Free agent outfielder Jason Heyward has decided against re-signing with the Cardinals and turned down other big interest from the Nationals and Angels to sign an eight-year, $184 million deal with the Cubs according to Ken Rosenthal of FOXSports.com. And he reportedly turned down bigger offers to do so, although the deal includes a pair of opt-out clauses that would allow Heyward to cash in again if salaries continue to rise.
Heyward is one of the most interesting free agents in recent memory, in part because at 26 years old he’s extremely young to be hitting the open market and in part because his raw offensive numbers don’t scream superstar. However, his tremendous all-around value comes from being a solidly above-average hitter with good on-base skills, a plus baserunner and basestealer, and a spectacular defensive outfielder capable of playing all three spots well.
For his career–which consists of five seasons in Atlanta and one season in St. Louis–Heyward has been about 15 percent better than the average MLB hitter while stealing around 20 bases per season at a great clip and consistently rating among the very best defenders in the game. Focusing on batting average, home runs, and RBIs short-changes his overall game such that it completely misses the point of his value.
Heyward ranked sixth among all outfielders in Wins Above Replacement this past season–sandwiched between Lorenzo Cain of the Royals and fellow free agent Yoenis Cespedes–and combined from 2010-2015 only Mike Trout, Andrew McCutchen, and Jose Bautista produced more Wins Above Replacement than Heyward among MLB outfielders. Defense matters and Heyward’s value reflects that, hard as it may be for some people to recognize.
St. Louis and Chicago fighting over Heyward was presumed from the start of free agency, but the Angels were linked heavily to him earlier this week and Jon Heyman of CBSSports.com reports that the Nationals jumped in with an offer believed to be worth $200 million.
By going to the Cubs he joins a franchise on the rise and one stacked with high-end young talent, one of the game’s best managers, a smart front office, and tons of money to throw around. And at 26 years old Heyward himself is high-end young talent, which is no doubt why Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer, Joe Maddon, and company broke the bank to add him to the mix that won 97 games in 2015.
Heyward gives the Cubs several options in the outfield. They could play him in center field, replacing departing free agent Dexter Fowler, with Kyle Schwarber and Jorge Soler flanking him in the corners. Or they could keep Heyward in right field, where he’s played the majority of his career, and look to really ramp up the outfield defense by re-signing Fowler or pursuing a different starting center fielder via trade or free agency.
As for the Cardinals, his departure leaves a huge hole in the outfield but one they could potentially fill with a similar (albeit older) skill set in free agent Alex Gordon. Gordon, like Heyward, is a good but not great hitter who brings huge value defensively. They’ll receive a first-round draft pick as compensation for losing Heyward to free agency, but that probably won’t make him choosing their NL Central rivals sting any less in the short term.