As it is now 2017, we wanted to take one last look at what 2016 meant to the now World Series Champion Chicago Cubs. We’re doing a multi-part series recapping the Cubs offseason, regular season, and postseason.
2015-2016 Offseason Grade: A
The Cubs were one of the most active teams in the 2015-2016 offseason knowing that after a 96 win season, they needed to add a few more pieces to be truly a championship level team. I was actually surprised by how much they spent, but as you know it worked out well. Here are the moves they made chronologically:
Signed John Lackey 2 year, 36 Million Dollar deal (December 4th)
Traded Starlin Castro for Adam Warren and Brendan Ryan (December 9th)
Signed: Ben Zobrist 4 year, 56 Million Dollar Deal (December 9th)
Signed: Jason Heyward 8 year, 184 Million Dollar Deal (December 11th)
Traded: Chris Coghlan for Aaron Brooks (February 25th)
Signed: Dexter Fowler 1 year, 8 million (February 26th )
After a 96 win season, you typically don’t see a team go out and spend 266 million dollars in December, but the Cubs front office was aggressive and made a bunch of Smart moves. What impressed me was there foresight to sign guys who may have not been at a position of need like Ben Zobrist, and make a trade that enabled them to improve their team and make Zobrist’s contract even more manageable.
Jason Heyward Signing C+ : 8 years, 184 Million
2016 Stats: .231 BA .306 OBP .325 SLG .631 OPS 7 HR 49 RBI 1.6 WAR (ESPN and Fangraphs), Gold Glove
Ah, here comes the most controversial signing of last year’s offseason, Jason Heyward. While he was the most celebrated player when the Cubs made the move to get him, Heyward struggled all season to hit and became Cubs Fans least favorite player on the team. My guess would be most people would grade signing a .230 player for 184 million dollars to be an F, but only looking at 1 season does Heyward a disservice. First of all, Heyward did win a gold glove this year, and according to our WAR calculation, was worth 12.32 million dollars. Not too far from his 2016 salary of 15 million dollars. Why was he worth 1.6 wins above replacement? He had the 4th most defensive runs saved among outfielders, and first in the national league according to Fangraphs. So, he was well deserving of the gold glove. While the Cubs had a prolific offense, one of their biggest keys to success was their pitching and defense which were not only the best in the MLB but historically great. Either way, Heyward’s defensive contribution is not to be questioned. But his offense was terrible.
So, was he worth the contract? That remains to be seen. I’m in the camp that Jason’s hitting is going to improve. I think ultimately we are going to see a guy who hits about .255 and plays stellar defense, making him about a 3.5 WAR player, which would be worth about 27 million per year. Which, exceeds the value of his contract. Now saying his batting is going to increase by 30 points isn’t just some thoughtless statement. Here are some points of reference, first, before 2016 Jason’s worst hitting performance came in 2011 when he hit .227, and the next season he worked his ass off and responded with a .269, 27 homer year worth 6.5 WAR. He’s faced adversity before and he will continue to be a hard worker. He’s already been seen in the batting cages, at the Cubs facilities in Arizona working on his swing and changing his approach at the plate. Second, the guy hit .290 a year ago, and while I don’t expect him to hit .290 next season, he’s bound to hover more around his career average which is .262. He had a terrible BABIP or Batting Average with Balls in Play last season (takes out home runs and strikeouts), which typically indicates whether or not a player is lucky. To counter he had a .329 BABIP a year ago and his career BABIP is .300. So expect J Hey to get a little luckier next season. Additionally, I’m not the only person who expects Jason to regress towards his mean hitting performance, as Fangraphs projections system expects him to hit .269, .348, .415, with 14 homers. Now, my estimate of .255 is more conservative than this projection, and these projections are known to be fairly conservative. To compare, Fangraphs expects Kris Bryant to hit .275 with 31 homers after hitting .291 with 39 homers last season and expects Rizzo to hit .279 with 32 homers after hitting .292 with 32 homers last season. The point is that a .269 average isn’t exactly an aggressive estimate and there’s a good chance that Jason has a big bounce back season. If he hits as well as the computers project him to, we’re looking at a 3.4 WAR Player – worth 26.18 million dollars, and that’s with he’s defense being half as valuable as it was last year. And just a few final notes, Heyward’s contract was so large because of how young he is/was, he’s only 27 years old and is entering the physical prime of his career.
The Cubs didn’t sign him to be their 3 or 4 hitter, they expected him to be an average to above average hitter and elite defender, if they can get him to hit the league average he’s worth the amount they’re paying for. Additionally, his elite defense and base running skills aren’t expected to diminish over time because they don’t need power or strength, their roots lie in his high baseball IQ which won’t go away. Also, his contract was structured in a way that last year he was paid 15 million, next year and in 2018 he will make 21.5 million, in 2019 he’ll make 20 million, in 2020 and 2021 he’ll earn 21 million and in 2022 and 2023 he’ll earn 22 million. Now each year he’s making a lot of money, but remember that the market value of a WAR will increase and if he is worth 2.5-3 WAR per year his contract will be about equal to market value. And 2.5-3 WAR per year isn’t asking too much for a guy who has averaged 4.18 WAR in his career.
Finally, I’ll end with the fact that the Cubs weren’t the only team that offered Heyward a long-term, big money contract. In fact, the Cardinals and Nationals were willing to pay Jason north of 200 million and he gave the Cubs a discount in pursuit of winning a championship and long term winning. This says a few things, one, the Cubs front office were not in over their heads when they offered Jason a large contract because other teams including one of the best organizations in sports, the St. Louis Cardinals, were willing to pay even more for him. Second, being a free agent and joining a new team can sometimes be a tough transition and we could’ve potentially seen better numbers if he had stayed with the Cardinals, but taking him away from the Cardinals made them a worse team, and they missed the playoffs for the first time since 2010. And they were out of playoffs by 1 game, interesting that they could’ve used about 1.6 more wins. Finally, Jason turning down the money to win a championship means he’s not going to sit around and count his dollars because he wouldn’t be here if all he cared about was money. If anything his large contract is going to motivate to do better because he knows he owes it to the organization. Don’t count out Jason Heyward and trust the judgement of Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer. And if all else fails, that 10thinning speech was worth at least $100 million.