Well, it happened. The Chicago Cubs, perennial “lovable losers”, have played the cards dealt them as they signed erstwhile St. Louis Cardinals’ right fielder Jason Heyward to an 8 year/$184 million contract. At an average annual rate of $23million, Heyward inked a deal which most insiders agreed was fair market value. Brandt Dolce hit it pretty much right on the head in his piece from October. In fact, using the same Carl Crawford comparison (quite valid, if you look at all the numbers), Fangraphs seems to think the Cubs may have even UNDERPAID, slightly, for Hayward’s services. What is going on at Clark and Addison Streets in Chicago?
I’ll tell you what is going on. There is a new attitude surrounding the Cubs. Gone is talk of goats,
and black cats.
In their place is a real feeling of “we can do it!”
Think, for a moment, of off-seasons past. The Cubs, despite being a large market team, were never really in the market for the top names in Free Agency. Sure, there was the Andre Dawson “blank check” of 1987, but that was also in the days of collusion. The guys who were in their primes just didn’t want to come to Wrigley. And then the ones who DID, tended to be colossal busts. More often, the young stars, when eligible for free agency, said goodbye to the Cubs and left for greener pastures. To this day, many Cubs fans will not forgive then-General Manager Larry Himes for letting Maddux go to Atlanta. That was then…
…this is now. After being famously rebuffed by Anibal Sanchez before the 2013 season, Theo Epstein orchestrated his first major free agent signing when he brought on Edwin Jackson, a journeyman pitcher who had bounced from team to team (7 in first 10 seasons) before then. That $52 million contract seemed to be more of the same old same old for the Cubs, as many rightfully questioned giving that much money to a guy who was 70-71 in his career to that point. The Cubs were laughed at as masters of mismanagement yet again. But then something different happened. Theo Epstein reversed course. He decided that it was worth suffering a little bit today in order to thrive tomorrow. The first shoe dropped in July 2013 when pitcher Scott Feldman (7-6, 3.46 ERA on a last place team) was traded to the upstart Baltimore Orioles (along with backup catcher Steve Clevenger) in exchange for Pedro Strop and some dude named Jake. The Orioles missed the playoffs, and the Cubs’ transition was underway.
Later that month, Matt Garza was shipped off to the Texas Rangers for Mike Olt, CJ Edwards, Justin Grimm, and Neil Ramirez. While none of these three has yet to have major MLB success, Ramirez is part of the Cubs’ bullpen, and Edwards and Villanueva are still considered prime prospects. The Cubs were still a last place team, but they were putting the pieces together.
Then came 2014. Sure, this was still a sub-.500 team. Manager Rick Renter did the best he could to squeeze every bit of talent from this very much overmatched squad. A very young team actually looked competitive while losing, if that is possible, on their way to a 73-89 finish. Still last place, but the psychological boost of avoiding 90 losses was important. That, and pulling off one of the biggest heists in recent baseball history on July 5 when they traded pitchers Jeff Samardzjia and Jason Hammel to the Oakland Athletics for a package of prospects, including 2015 rookie Addison Russell and Billy McKinney. This move proved to be pure genius when Hammel rejoined the club prior to the 2015 campaign as a free agent.
Players felt good now to be part of the Chicago Cubs organization. Instead of settling for everyone else’s discards, the team was now in the hunt to land the best talent. And that is exactly what happened when, in the span of a week in December, they acquired catcher Miguel Montero, Hammel, and pitcher Jon Lester. No more finishing second, the Cubs were out to win. And win they did, to a 97-65 record and an appearance in the NLCS.
This all leads us to this past week, wherein all the Cubs accomplished was to sign a new second baseman, a former World Series hero, and the guy who has led MLB in DRS (Defensive Runs Saved) ever since he joined the league in 2010 and who has an unreal UZR (Ultimate Zone Rating) during that same time. The critics are all over Heyward, saying he is not Mike Trout at the plate. No, he isn’t. And aside from Trout, no one else is, either. What Heyward is is a peerless defender who can get on base at a good clip while providing enough offensive punch to have opposing pitchers not take him for granted. More importantly, he is a guy who reportedly rejected more money (upwards of $200million, reported) from the Washington Nationals and the St. Louis Cardinals for the chance to win.
Reports also have Zobrist and Lackey as having rejected potentially more lucrative deals in order to come to Chicago.
Ladies and gentlemen, this is no longer your father’s Chicago Cubs team. This is no longer a final destination for some guys on their way to the MLB Rest Home. This is no longer the launching pad of great players achieving greater success in a different city with a different team. These are the Chicago Cubs. Players are jumping through hoops in an effort to play for the Chicago Cubs. The Cubs are close enough to the World Series now that any free agent they pursue would be begging to come to the team. And these three proved just that, as all accepted what was deemed to be below market value.
All this wheeling and dealing has one goal in mind