There are two generally accepted methodologies by which teams attempt to build contenders. On one hand, teams will employ a "stars and scrubs" approach with a handful of elite players surrounded by largely below-average and even replacement-level compatriots. The Los Angeles Angels have been a tremendous example of this in recent years and specifically in 2015 when they surrounded baseball's premier talent, Mike Trout, with fellow studs Kole Calhoun, Garrett Richards, and Andrew Heaney... but also black holes like Matt Joyce, Taylor Featherston, David Murphy, Shane Victorino, and a trio of starting pitchers -- Jered Weaver, Matt Shoemaker, and Hector Santiago -- that needed 475 innings to produce half a win less than Jason Hammel. That's how you miss the playoffs by a game despite having Mike Trout in tow.
The other methodology that teams employ is the "avoidance of the black hole." The 2015 Royals were a tremendous example of this approach. The Royals did not have a single pitcher who produced as much WAR as Kyle Hendricks, yet once they addressed their two problematic areas at the trade deadline, they featured an incredibly deep roster without any true holes. Obviously that worked out swimmingly for them.
I thought for a long time that these were the only two true methods that teams attempted in building their rosters.
I was wrong.
Over their five offseasons with the Cubs, Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer have now shown us two diametrically opposed extremes: the "tankapalooza" and the "stars and...hey, why don't we just have all stars?" approaches. Tankapalooza netted the Cubs much of the core of the current roster while resulting in some truly dreadful Cubs teams.
With Friday's signing of Jason Heyward, the Cubs officially flipped the switch into "stars and stars" mode.
As this point, on paper, Miguel Montero appears to be the worst regular in 2016 Cubs lineup and that is patently absurd. Montero's bat is above-average for a catcher (107 wRC+ in 2015) and he is a strong, if not elite, defender by traditional metrics. When we add in Montero's elite pitch framing skills, he probably finds himself in the back-half of the top-ten catchers in baseball.
Good enough for eighth out of eight among projected Cubs 2016 starters.
I'm having a hard time wrapping my head around this.
Turning to Heyward specifically, when I made my predictions for free agent contracts last month, I pegged Heyward for a 10-year, $200 million deal with an opt-out after year five while noting that "I love Heyward and I'd love to see him join the Cubs." Here's the thing: I hate opt-outs. Opt-outs are increasingly valuable to the player as the market continues exploding, and, thus, detrimental to the club from a value perspective. My primary complaint has been that clubs seem to give opt-outs to players without securing any type of benefit in exchange. The David Price contract was a solid 25% jump in the top of the market compared to Max Scherzer's deal, yet Price seemingly got the Red Sox to throw in an opt-out without giving up a dime in exchange.
At the time of this writing, it sounds as though Heyward will have opt-outs after both year three and year four of his deal with the Cubs. That should make me incredibly unhappy.
But not this time. We know that Heyward spurned multiple $200 million offers -- likely over nine or even ten years, but still, $200 million offers -- in order to take the Cubs' deal at $184 million over eight years. I'm not going to calculate the exact value of what Heyward had to pay to get his opt-out, but it's safe to say that it was in the order of millions of dollars. Do I suddenly love the opt-outs? No, of course not. But I do appreciate that this appears to be the cost of doing business at the top of the free agent market in 2015. And the Cubs did it the right way, by securing real money in exchange for the provision.
As for the value that the Cubs project to reap in this deal, it is absolutely outstanding. Back in November 2014 when Heyward was dealt to the Braves, Fangraphs' Dave Cameron explained the deal from Atlanta's perspective by suggesting that Heyward would be in line for $225-250 million this winter coming off of a good year with an outside shot at eclipsing $300 million with a big year in 2015. Well, all Heyward did was post the 11th best WAR among position players in baseball in 2015, finishing narrowly ahead of the likes of Andrew McCutchen, Buster Posey, and Chris Davis... and just behind Kris Bryant. Snagging Heyward for a $184 million guarantee is an absolute bargain, especially in a marketplace that is guaranteeing north of $200 million over a shorter term to pitchers already in their 30s.
Now, it bears mentioning even though it's been mentioned ad nauseum before: Heyward is not your typical superstar. He hasn't shown the plus-plus power that was projected of him since 2012. He doesn't possess blazing speed. He doesn't have a crazy elite arm. When you can't put your finger on one tool as elite as Kris Bryant's power, Billy Hamilton's speed, or Vladimir Guerrero's arm, it's tough to see a star sometimes.
But make no bones about it: Heyward is a star and, somewhat ironically, he is a star in a very similar mold to that of fellow new Cub Ben Zobrist. Heyward is regarded as a star defender, and the metrics consistently back this up. In 2015, his peers in Defensive Runs Saved were Kevin Pillar, Adrian Beltre, and Didi Gregorius. Heyward does it on the strength of a plus arm and elite range. Since entering the Majors in 2010, Heyward's total UZR of 96.2 absolutely dwarfs the competition among outfielders with at least 3,000 defensive innings with only five other outfielders having even half the total UZR of Heyward (Alex Gordon, Carlos Gomez, Lorenzo Cain, Brett Gardner, and Josh Reddick). If you prefer rate stats like me, Heyward's UZR/150 of 18.3 over that span -- meaning that Heyward is about 18.3 runs better than the average outfielder over 150 games -- is second to only Royals' star Cain, widely regarded as one of the elite defenders in baseball today, and it comes in ahead of stud glovemen like Peter Bourjos, A.J. Pollock, and Gomez. Simply put, Heyward is a defensive beast. In the event that you don't spend much time with defensive metrics, just know that the metrics suggest that Heyward's defensive value is roughly equivalent to Justin Upton's 2015 offensive value.
Now, if you find yourself feeling skeptical as I'm citing all of these defensive metrics, here are three things that should settle your nerves:
1. Heyward posts consistently superb numbers;
2. Heyward has posted elite totals while playing for two different clubs, minimizing the possibility that there's something about right field in Atlanta that skews the metrics; and
3. Traditional methods of evaluation, like Gold Glove awards and scouting reports, all indicate that Heyward is among the game's best as well.
As with all deals, Heyward does come with significant risks. In particular, Heyward depends heavily on his legs to add value on the basepaths and with his outfield range. Although he is still in his mid-20s, a significant leg injury would be particularly devastating to him. This risk is naturally mitigated by his youthfulness -- Heyward is a few hours younger than Anthony Rizzo -- but I can't and won't pretend that there's no risk here.
Then again, Heyward comes with an unprecedented amount of upside for a player garnering such a massive deal. His power has only truly emerged once when he blasted 27 home runs in his third season in 2012. That said, we've seen some of his power firsthand, particularly with his amazing opposite field home run off of Jake Arrieta in Game 3 of the NLCS where Heyward took a curveball from the right-handed batter's box and dumped it into the seats in left field. The power is in there, and Jason Heyward with 25 home runs per year instead of 13 jumps up into the Goldschmidt-Votto tier as a fringe top-five position player in the game.
Here's the most important thing about this: the Cubs did NOT pay for that upside. It's just a bonus. They paid for Heyward to get on base well, hit for average power, run the bases extremely well, and play elite outfield defense. If he does that like he has in his career to date, his value is going to dwarf his salary. If his power emerges, the Cubs will be ecstatic (and Heyward will be on the open market again in three years looking for a $300 million guarantee).
Offensively, Heyward has been a very strong, non-elite player. If we remove his baserunning from the picture -- a big removal in his case -- Heyward's peers over the last three years are guys like Carlos Beltran, Manny Machado, Eric Hosmer, and Jonathan Lucroy, all very good players but not elite bats. If we factor baserunning back in, Heyward's offensive value comes in 41st among all players over the past three years, surrounding by guys like J.D. Martinez, Jason Kipnis, Alex Gordon, and Ben Zobrist. He's a very good offensive player. He just doesn't have an elite offensive game like so many other Cubs.
Much has been made of Heyward's defensive home, but I'm far less concerned about where he ends up at this point than I was a few weeks ago. Heyward's range is so superb that he should be able to cover center field while remaining a plus defender, if not the ultra-elite defender he is in right. A plus centerfielder is probably more valuable than an elite rightfielder anyway. Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch has indicated that the Cubs currently plan to start Heyward in center field in 2016, and that's a good plan in my eyes. Fangraphs' August Fagerstrom looked at this very issue last week, noting that Heyward's comparables -- Alex Rios and Shane Victorino -- both took quite well to center before declining when their range receded in their 30s. Heyward should be able to handle center for a few years, giving the Cubs incredibly flexibility as they try to figure out where to put Jorge Soler, Kyle Schwarber, Albert Almora, Ian Happ, Billy McKinney and Eddy Julio Martinez. Heyward should be highly productive regardless of whether he lines up in right or center.
Those of you who read BCB regularly know that I follow the Cubs' spending closely. Very closely. Regardless of how long union between Heyward and the Cubs lasts, kudos to Tom Ricketts, Crane Kenney, and the business operations staff for generating the cashflow necessary to make the last week possible and pulling the trigger on these momentous moves. It doesn't even matter how Heyward's contract is structured or what subsequent moves are made to reduce payroll: the Cubs are going to spend more money on baseball-related categories in 2016 than they ever have in their history, likely by at least 10% over their previous high. Ricketts appears to have put his money where his mouth is. That's literally what we ask for from ownership. So thanks, Tom. The whole value of having cheap, cost-suppressed talent as a big-market ballclub is that it enables the team to spend its dollars elsewhere. The last week -- and last winter's acquisitions of Miguel Montero and Jon Lester -- epitomizes that notion.
Of course, while our ownership, management group, and fans have had a wonderful week, it has been a truly horrendous offseason for the Cardinals. Yes, they get two compensation round draft picks in addition to their own first-round pick in next year's draft, but even the Cardinals have as good of a chance of turning those picks into the likes of Patrick Wisdom and Steve Bean as they do of nabbing a Stephen Piscotty (those three were their 2012 compensation round picks).
But in the span of a week, the following happened:
- they lost their top pitcher, by WAR, from their 2015 team to their arch rival (John Lackey);
- they lost their top player overall, by WAR, from their 2015 team to their arch rival despite offering more money (Jason Heyward);
- they missed out on their top free agent target despite seemingly having the inside track to sign him (David Price); and
- they watched the primary player that they surrendered for Heyward, Shelby Miller, garner easily the most ludicrously huge trade return in baseball in years.
The Cardinals still have a strong roster, a strong farm system, and a lot of cash on hand that can be spent in order to nab an impact player or two this winter to reload for 2016. But this has been a brutal stretch for them, quite possibly the toughest stretch of time for the franchise -- outside of the tragic passing of Oscar Taveras -- in many years. It goes without saying that this is a huge benefit to the Cubs.
So there we have it. In my estimation, the Jason Heyward signing was (1) a huge win for the Cubs, (2) a huge loss for the Cardinals, (3) a ringing endorsement of the Ricketts' ownership tenure, and (4) a move that works out swimmingly for Heyward give his multiple chances to opt out of the deal.
To close, I'd like to do something that so many of you have done as well: write out a lineup. I've done this thousands of times in my life (maybe tens of thousands by now?), but it has been years since such a strong lineup seemed so plausible. The lineup below is the group that I expect to face Garrett Richards on April 4, 2016 in Anaheim, provided that no further roster moves are made this winter. Unbelievable.
2B Ben Zobrist
CF Jason Heyward
3B Kris Bryant
1B Anthony Rizzo
DH Kyle Schwarber
RF Jorge Soler
LF Chris Coghlan
C Miguel Montero
SS Addison Russell