World Series Win Helps Justify Heyward’s Record Deal With Cubs

Jason Heyward has played 744 games for the Cubs, which is less than a third as either Ernie Banks or Billy Williams. But no one in the history of the franchise has been paid as much money as Heyward, and since 1908 only he and his teammates from 2016 have won a World Series.

Heyward has never been the hitter that Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer hoped he’d be when they signed him as a 25-year-old free agent. It’s been easy to question the eight-year, $184-million deal since he stumbled out of the gate, hitting .224 with one home run in his first 40 games with the Cubs.

This must have been an ordeal for Heyward at times, and it is finally on the verge of ending. Hoyer said on Monday that Heyward’s knee injury will probably keep him off the field the rest of the 2022 season, and more significantly that the team will release him after the season, with one year and $22 million left on his deal (in addition to the $5 million annually he’s due in 2024-27 as part of a deferred signing bonus).

Having traded Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant and Javier Baez at the deadline in 2021, the Cubs could have walked away from Heyward earlier. But it took until a 43-64 start to ’22 for Hoyer to admit it was time to open up playing time for younger outfielders like Christopher Morel, Nelson VelasVLX
quez and, once they’re ready, top prospects Brennan Davis, Kevin Alcantara and Pete Crow-Armstrong.

Heyward earned the benefit of the doubt by being a good teammate, mentor and loyal soldier. He seemed to understand the circumspection that comes with the $23 million average annual value in his contract and seldom, if ever, let himself feel sorry for himself as he put up underwhelming totals, including a slash line of .245/.323/.377 as a Cub.

But Heyward was always a lot more than just a hitter. He was a terrific fielder, winning five Gold Gloves in right, and a textbook baserunner. He helped set the tone for the Cubs’ rise to prominence in the National League, providing a strong clubhouse presence. His speech during the rain delay to start the 10th inning of Game Seven in the ’16 World Series was arguably the signature moment of his career.

“In a lot of ways, he was an emotional leader of a group of players that broke the curse here and provided fans with memories for a lifetime,” Hoyer told reporters at Wrigley Field. “He should be remembered that way, as well.”

How bad was Heyward’s contract?

Bad, but maybe not quite as bad as you may think.

Consider this: When Heyward signed the deal, the industry expectation was that every $9.6 million spent on a free agent player would produce 1 Win Above Replacement, according to calculations by Fangraphs.

That means Heyward needed to produce only 19.2 WARAR
over eight years to make the deal cost-efficient. He was close to being on track in his first four years, accumulating 7.7 rWAR (calculated by the website Baseball Reference). But his decline since Covid-19 delayed and shortened the 2020 season — also since he turned 30 — leaves him at only 8.9 rWAR (or 8.8 fWAR, if you prefer the Fangraphs model).

Heyward, who was dynamite playing for St. Louis against the Cubs in the 2015 Division Series, hit .120 in 27 postseason games as a Cub. He was 3-for-20 with no runs scored or RBIs in the 2016 World Series. But after his clubhouse speech, Ben Zobrist and Miguel Montero drove in runs and Mike Montgomery nailed down the win, triggering the wildest celebration in the franchise’s history.

The World Series parade? As the MastercardMA
commercial says, it was priceless.