Jason Heyward Splash Puts World Series-Chasing Chicago Cubs on Top of MLB

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterDecember 11, 2015

St. Louis Cardinals' right fielder Jason Heyward at bat against the Philadelphia Phillies during the sixth inning of a baseball game Tuesday, April 28, 2015, in St. Louis. The Cardinals won the game 11-5. (AP Photo/Billy Hurst)
Billy Hurst/Associated Press

The Chicago Cubs haven't won the World Series in 107 years. If they have it their way, the counter won't reach 108 years.

And man, oh man, do they appear to be serious about that.

Fresh off a thrilling 97-win season and a trip to the National League Championship Series in 2015, Cubs bosses Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer have been busy making moves meant to take them even further in 2016. By far the biggest of these went down Friday. 

As Gordon Wittenmyer of the Chicago Sun-Times was first to report, the Cubs have agreed to terms with star right fielder Jason Heyward:

According to Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports, Heyward's deal is for eight years and $184 million. Hall of Fame journalist Peter Gammons notes the deal also contains two opt-outs, with Jesse Rogers of ESPN Chicago reporting the first comes after three years. So, understand that this is less of an eight-year contract and more of an "eight-year contract."

Still, an eight-year, $184 million pact for a 26-year-old who was, by my estimation, the top player left on the market going into Friday qualifies as a sweet deal. For the Cubs, that's just another on the pile.

The Cubs had already made a couple of splashes before signing Heyward. They dropped $32 million on veteran right-hander John Lackey and $56 million on veteran utility man Ben Zobrist. They've also rounded out their pitching depth by bringing back Trevor Cahill and bringing in Adam Warren.

Next to the addition of Heyward, however, these splashes look like mere ripples.

Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press

As recently as 10 or 15 years ago, much of the baseball world wouldn't have had a lot of appreciation for Heyward. It would have looked at him and seen a .268 career hitter with only modest power and good-not-great speed. Sure, his fielding was great, but not good enough for those pedestrian numbers.

But now, we know better.

Among other things, we now have wins above replacement! It so happens that WAR has loved Heyward ever since he came into the league in 2010. In six seasons, the former Atlanta Brave and St. Louis Cardinal checks in as one of MLB's 10 most valuable position players on Baseball-Reference.com's WAR leaderboard.

Top Position Players: 2010-2015
RankPlayerGWAR
1Robinson Cano95339.8
2Adrian Beltre88639.3
3Miguel Cabrera89838.7
4Mike Trout65237.9
5Andrew McCutchen92935.8
6Joey Votto80435.2
7Jose Bautista82833.8
8Jason Heyward83531.2
9Evan Longoria84030.8
10Ben Zobrist89330.7
Baseball-Reference.com

Of course, we can debate exactly where Heyward belongs on the pantheon of the league's great position players. Where there's no debate nowadays, though, is that he is indeed a great player.

Heyward's .784 career OPS isn't great, but it's good enough to qualify him as an above-average hitter. And with a strong eye, a consistent contact habit and solid power, Heyward's bat offers something for everyone.

We also know Heyward brings it on the bases and on defense. Regarding the former, simply pointing out that he's stolen over 20 bases in three of the past four seasons actually undersells the work he does with his speed and instincts. On defense, those things plus a strong, accurate arm have made him baseball's highest-rated defender in his six seasons.

“That’s his real strength – how many different ways he can help you win a game,” said Cardinals outfielder Matt Holliday of his now-former teammate back in September, per Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “I think his kind of player was valuable 15 years ago, it’s valuable now, and it might even be more tangible statistically than ever. Maybe his style of play gets more attention.”

Mind you, this is not to say Heyward doesn't come with any risk. He could cost the Cubs as much as $184 million if he forgoes his opt-outs, so he's plenty risky on that front alone. And though he's absurdly young for a free agent, we noted recently that Heyward won't be much to look at if his baserunning and defense abandon him.

But for every risk, there's a potential reward. And where these Cubs are concerned, the potential reward of signing Heyward is definitely something for North Siders to be excited about.

NEW YORK, NY - OCTOBER 17:  Joe Maddon #70 of the Chicago Cubs high fives his team during player introductions prior to game one of the 2015 MLB National League Championship Series against the New York Mets at Citi Field on October 17, 2015 in the Flushin
Mike Stobe/Getty Images

The one wrinkle is that it doesn't sound like the Cubs are going to be using him in right field. Center field is where they have an opening, and Jon Morosi of Fox Sports has reported the Cubs "appear willing" to use Heyward there.

Ordinarily, the idea of taking a high-priced right fielder and moving him to center would be an idea with the "Disasters" label on it. But Heyward is an exception. He has played center field in the past, and August Fagerstrom of FanGraphs is of the mind that "Jason Heyward is going to be Jason Heyward, wherever he plays."

After 2015, Heyward being Heyward in center field must have a nice ring to it for the Cubs. By one measure, their center field defense was among the worst in baseball in 2015. Heyward in center field should help fix that, at least until prized center field prospect Albert Almora is ready.

So, that's one area where the Cubs have improved this winter. And now for the fun part of counting off a few others!

Nick Wass/Associated Press

It was mainly thanks to a 50-win second half that the Cubs won 97 games in 2015. A big ingredient in that was Chicago's offense getting its stuff together. After OPS'ing just .690 in the first half, Chicago's offense OPS'd .754 in the second half.

Thanks to that, we now know what can happen when the likes of Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber all click at once. They haven't gone anywhere, and now they'll be batting behind two new table-setters. Heyward figures to bat leadoff in front of Zobrist in the No. 2 hole, giving the Cubs a kind of power-contact dynamic they didn't have in 2015.

Throw in the high-ceiling bats of Addison Russell and Jorge Soler and the steady bat of Miguel Montero, and Matt Snyder of CBS Sports is right about Chicago's lineup suddenly looking loaded:

Meanwhile, there's what the Cubs have on the mound.

That's where they didn't necessarily need to upgrade. According to FanGraphs, Jake Arrieta and Jon Lester led a charge that put the Cubs rotation atop MLB in WAR in 2015. Led by Hector Rondon and Pedro Strop, their bullpen finished fourth in the league in WAR.

But why let a good thing lie when you can make it even better?

Paul Beaty/Associated Press

Lackey is coming off a 2.77 ERA across 218 innings in 2015, so he looks like an excellent No. 3 starter even if we assume he's due for some regression. Cahill and Warren, meanwhile, can work either as long relievers and spot starters or as late-inning firemen. With them aboard, the Cubs have one of the deeper and more versatile bullpens around.

When you get out your abacus and add up what the Cubs are now packing, you're left with very few, if any, things to rant and rave about. We're looking at a team that won 97 games in 2015 and has upgraded its offense, defense, starting rotation and bullpen.

The Cubs haven't been the busiest team in baseball this winter. There's a team in Seattle that has a strong claim to that title. But if we're talking about already good teams that have taken steps toward greatness this winter, that's where the Cubs have owned the spotlight.

On paper, the Cubs look way more loaded than the Cardinals and Pittsburgh Pirates, their two big NL Central rivals. The same goes for the New York Mets. And the Los Angeles Dodgers. And the...well, here's a better idea: Go ahead and name a team that is more loaded than the Cubs at this juncture.

[Pause]

Pretty hard, right?

Darn right it is. And though it's too soon to assume the Cubs are going to remain on top of MLB, for now it's hard to argue that's not where they are. They became a championship-caliber team in 2015, and all they've done this season is press their advantage.

Clearly, they've had about enough of that damn billy goat. After 107 years, you would too.

Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs unless otherwise noted/linked.

Follow zachrymer on Twitter 

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