Let me get a couple of things out of the way right at the beginning of this essay.
First, there are those who characterize my position on Jason Heyward as "Al didn't want him on the Cubs." That's false. What's true is that I was concerned that signing the top position-player free agent would compromise the Cubs' financial flexibility going forward, because he would cost too much. That concern vanished with the details of the contract as we know them (so far), because Heyward took less money ($184 million in total, if the full eight years of the deal are played in Chicago) than he was reportedly offered by other teams (supposedly $200 million from both the Cardinals and Nationals). That's a credit to Cubs management, and further, the opt-outs, while they could take a really good player away from the team in three or four years, make this deal palatable, since (presumably) the Cubs will have much more money from a large TV deal by the time those opt-outs kick in. Obviously, the business side made the money available. It would seem they'll have the flexibility in the future as well.
Second, there is still a perception out there that I was "against" the plan of Theo Epstein & Co. This is also false. I understood "the plan" from the beginning. There's no question that the Cubs' minor-league organization was weak and needed rebuilding at the time Theo was hired. He did so, in spectacular fashion. What I'd have liked to have seen was a bit more winning at the big-league level in his early years, that's all. Obviously, all the losing resulted in the choices of Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber, and that's nothing but a stunning success, so I'll certainly agree that the losing wound up being quite productive, in the long run, for the franchise. Kudos to Theo & Co. for everything they've done, and I've actually written pretty much exactly this before, just a couple of months ago, before the Cubs' 2015 postseason began:
My frustration at seeing the first years of this regime result in some of the worst major-league seasons in franchise history led me to criticize when that criticism certainly wasn't warranted. Of course I saw what they were building; I hoped it would result in success. I had no inkling it would result in this much success, this soon. (And neither did you -- what's going on right now is happening likely a year ahead of their original schedule.) There are many reasons that's happened, from good drafting to shrewd trading to the sheer luck of having Joe Maddon dropped in their laps a year ago. Three years' worth of disgruntled complaints turned into a season of pure joy.
So do me a favor. Now that the Cubs are coming off a huge success of a season (despite the NLCS loss) and appear headed to bigger and better things, can we all just say we're on the same page and not look back?
Now, back to Heyward. Another thing that concerned me a bit -- and just a bit -- about Heyward was his ability to play center field on a regular basis, given that he had played almost all right field in his career and just 32 games in center. He's certainly got the athleticism to play center field. Further, given the hints we've had from the brass that they're not done dealing, Heyward might wind up in right field after all, as there have been media mentions that Jorge Soler might be shipped somewhere for pitching help. If that happens, of course the Cubs would need to acquire someone to play center, but then they'd have one of the top right fielders in the game in Heyward. I'll give Theo & Co. the benefit of the doubt here and assume they know what they're doing if Heyward does wind up as the starting center fielder. Given Joe Maddon's love of swapping players all over the place, other players might wind up in center at times even if Heyward plays the lion's share of the games there.
But beyond all that, the signing of Heyward to the largest total-dollar contract in Cubs history marks a genuine change in the way this franchise is going to operate going forward. They're certainly not going to stop building from the ground up, because that's the way winning organizations continue winning. We've seen that over the last 20 years with the Cardinals, who even when they lose players, seem to drop new guys in from their farm system who produce. That's what we want the Cubs to do, even as they are now showing us they can afford to play with the "big boys."
Money's getting silly in baseball now. And it seems like the Cubs do have the money to compete with anyone. That's a good thing.
Some have compared this signing to the Alfonso Soriano deal made nine years ago. The only thing that's the same about these two signings is the length of the contract -- eight years. And even at that, as I noted above, there are outs in the Heyward deal. More importantly, Heyward is five years younger at the start of the 2016 season than Soriano was when he played his first game for the Cubs in 2007. Even if Heyward does wind up playing all eight years of this deal in a Cubs uniform, he'd turn 34 toward the end of the final season, and the Cubs will likely get his best seasons, which wasn't the case for Soriano. Go look at Soriano's five seasons from age 26-30; he posted a combined 19.9 bWAR in those five years, more than twice the bWAR he had in his entire Cubs career. I think we'd take that from Heyward over the next five years, and considering Heyward has 31.1 bWAR in his six-year career to date, it's likely he'll do even better than that over the next four or five seasons.
So welcome to Chicago, "jheytwotwo" (as he calls himself on that Twitter account, and you'll note he's put a Cubs logo and the Chicago skyline on the page). Glad to have you aboard. You're going to love it here (and you should, being a .311/.376/.522 lifetime hitter in Wrigley and with .276/.372/.441 career averages in day games). Though it's kind of strange to think that the Cubs might be the best team in baseball right now, I think we can get used to that.