For the second straight game in this World Series, Jason Heyward was not in the Cubs’ lineup. The former right fielder, who slumped all the way to .230/.306/.325 this year (a 70 OPS+) after signing what has the potential to be an eight-year, $184 million deal this offseason, has essentially made into the most expensive defensive replacement in history. There’s little doubt, in fact, that keeping Heyward on the pine helps the Cubs chances to win their first championship since 1908. The mind boggles.
But eventually this World Series will end, and the Cubs will be faced with difficult choices. And among the most perplexing is what they should do with Heyward. He can’t be a defensive replacement for the rest of his Cubs tenure, after all, right? But to get him back in the lineup, the Cubs would have to make other changes that have the potential to hurt that vaunted lineup that helped the Cubs to 103 wins this year.
Essentially the choice comes down to this: Does Heyward stay or does he go?
It’s perfectly understandable to think the Cubs would be better off without Heyward in 2017 and beyond. After all, the Cubs seem to think they’re better off without him right now. And with Javier Baez’s emergence at second base pushing Ben Zobrist to left field, Kyle Schwarber’s successful return, and Albert Almora probably ready to take over in center field, there isn’t a clear spot for Heyward at the moment. And you don’t want to pay a guy $150 million to be your fourth outfielder for the next seven years.
But to get him to leave, the Cubs would have to pay a pretty high premium. If they released Heward, they would owe him the rest of the money on his contract, period. That seems pretty unlikely, especially after just a year.
If they traded him, his two opt-out clauses (after 2018 and 2019) complicate any deal. If Heyward gets good again, the chances are that he bolts after two more seasons. Then again, given the massive subsidy any team acquiring him would have to get, and how presumably inconsequential the prospect would probably be who would be exchanged, taking a chance on a resurgent Heyward would be tempting for a lot of teams in a poor free agent market.
Heyward is a 27 year old former star, a defensive whiz who hit .268/.353/.431 (114 OPS+) in his first six seasons. He displayed above average offensive skills pretty much across the board, with the exception of home run power. This year, something went horribly wrong. His BABIP dropped to .266 and he stopped hitting home runs entirely, while the rest of his underlying indicators (like BB%, K%, GB/FB) stayed well within his career norms.
The Cubs have access to this and so much more data, and have to suspect either something is physically wrong or that Heyward is somehow fixable. And I tend to agree with them. Players at this stage in their careers, with his track record, simply don’t fall apart like this unless there is an underlying issue. Fixing Heyward will necessarily have to be priority number one this offseason.
If Heyward stays, however, he’s likely to do so as next year’s center fielder. After his fantastic season, Dexter Fowler will almost certainly not exercise his half of a mutual option and elect to become a free agent. This will likely push Almora into a fourth outfielder role, allowing him to sub in for Schwarber late in the game as a defensive replacement.
It’s not an ideal situation. Heyward was stretched as a defender in center field before, and figures to have gotten no faster a year later. But, like any club, the Cubs will hit bumps in the road next year. And if they hold onto Heyward, the positional flexibility of Baez, Zobrist, and Schwarber give them the opportunity to shift their defensive alignment to account for an injury anywhere but catcher (where, presumably, Miguel Montero will be backing up Willson Contreras). The Heyward signing still has the time to pay dividends, and the Cubs seem to have every incentive to let him try to bounce back.