A hearty thank you to Chicago Cubs outfielder Jason Heyward who very well may end up being the most valuable player of the offseason for the St. Louis Cardinals.
Heyward decided not to opt out of the controversial contract he signed with the Cubs after one year with the Redbirds. It was a no-brainer for him. In the three years since he inked his Chicago pact, Heyward has been a .258 hitter who has averaged but nine home runs a season with a .395 slugging percentage while playing right field, a spot typically reserved for a prolific slugger.
Three years into his $184 million Cubs contract, Heyward is still owed $106 million through 2023. Simply put, he’d be a fool to walk away from that money this year — or at any other opt out point in the deal because he’s not going to come anywhere close to that kind of money from another team if he did. If he reaches 550 plate appearances in 2019, he’ll have a chance to opt out of his contract at the end of the 2019 season.
It’s difficult to imagine a situation in which Heyward could be traded, unless it’s for another bad contract. So, the Cubs are probably locked into paying an average of a little bit more than $20 million a year for the next half-decade and, hopefully that’s going to tie the Cubs hands in acquiring needs in other areas. Add to that the fact that the Cubs were able to engineer a surprising deal to retain starting pitcher Cole Hamels, shipping off Drew Smyley in trade to allow the team to afford to pick up Hamels’ $20-million option and it makes it difficult to imagine that Chicago is a player for the likes of top 2019 free agent Bryce Harper.
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While the Cubs are basically their own license to print money, their ownership has at least hinted that it’s at the top of its budget. That makes a lot of sense because the cheap, young team of 2016 is a little bit older and it’s becoming a lot more expensive. Chicago has a ton of money tied up in its aging pitching staff including $25 million owed to Jon Lester for the upcoming season and a $10 million buyout for 2020, $101 million owed to Yu Darvish over the next five seasons and $25.5 million owed over the next two seasons to Tyler Chatwood.
Another decision made years ago, the one where the Cubs left Kris Bryant in Arizona at the beginning of the season his rookie year to prevent him from reaching free agency for another year, could also play against Chicago if the team hopes to sign Harper. Bryant and Harper are buddies, so some people have assumed that they’d want to unite to finish their careers with Chicago. But, thanks in part to the Cubs’ short-sighted move, Bryant rebuffed the team’s effort to sign him to a contract extension during the recently completed season. If the Cubs signed Harper to a record-setting contract, they’re going to be forced to match it or top it to keep their homegrown star happy. That could be $800 million invested in just two players.
The Cubs have a youthful and talented core of players. But they’re becoming less affordable all the time, so the team is going to have to make some tough decisions this off-season and in the years to come.