary matter, yes, I do think there rebuilding clubs out there – and near-term competitive clubs – that would be happy to have Heyward in the mix as a buy-low potential trade asset, a veteran presence, a reliable defender, and/or a guy who was so dang good until he came to the Cubs and is only 29.
(For all those same reasons, I’m still someone who is fine with Heyward sticking around with the Cubs. Sure, if they can move considerable salary and use it to sign Bryce Harper, I’m on board. But if that’s not happening, it’s not as if the Cubs can’t still get a lot of value out of Heyward as part of an outfield rotation in the coming years.)
To me, if you’re forcing me to speculate – how dare you FORCE me?! – the team that makes the most sense for Heyward is the San Francisco Giants. Among the reasons:
- An aging core that might be able to squeeze out a competitive year or two while Heyward is still young.
- A new front office that might be looking to go in an entirely different direction selling off, and wants Heyward as a stabilizing veteran during the process.
- Heyward’s stellar right field defense might be more valuable in AT&T Park than anywhere else in baseball.
- The current Giants starting outfield is comprised of Chris Shaw, Steven Duggar, and Austin Slater (all real baseball players).
- The Giants have plenty of potentially dead money that they might prefer to convert into Heyward.
If you’re desperate to come up with a team that could be inclined to want Heyward at a discount, that sure looks like a team to me.
… but how much of a discount? Heyward is currently on a contract that will pay him $106 million over the next five years (and a $23M AAV). If Heyward were a free agent right now, what kind of deal would he get? Probably not a big one.
Although Heyward has youth on his side, and he’s coming off his best year with the Cubs, we need to be realistic about what he was in 2018: an average player at best. Heyward’s line on the year, .270/.335/.395, was almost exactly average (99 wRC+), which is not what you want from a corner outfielder. But his defense, right? Well, for the second straight year, the advanced metrics didn’t love Heyward’s defense in right and center, rating him as something much closer to “good, fine” than “elite.” Noise? A trend? The eye test says Heyward is still very good in right, but he did make an usual volume of early-season gaffes by which you probably remember being perplexed.
On the whole, Heyward was worth 2.0 WAR to FanGraphs, which, again, is basically perfectly average. An average big league starter is a good thing to be, but it doesn’t get you anything close to $100 million in free agency.
How do we factor in the years before 2018? Well, obviously Heyward was consistently a star-level player before coming to the Cubs, and then in his first two years with the team – albeit limited by injuries that impacted his swing – Heyward was a disaster: .243/.315/.353, 79 wRC+, 2.0 total WAR for two seasons.
I don’t think there’s any way you could make an argument that Heyward would get more than $50 million guaranteed in free agency. The parallels are imperfect because of their ages/health, but in a market where guys coming off good years like Andrew McCutchen and Michael Branley can secure only $50 million and $32 million, respectively, I just don’t see any way Heyward would get more than that. In fact, I’m not 100% certain he’d get more than Brantley, even with the better health, age, and defense.
Let’s split the baby and say that Heyward could get a $40 million contract in free agency (over however many years you like, because what really matters for estimating this kind of salary dump is just the guarantee). I’m really not sure he could, but that might be the range.
If so, and if we assume the Giants would be the top suitor for his services, then how could a swap with the Cubs possibly make sense?
Well, the best bad contract trades send each team a player they can actually use, even if they aren’t on contracts they would otherwise want. For the Giants, it’s Heyward. For the Cubs, you’d be looking at impact bats (I don’t see a fit) and relievers (plenty).
Remember, though, you can’t just look at lefties Will Smith and Tony Watson and say, “Ooh, yeah, want them! Pick them!” Sure, maybe the Cubs could get them in a deal for value if they included prospects, but we’re just talking about the bad contracts part of this thing. And those two guys are each only gonna be making around $4 million next year.
So, instead, you’d have to look at a guy like Mark Melancon, who turns 34 next year, and has been injured and meh since signing a four-year, $62 million contract with the Giants two years ago. He’s set to make $14 million in each of the next two years – far more than he’d get in free agency, but also not a huge chunk of money. The Cubs need bullpen additions, though, and if they could add a guy like Melancon as part of a salary-neutral deal, maybe they figure he can at least be a decent setup man when healthy.
That’s not enough, though.
Unless the Cubs were going to eat a TON of salary in a Heyward deal (maybe!), simply swapping Heyward for Melancon is a bum deal for the Giants unless they value Heyward a lot more than $40 million, or unless the Cubs include some SERIOUS prospect value (again, maybe!).
Is there some other way to do this financially?
Well, I can’t help but wonder about this guy’s contract:
That’s starting pitcher Johnny Cueto.
Why on earth am I trying to get the Cubs to trade for an aging, expensive starting pitcher? Well, I mean, I’m not. Not really anyway.
Cueto had Tommy John surgery in August, and figures to miss most or all of the 2019 season. The Giants are going to be paying him nearly $22 million to rehab. After that, he’s a 34-year-old pitcher under contract for two more years, also near $22 million, plus a likely $5 million buyout of his 2022 option. To me, that’s a contract the Giants would love to unload.
For the Cubs, who very much *don’t* need a starting pitcher in 2019, Cueto could be something of a lottery ticket after 2019. Maybe he is healthy, strong, and a good starter for them when a spot in the rotation opens up. Maybe he becomes a reliever in his later years. Maybe he’s traded. Maybe they don’t use him at all.
The point is not about how much tremendous value you might get out of Cueto – instead, it’s about the alignment of his contract with Heyward’s and the fact that the Cubs could “afford” to pay him not to pitch in 2019 if doing so was otherwise opening up flexibility.
So, let’s just take a little peep here at a proposed swap, the margins of which you could totally play with (prospects, cash, etc.) to make it fit:
Jason Heyward – five years, $106 million ($23M AAV on overall deal for luxury tax purposes)
Johnny Cueto – three years, $65.5 million ($21.667M AAV)
Mark Melancon – two years, $28 million ($15.5M AAV)
Total salary from Giants: $93.5 million (~$37M in AAV for the next two years)
If this were a straight-up swap, the Cubs would be taking on quite a bit more near-term money – and locking in a luxury tax hit – in order to save $12.5 million in long-term money. Given the luxury tax hit, and the imbalance in ages/contributions that you’d likely project over the lengths of these deals, I’m thinking that’s probably not enough for the Cubs to actually make this trade. Then again, if we figured Heyward is worth about $40 million, while Cueto is worth something like $15 million and Melancon is worth $10 million, the Giants would be taking on $66 million in “dead” money, while the Cubs would be taking on $68.5 million in dead money. It’s close.
Like I said, you could – and the teams probably would – play with the dollars and other inclusions at the margins, but I can see a fit here.
Even if the Giants were planning to try to compete in 2019, this deal makes a lot of sense for them – it brings in a possibly useful player and a whole bunch of financial flexibility in exchange for two guys who probably would do a lot of nothing for them.
For the Cubs, if the salary component made sense (and if they are less concerned about 2019, specifically, than total long-term commitments), they’d be paying a little more in the near-term to open up considerable longer-term flexibility, which could make a huge signing like Bryce Harper seem less scary. They get a probably-useful bullpen piece in the process, and then a lottery ticket in Cueto’s mid-30s.
A known unknown in this? Heyward has the right to block trades to 12 teams, and we don’t currently know the identity of those teams. Maybe the Giants are one of them, and maybe he flat out wouldn’t go to San Francisco. We do not have any visibility to this factor, but it is obviously important.
So, the biggest question of all – even if we can make this all work theoretically and financially … would I actually do this deal? Well, if I’m the Giants, I jump the heck all over this swap. That means my gut must be saying this is not a great deal for the Cubs, who would be punting a young-ish, useful player just so that they can pay out nearly the same contract quantity to a couple guys who might not be useful at all.
I think the only way I could get on board with this specific swap is if – in this, sigh, financially tight world of the Cubs – it meant considerable financial savings for the Cubs (i.e., the Giants are eating some additional money) and that savings was almost certainly going to an impact bat like Harper. I suppose I’d also like it if Smith or Watson were included from the Giants, but then this starts to get so far down the speculative road that it’s hard to say, yeah, I’d like this imaginary version of the trade but not that imaginary version.
The overall point here, I guess, is that the Giants are a team with whom I could see the Cubs plausibly getting together on a Jason Heyward contract swap. Whether they actually *should* do that depends greatly on the particulars of the deal, since I still see some value in Heyward for the Cubs going forward, even if his salary is no longer remotely commensurate with that value.