Jason Heyward, this off-season’s top free-agent position player, has found his new team, and like the only other major free-agent hitter to sign thus far, he has chosen the Cubs. Just three days after Chicago came to terms with second baseman Ben Zobrist on a four-year, $56 million deal, the team has reeled in Heyward for a reported $184 million over eight years. That dollar amount is well below his market value, but he can opt out of the contract after either the third or fourth year (the opt outs are reported to be related to plate appearance minimums, but there are not yet any specifics).
UPDATE: The Cubs have made the deal official: eight years, $184 million, with two opt outs.
With Heyward on board, the Cubs have added yet another young player to their offensive core. What's more, by reuniting him with former teammate John Lackey, they have signed away the two most valuable members (per baseball-reference.com’s version of Wins Above Replacement) of their division's reigning champions, the 100-win Cardinals.
As Chicago's roster is currently constructed, Heyward, who has primarily been a rightfielder to this point in his career, will play centerfield. That shouldn’t be a stretch for him: He has started 36 games in center in his major league career (postseason included) and is universally acknowledged to be one of the game's best fielders at any position. A three-time Gold Glove award winner, Heyward is adept at saving runs, having averaged 23.6 Defensive Runs Saved per 162 games during his career. Even more remarkable is that the other advanced defensive statistics echo that value: For his work over the past four seasons, Baseball Prospectus's Fielding Runs Above Average credits Heyward with saving 21.1 runs per 162 games, and Ultimate Zone Rating puts him at 23.5 runs above average. In the current offensive environment, nine runs is the rough equivalent of one win, meaning Heyward's play in the field alone projects to be worth slightly more than 2.5 wins in the coming season.
On top of that, Heyward has been an above-average hitter (career: .268/.353/.431, 114 OPS+) and an above-average base runner, stealing 43 bases at an outstanding 86% success rate over the last two years and taking the extra base in 53% of his opportunities (compared to a 2015 major league average of 39%). Add those three aspects of his game together, and Heyward is easily a five-win player.
What made Heyward truly special as a free agent, however, is his age. Heyward just turned 26 in August; he is just one day younger than Anthony Rizzo and 3 1/2 years younger than the man he will replace in center for the Cubs, free agent Dexter Fowler. According to typical hitter aging patterns, Heyward still has his best seasons ahead of him. That’s why his deal is such a bargain for Chicago.
And there is no doubt it is a bargain. A few weeks ago, I ran Heyward through our What’s He Really Worth? formula and discovered that he projected to be worth more than $300 million over the next 10 years of his career. That estimate was met with considerable surprise, but Heyward is only now approaching his prime. Even if we assume that he won’t get any better in the coming seasons and will begin to decline in his age-29 season (per this defensive aging curve), he would be worth $269 million over the next eight years according to our formula (which estimates the 2016 cost of one Win Above Replacement at $6.851 million and a hitter’s decline as the loss of a half of a Win Above Replacement per season).
By that same formula, Heyward will be worth just less than $110.6 million in the next three seasons, after which he'll have his first opportunity to opt out, and more than $182 million in the next five years. With the market appearing to value Heyward at around $200 million (a figure both the Cardinals and Nationals reportedly offered), there was almost no way that a team could reasonably have overpaid him this winter.
The opt outs in Heyward's contract, however, undermine the bargain the Cubs appear to have struck. Had Chicago signed him to a firm eight-year deal, the team would have controlled him through his age-33 season, which is about the time he would be expected to have his value regress to near league average. Instead, he will have the option to opt out of his contract after his age-28 season in 2018, immediately before his gradual decline is projected to begin. That might seem like good timing for the Cubs, but Heyward will still be a very valuable player for several seasons beyond that point. Our projections have him worth more than four wins in both his age-29 and age-30 seasons and still being worth more than the $23 million average annual value of his new contract all the way through his age-33 season.
If he hits his projections for the next three years, however, Heyward is likely to demand a contract that pays him as much if not more per year even deeper into his 30s. Such a contract wouldn’t be nearly as good an investment as the final four or five years of this one. Heyward should be expected to exercise one of those opt-out clauses; a healthy player with his ability and track record is guaranteed to choose free agency over a contract that will delay his next free agency until his mid-30s.
The two opt-outs in Heyward’s contract effectively give him the ability to choose his next free-agent year. That decision could be influenced by not only his own performance but also by the list of other free agents in the year in question. Most significantly, Bryce Harper is due to become a free agent after the 2018 season, which would be after the third year of Heyward’s new deal. If Harper doesn’t sign an extension with Washington before then, Heyward could choose to wait the extra year so that he’s not overshadowed on the market. Either way, Heyward seems likely to become a free agent again before his age-30 season, at which point he will still be considered to be in his prime but will be a far riskier investment for a team than he was this off-season.
The Cubs' obvious focus here is the next three years. Chicago won 97 games in 2015 with a talented young team that posted the best record in baseball after June 30 (57–30, .655) and made it to the National League Championship Series. Since then, they have added Lackey to a rotation that lacked a reliable fifth starter; signed Zobrist; netted valuable swingman Adam Warren in the trade that sent Starlin Castro to the Yankees; and signed Heyward to replace Fowler. The 2016 Cubs also hope to have full seasons from each of their talented rookies from this past season, notably newly crowned NL Rookie of the Year Kris Bryant, plus shortstop Addison Russell, leftfielder Kyle Schwarber and rightfielder Jorge Soler.
The potential is there for Chicago to be frighteningly good in the coming season. Their projected batting order—Zobrist, Heyward, Bryant, Rizzo, Soler, Schwarber, catcher Miguel Montero and Russell—has no soft spots, boasts an enviable righty/lefty balance and is deep. The rotation is now led by NL Cy Young winner Jake Arrieta, Jon Lester and Lackey. The bullpen is well stocked with the re-signing of Trevor Cahill and the addition of Warren. The defense looks strong up the middle with Montero, Russell and Heyward. It will interesting to see how Heyward is impacted by the move to center and by possibly having to compensate for converted catcher Schwarber’s lack of mobility, but per Five Thirty Eight’s Ben Lindbergh, Wrigley Field has the fourth-smallest centerfield by square footage in the majors.
Having returned to contention a year ahead of schedule, the Cubs have taken the obvious next step of fleshing out their talented core with key free agents. All that remains is for them to snap their 70-year pennant-less streak and maybe even their 107-year World Series title drought. There's no guarantee that they will, but for one of the few times in the last century, all the pieces are in place for them to do so.