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Signed OF Jason Heyward to an eight-year deal worth $184 million. [12/11]
Outside the organization, outside the city, around baseball, the story is the Cubs are coming fast and the Cubs are coming strong. —Theo Epstein, September 2013
It was easy to mock Epstein at the time that quote was made. His team was coming off it's fourth-straight fifth-place finish and he was answering questions from a media wondering why he'd just fired his hand-picked manager two years into an obvious rebuild. Nobody's mocking Epstein and the Cubs anymore.
It’s rare that a team has a perfect offseason, but what the Cubs have done over the past week is as close as one can get. Oddly enough, they might not be finished, but that’s still to be seen. What they have done is improve upon their three primary stated weaknesses—starting pitching depth, contact/situational hitting, and outfield defense—and all they’ve had to do is spend money and trade away Starlin Castro. It’s inarguable that they’ve enhanced a 97-win team and if this front office has its way, there’s more to come.
But let’s focus on the addition of Jason Heyward. About a week ago over at BP Wrigleyville, I laid out why Heyward is a perfect fit for this Cubs team and would be worth the rather large deal he was inevitably headed for. Essentially, the argument goes as such: he’s an 80-grade glove in right, scouts agree he can be above-average if used in center, and his contact rate of 84.2 percent would have led all Cubs (with at least 100 plate appearances) last year. Now he fits in smoothly as the Cubs second-best contact hitter behind the newly acquired Ben Zobrist.
Yes, Heyward is lacking in power when one considers the traditional aspects of those who roam right field and earn contracts worth more than $150 million dollars. But the Cubs are one of the few teams in the league that can say they're set in the power department, and with enough financial flexibility, they were able to creatively add Heyward (there are reportedly two opt outs in the contract after years three and four, which become available if certain plate appearance thresholds are met) and fix the few deficiencies the club has.
The lineup options the Cubs have suddenly given to manager Joe Maddon are almost too vast to discuss in one column. Either of Zobrist or Heyward could lead off, with both being options for the two-hole as well. And depending on how you like to construct a lineup, Kyle Schwarber, Anthony Rizzo, and even Kris Bryant are also solid choices for the second spot.
The Cubs have two big on-base and power combo threats in Bryant and Rizzo. Far too often last season they’d find those two on base and a low-contact hitter unable to scratch across a run for them. The Cubs offense was strong last season, especially in the second half when they were second in runs scored in the NL, aided by Dexter Fowler turning things around and the kids finding their groove after adjusting to the big-league level. But they also left many runs on the bases, as indicated by their 13 percent rate of scoring baserunners overall (this was tied for last with six others, and the Cubs had the most baserunners of that group at 508) and their measly 40 percent rate of scoring runners from third with less than two outs. That number was far and away the worst in baseball, six points below the second-worst team (Seattle) and 11 points below the league average.
The counter to having a higher contact team is that some would believe the Cubs may ground into more double plays, thus eliminating those scoring opportunities before they even truly materialize. The GIDP was something they avoided more than any other team last season, led by both Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo, who were second and sixth, respectively, in baseball according to NETDP—a statistic that measures the number of additional double plays a player generates versus an average player, with negative meaning fewer double plays than average. However, this shouldn't be of any greater concern for the Cubs after their recent contact-hitting additions as both Heyward and Zobrist are better than average at -3.32 and -2.58 respectively.
Having the option to put Heyward or Zobrist in the fifth or six spot in the lineup to make sure a high-contact hitter is up behind the high-power/on-base players is an ideal situation for the Cubs. Not only does improving in this category make the Cubs a better team in the regular season, but it helps in the playoffs as well when every peccadillo is magnified and exposed by quality advanced scouting.
When it comes to the opt outs in Heyward's contract, it’s hard to spin it in any way other than to come to the conclusion that they’re a negative for the Cubs. If Heyward is healthy and productive, he’ll take advantage of the opt-out and look for even more money from the Cubs or elsewhere. If his performance in the first three or four years wouldn’t be valued as much on the open market as the remaining years on his contract, then he won’t opt out, meaning the Cubs are stuck with an expensive player who likely isn’t performing even close to what he’s being paid. Heyward also has the added benefit of figuring out how much of the potentially loaded 2018 class actually hits the market before deciding whether to trigger his opt-out after year three or four. Sure, he could be hugely valuable for three or four years, opt out, then immediately go in the tank, but assuming that scenario is the one that plays out isn’t the way to go about this; knowing if this opt-out ends up as a positive for the Cubs only comes with the benefit of hindsight.
The bottom line is while he may not be with the club for the next eight years, this is what it took to get Heyward, a player the Cubs obviously highly coveted. The Cubs already had the best group of young offensive talent, and now, with a few deft moves, they’ve arguably put together the deepest, most complete roster in baseball for 2016, and that’s quite the accomplishment.
I’ve tried to avoid this, but let’s take a peek at what their lineup could look like next season:
Honestly, I look at that and as I said above, you could flip things around in numerous fashions and come up with multiple viable lineups. I want to go back and rearrange it as I type this, but I can't figure out what works best. There are so many beautiful versions. And let’s not forget that the Cubs start the season on the road in Anaheim. That means we’ll likely see Schwarber in the DH spot with Bryant or Javier Baez somewhere in the outfield (depending on how Baez’s turn in center field goes this winter in Puerto Rico and in Arizona this spring). Of course, this all assumes that they don’t dangle Baez or Soler for pitching and/or a center fielder. Either way, it's hard to imagine an NL lineup that could possibly strike more fear in opposing pitchers.
There’s also the fact that the Cubs have signed two free agents—Heyward and John Lackey—who were previously key parts of their division rivals. The Cardinals have now missed out on their top two targets in David Price and Heyward and are left scrambling, trying to decide which direction they now go. Their biggest weakness on offense is a lack of power, it’s something Heyward wouldn’t have helped with, but perhaps Chris Davis makes some sense for them. There are also rumors that Alex Gordon could be a target, and he certainly helps replace some of Heyward’s defense and offensive skill set. Mike Leake could be an option, as they search for an innings-eating replacement for Lackey. Either way, this result is not what the Cardinals wanted to happen; they’ve missed out on the players they’d prioritized this offseason and in turn their arch rivals and main competition for the division get exponentially stronger.
Here’s the reality of the situation for the North Siders: once again, the Cubs find themselves with an innumerable amount of options. Whether it comes in the form of lineup construction or trade ideas, the Cubs have a variety of directions in which they could go. Since Epstein and company came into town, they were adamant that their desire was to create a scouting and player development machine. They wanted to build that foundation for the future and completely change a culture that had somehow allowed itself to become the butt of jokes around the league. They admitted it would be a process and at times it would be difficult for some to see the forest through the trees, but the ultimate goal was always sustained success.
We’ve just recently passed the four-year mark of that press conference introducing Epstein—which was shortly followed by the introductions of Jed Hoyer and Jason McLeod—and the Cubs are coming off a 97-win season while also possessing a collection of great young talent, a still-strong minor-league system, and plenty of money to spend in the free-agent market (and that doesn’t even get into the money they have available over the next six months to enhance their farm system in the international market). This group has remarkably improved upon a strong 2015 roster in significant fashion and hasn’t subtracted a single player who was deemed a part of their young core.
This hasn’t been a 2016 or bust offseason, the Cubs aren't trying to build their team around one or two high-priced free agents—but they were certainly willing to spend large amounts on a select few to supplement an already talented core. The Cubs’ brass went into the winter understanding they were at a critical juncture and had one goal in mind: make this the best team in baseball, on paper and on the field. They appear to have done the former—and in a few months, we’ll begin to see if the latter is a reality as well. The secret's out; the Cubs have become the well-oiled machine the league had whispered they'd become just a couple years ago. And this time, I don't hear anyone laughing.
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