Since the Cubs finally won their first championship in over a century in 2016, the mantra of “this will be our year [to win it all]” has been replaced with a new mantra for a new kind of futility – Jason Heyward’s offensive production. After signing a US$184 million contract with the Cubs before the 2016 season, he has regressed at the plate in a manner deemed “unprecedented” for a player not battling a significant injury by this piece in the Athletic (paywall), going from a career OPS+ of 114 before joining the Cubs to an OPS+ of 76 after two seasons on the North Side. The new mantra for Cubs fans is “this will be the year they fix Heyward” after the five-time Gold Glove winner spent the 2016-17 offseason overhauling his swing (to little avail) and the Cubs hired a new hitting coach for the 2018 season (avail TBD).
Baseball Reference is showing a lot less optimism, however, as its 2018 projections are very similar to his 2017 line, predicting he will slash .257/.328/.389, against .259/.326/.389 for 2017. I concur with these projections since I subscribe to the view of coaches as expressed by Jim Bouton in his classic Ball Four – that their advice is trite and fairly useless most of the time and they get their positions by dint of being buddies with the manager. Therefore, I don’t hold out much hope that Chili Davis is going to have the magic fix for Heyward’s offensive woes. The aforementioned Athletic piece discusses the fact that he has always had a swing that scouts hate, even during his best seasons, so the problems he has been experiencing in Chicago are mental in nature. This makes sense given that Heyward signed a big contract and was probably feeling the pressure to perform and help lead the Cubs to a title in 2016, and this pressure was compounded in 2017 by the fact that the Cubs did win the World Series in 2016 in spite of that their right fielder was the weakest link in the offense.
Armchair GM Cubs fans love to complain about how Heyward should be a 30-30 or 40-40 player given that he signed such a big contract, proving why they aren’t getting paid the big bucks for their analytical prowess. There have been plenty of jokes going around Twitter about how NuSchwarbs could be a 40-40 guy thanks to his upgraded physique, but expecting anything similar out of Heyward is utterly ludicrous to anyone who can read a stat line. Heyward was not a major power source prior to joining the Cubs, proven by his slugging percentage of .429 over 5 seasons with Atlanta and .439 over 1 season with St. Louis, as well as a total of 97 home runs during those 6 seasons (an average of 16 per year). When they signed him, what the Cubs thought they were getting was a Gold Glove defender, clubhouse leader and decent offensive contributor who could come up in the clutch (as seen in the 2015 STL vs. CHC NLDS). What they’ve gotten is a Gold Glove defender, clubhouse leader and hitter who consistently rolls over the ball. All the Cubs should reasonably be asking for in order to continue putting Heyward in the lineup on a daily basis is an improvement in BA, OBP and situational hitting. The Cubs set a franchise record in 2017 with 6 players hitting over 20 home runs, but fans should not be expecting Heyward to number among them in the future. Instead, they should be looking for him to be along for the ride when the ball gets launched by his teammates.
Armchair GM Cubs fans are also creaming their jeans over the possibility of replacing Heyward with Bryce Harper when he hits free agency. My position on this possibility is – and has always been – keep dreaming, fools! Heyward’s regression means that few teams would likely be very willing to take on his salary via trade and the return would be less than optimal. The Cubs need to restock their once-elite farm system in order to get to a new window of contention after the current one expires. A decision to sign Harper would also likely mean a decision by the front office not to attempt to resign Kris Bryant given that Bryant would command a similar salary to Harper in free agency (projected US$400-$500 million long-term contract). In addition, Heyward and Bryant are both easygoing, low-ego individuals. Harper, in my judgment, is a massive tool with an equally massive ego who previously fought with a hot-headed teammate and got throttled. That’s not really what you want from a player on a contending large-market team like the Cubs. Harper has also been the star of every team that he’s played on since he was a kid. I have a hard time believing he would be able to cope with playing second fiddle to Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo. Lastly, I would like to point out that he has failed to post a 100 RBI season despite winning the sportswriters’ position player popularity contest in 2015. You know who did rack up over 100 RBIs in his MVP season the following year? Kris Bryant.
Take that, armchair GMs!
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