Meet the New Cubs: Jason Heyward

Switching Sides: Heyward’s Move from Cards to Cubs a Game-Changer

First in a 5-part series looking at the Cubs’ key offseason acquisitions and how they will fit into the team’s 2016 picture

By Randy Richardson

The Cubs could have been content. After all, they’d already added pitchers John Lackey and Adam Warren and the versatile Ben Zobrist to a young team that last year won 97 games and advanced all the way to the NLCS.

But they weren’t. No, not even close. They still had a missing piece of the puzzle to fill. At the time they’d thought that they’d be losing to free agency Dexter Fowler, a key piece of last season’s surprising team as its center fielder, leadoff hitter and veteran leader.

As it turned out, they didn’t have that big hole to fill. This week, Dexter Fowler surprised the baseball world by returning to the Cubs on a one-year deal after rejecting a more lucrative three-year deal with the Orioles.

Adding Heyward to the mix of Fowler, Jorge Soler and Kyle Schwarber gives the Cubs what might be the most potent outfield foursome in all of baseball.

The offseason acquisition of Heyward, free agency’s biggest position player prize, to an eight-year, $184 million deal, stunned many baseball insiders. The Cubs not only strengthened their own team but in turn weakened the archrival St. Louis Cardinals, who looked to be the odds-on favorite in the Heyward sweepstakes.

It was the kind of big splashy signing that they didn’t necessarily have to make. They already had a strong base of young talent that looked poised to contend again. Their fans, all-hyped up after last season’s playoff run, would still be coming to Wrigley Field in throngs.

Yet the fact that they did it shows that they’re going for it – that championship that has eluded them for 108 years. It also means that already high expectations now are through the roof.

Heyward seems worth the investment. He’s that special kind of player that you might not always notice but does so many things to win games. Last season, Heyward posted a 6.5 WAR, the highest of any Cardinal position player by a considerable margin. No Cub position player had a higher WAR last season, though Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant came close at 6.3 and 6.0, respectively. At only 26 years of age, Heyward is seen as an all-around player: one of the best in baseball in defensive runs saved and a solid hitter with better-than-average speed.

To the Cubs, Heyward brings much-needed defense and speed. In 2015, his first with the Cardinals, he batted .293 with a .359 OBP, 13 homers and 60 RBI. He also stole 23 bases. Over his six-year career, the former first-round pick of the Braves has a .268 BA, .353 OBP, 97 HR, 352 RBI and 86 SB. In three of his six seasons, he’s posted a WAR above 6.

FanGraphs is a believer. The analytical baseball site’s Dave Cameron ranked the Heyward signing at No. 6 of offseason moves by all baseball teams.

While Heyward has spent most of his six-year major league career in right field, the prevailing wisdom before the surprise return of Fowler was that he’d be playing center for the Cubs – a notion that team manager Joe Maddon didn’t disspell, stating over the winter that he’d have “no problem” moving him to center and comparing the three-time Gold Glove winner to another outfielder who played for both the Cubs and the Cards: Jim Edmonds.

FanGraph’s August Fagestrom was high on Heyward as a Cub even before the team made the signing, writing: “Even if Heyward were to struggle in his transition, the elite level he’s established in right field would seem to indicate that he’s more than capable of making the transition while still providing plus defense in center.”

It’s a challenge that Heyward seems ready to accept. He told the MLB Network he “feels comfortable” in center. “I always loved the position (center),” Heyward told MLB’s Hot Stove show.

Heyward gives the Cubs a lot of defensive versatility. With the Fowler addition, it now seems likely that Heyward will be moving around the outfield, platooning at center and in right, where Soler had been slated, and possibly even in left with Schwarber.

Whatever it takes to get Heyward first World Series ring. If he gets in as a Cub he will have cemented himself in team lore. “There’s always been a good atmosphere (in Wrigley Field), whether they’ve had a good team on the field, or not so good,” he told MLB’s Hot Stove show when asked why he chose the Cubs over all the other suitors. “Right now, there’s some special things to be excited about with this group, and I’m just looking forward to being a part of it for the next eight years.”

Randy Richardson is the author of the Wrigleyville murder mystery, Lost in the Ivy, and a regular contributor to Wrigleyville Nation.