NASHVILLE — Cubs vs. Cardinals is the Corinthian leather and cubic zirconia of baseball rivalries: It looks pretty good and is marketed even better, but it’s not the real deal. To have a true rivalry, you need a preponderance of two sides fighting over the same prize within a close range of collective skill. This has not been the history of Chicago and St. Louis.
It’s not just that the Cardinals lead the Cubs in world championships over the last 100 years by the score of 11–0; it’s mostly that the two sides rarely engage in pennant races at the same time. They have finished first and second in the standings, regardless of order, only four times since 1900: '30, '35, '45 and 2009. The Yankees and Red Sox did so more times just between 2003 and '09. Before this year, St. Louis and Chicago had fielded winning teams in the same season just 10 times in the past 45 years.
In 2015, however, the rivalry has become legit. It started when the first-place Cardinals (100–62) and third-place Cubs (97–65) won 90 or more games in the same season for the first time in 70 years. It continued when the Cubs beat the Cardinals in their first-ever postseason matchup, a four-game NLDS that included Chicago’s first postseason clincher ever at Wrigley Field. It has kept going during this free-agent market when the Cubs signed starting pitcher John Lackey away from St. Louis.
Now it’s getting even hotter, because the Cubs’ have their hands in the Cardinals’ cupboard again—this time as they try to pry free-agent outfielder Jason Heyward away from St. Louis. The Giants and Angels also hover in the Heyward sweepstakes, but they lag behind the Cardinals’ power of incumbency and the Cubs’ sales pitch to chase The Greatest Remaining Championship in sports.
“I expect he winds up with the Cardinals,” said a rival general manager. “I say that because he’s played there for a year, and when was the last time you heard about a guy playing there and wanting to leave? They tend to keep their guys. And I don’t know if the Cubs are in it to get him or in it to drive up the price on the Cardinals. The Cubs like to do that. It’s when you don’t hear that [Chicago president of baseball operations] Theo [Epstein] is in it that they usually wind up with the player.”
The Cubs at least appear to be serious about Heyward. They would play him either in centerfield (at least for a year or two) or rightfield if they can trade Jorge Soler for young pitching. They still have money to spend after trading Starlin Castro to the Yankees to open second base for free-agent addition Ben Zobrist. Having Zobrist and Heyward. each of whom had a .359 on-base percentage in 2015, would make Chicago a more versatile offensive team (especially in the playoffs) after they led the league in strikeouts last season.
The Cubs have more resources (but also more debt) than the Cardinals, but both teams are about to get major boosts in local television money. This year, St. Louis signed a $1 billion TV deal that begins in 2018; two years later, the Cubs plan to launch their own network. We just saw how a $1.5 billion television deal helped Arizona finance a winning bid for Zack Greinke over the Dodgers and Giants.
Meanwhile, Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak, whose club rarely engages in big free-agent bidding wars and just lost one on David Price, is not giving away any urgency regarding Heyward.
“We feel like we like the outfielders and starting pitchers we have today,” he said, “and if we had to start this way we’d be okay. Of course, when we see an opportunity to get better, we’ll try to take it. We need to add to our bullpen.”
The winning bid for Heyward is likely to be more complicated than simply money and years. Last year, for instance, the seven-year, $210 million contract Max Scherzer signed with Washington included a $50 million signing bonus and $105 million in deferred money paid out over seven years after the playing contract expires, which takes advantage of something called The Home Rule Act. The local law exempts non-residents in Washington from paying the district’s 8.5% tax rate and saved millions for Scherzer, who makes his off-season home in Florida.
“It took 75 hours of meetings with [Nationals owner] Ted Lerner,” said Scherzer’s agent, Scott Boras. “It’s worth more money than the Price deal.”
A manager told me on Tuesday the problem with signing the 26-year-old Heyward to a mega-contract of eight to 10 years is that what makes him so valuable today—his defense and his upcoming prime age seasons—lose value on the back half of the deal. “I would love to have him on a high [average annual value] over a short period of time—give me just his best years,” the manager said. “But that’s not going to happen.”
Why not try to make it happen? The answer, as it was for Scherzer, may come from creative financial structuring. For instance: Why not build a long-term offer that allows Heyward an opt-out after three or four years, but with much of the money front-loaded? Heyward gets the advantage of upfront money and a second shot at free agency at 29 or 30. The club essentially encourages the player to opt-out with declining money on the back end, which mitigates the risk of paying for Heyward’s decline.
For different reasons, the Cardinals front-loaded a deal the last time they paid a big-ticket free agent. In 2013, St. Louis signed Jhonny Peralta to a four-year deal worth $53 million. The Cardinals structured a system of declining salaries—$15.5 million, $15 million, $12.5 million and $10 million—because as Peralta aged they no longer wanted to budget him as a premier shortstop.
The bidding on Heyward just might come down to the Cubs and Cardinals. This could be the ignition switch to an actual rivalry, the way it happened between the Yankees and Red Sox one day in November 2002. Epstein, then the newly minted general manager of the Red Sox, flew to Nicaragua to meet with Cuban free-agent pitcher Jose Contreras. On the advice of Louie Eljaua, his director of international scouting, Epstein booked every available room in the 12-room hotel in the remote town where Contreras and his agent were staying. The nearest hotel room was miles away, which assured no other team would get close to Contreras. Epstein and the pitcher and the agent stayed up that night happily drinking whiskey, smoking Cuban cigars and hatching a plan to bring Contreras to Boston. Epstein went to bed sure he was signing Contreras without the Yankees even knowing about it.
The next morning, Epstein saw two figures slip into Contreras’ room. He saw Contreras on his cell phone. A little while later, Contreras knocked on Epstein’s door. He had tears in his eyes.
“It’s nothing personal,” the big man said. “I had a better offer. They wouldn’t take no.”
The day after the Yankees signed Contreras, Larry Lucchino, one of the Boston owners, gave The New York Times the quote that declared that the rivalry was officially on: “The Evil Empire extends its tentacles even into Latin America.”
The Yankees and Red Sox finished first and second in some order for five of the next seven years and won nine of the next 11 AL East titles. The rivalry was the greatest engine to baseball’s robust growth in those years.
We might just be on the cusp of another such rivalry over the next decade—this one a Midwestern, National League version of Yankees-Red Sox. Both the Cubs and Cardinals are very good at the same time, and both teams will be getting huge TV money to increase the chances they remain such. And when it comes to rivalries, and as happened 13 years ago in Nicaragua, a bidding war with cloak-and-danger intrigue can only help this one become the real deal.