Chicago Cubs: Jason Heyward is missing piece to the puzzle


After signing free agent Jason Heyward to a franchise-record contract, there’s plenty to digest regarding the outfielder and his impact on the Chicago Cubs.

Last winter, Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer opened Tom Ricketts’ checkbook for the first time, shelling out $155 million to bring veteran lefty Jon Lester to town. This year, the duo outdid themselves, giving Heyward an eight-year, $184 million deal.

However, there is a lot more to this contract than just a straight eight-year agreement. According to reports, it contains a pair of opt-out clauses – the first coming after three years, with Heyward entering his age-29 season.

For weeks, fans of the St. Louis Cardinals have been clamoring for Heyward’s return to the Redbirds. They’ve praised his defense and his ability to spray the ball all over the diamond. Per usual, once a move went against their beloved club, though, they began to shell the Cubs’ signing, saying it was an overpay.

While it’s cute to get angry and bitter (although more than a few Cardinals fans took that way too far Friday afternoon), thankfully, we have statistical data to validate Chicago’s move to bring in a player who went deep against Carlos Zambrano in his first big-league game.

Last season, the Chicago Cubs’ outfield defense wasn’t a strength of the club, to say the least. Kyle Schwarber learned the position on the fly and while Dexter Fowler had above-average range, he still wasn’t a stellar option in center field. Add Jorge Soler into the picture and you understand fairly quickly why the team wanted to upgrade defensively heading into 2016.

Chicago outfielders ranked 13th amongst National League clubs in DRS (-26) and carried just a 4.5 UZR through the 2015 campaign (by contrast, the league-leading team was the Cardinals at 26.4).

Heyward, meanwhile, ranked fourth in defensive runs saved across all of Major League Baseball as a right-fielder and second in the bigs in UZR (22.6), trailing only Kevin Kiermaier of the Tampa Bay Rays – arguably the best defender in the game today.

If you understand Heyward probably won’t ever hit 30 home runs, then you’ll be pleasantly surprised about what you’ll see at the plate from the Cubs’ newest outfielder.

It seems likely the newest member of the Cubs’ outfielder will shift over to center field in 2016, leaving Jorge Soler and Kyle Schwarber to man the corner spots – barring any forthcoming trade. While he hasn’t been as good, historically, in center as in right-field, he’s still an above-average defender.

Moving on from defense, there is a critical step all Chicago Cubs fans must take when evaluating Jason Heyward offensively. Understand and accept that he will probably never be a traditional 30-100 guy as some once thought when he was coming up as a member of the Atlanta Braves.

And that’s alright.

Joe Maddon doesn’t need another big bopper in the middle of his lineup every day. The likes of Schwarber, Anthony Rizzo and National League Rookie of the Year Kris Bryant have that role locked down, not to mention the upside guys like Jorge Soler and Javier Baez possess. And, to be frank, he doesn’t expect Heyward to be one of those guys.

Similar to Ben Zobrist, Heyward was brought onboard to reach base consistently. Last season with St. Louis, he was a .359 OBP player, the second-best mark of his young career. Over the course of six years, he’s averaged a .784 OPS to go along with a .353 on-base clip. He’s been the epitome of consistency in that regard, despite the ebbs and flows of his power output.

Despite landing the richest free agent deal ever doled out by the Chicago Cubs organization, we’re looking at a player who has never hit 30 home runs. He’s never hit .300 in a season and he’s never eclipsed 85 runs batted in, let alone approach the century mark.

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But, again, it all comes down to consistency. Despite putting up eye-popping numbers at the dish, Heyward ranked as the sixth-most valuable outfielder in the game last season with a 6.0 WAR – outpacing perennial MVP candidate Andrew McCutchen, as well as Jose Bautista and Adam Jones.

What Jason Heyward brings to the table is clear: above-average work with the glove, a consistent approach at the plate – and his contract only makes it more appealing.

Sure, $184 million is a lot of money. And although we don’t yet know exactly how Heyward’s contract is structured, knowing the three-year opt-out exists is a win-win for both the Cubs and the outfielder himself.

As Chicago’s core of Rizzo, Bryant and Russell, as well as Jake Arrieta, matures and thus becomes pricier, Theo and Jed will have decisions to make about payroll. Being able to cut ties with Heyward should he decide to look for another big payday in three years is an attractive selling point for the Cubs – as well as Heyward.

This helps the Cubs control costs long-term, while at the same time, adding one of the premier free agents on the market this offseason. For a team that struggled in terms of outfield defense and reaching base last season, Jason Heyward seems to be an intelligent way to spend resources as the team eyes that elusive World Series title.