Jason Heyward, the modern-day WAR-rior with the mean, mean glove, will be a part of the Cubs for the next decade or so. He'll be a part of Cubs lore for the next 50 to 100 years. The question is if it's going to be the good kind of Cubs lore, or the Cubs kind of Cubs lore.
The last time the Cubs blew the doors off of free agency for an outfielder, it didn't work out for them. They signed Alfonso Soriano for eight years, $136 million, and by whatever traditional or newfangled measures you might prefer, it was a bust. After two All-Star seasons, Soriano slipped into the hacking abyss and his defense got worse. The Cubs have been reticent to spend hundreds of millions on one hitter since then.
Heyward, uh, isn't Alfonso Soriano. If you multiply Heyward by Soriano, you get 1. He's the exact opposite -- super defense with limited power, but well-rounded offensive skills. And he's pretty much a dream player for the Cubs, who are building a young juggernaut that's set up well for both the short and long term. Heyward doesn't shift the Cubs' window or sense of urgency; he fits the current one perfectly.
The great debate will rage on. Is Heyward really this good?, we ask as we metaphorically sip cappuccinos in a Parisian café and wonder what statistics hath wrought. Wins Above Replacement says yes, yes, a million times yes, that Heyward's defense and baserunning turn an above-average hitter into a world-class franchise cornerstone. And there's still the scary untapped potential. Ten extra homers and 30 points of on-base percentage every season could turn him into Mike Trout, give or take.
A traditional or even sabermetric look at his offensive stats, though, has to give everyone pause. We're all used to idea that defense matters a heckuva lot now, but let's check in with Heyward's hitting:
Dexter Fowler, 2012-2015
112 OPS+, .271 batting average, .368 on-base percentage, .422 slugging percentage, 50 home runs, 62 stolen bases
Jason Heyward, 2012-2015
114 OPS+, .273/.348/.433, 65 HR, 66 SB
It's almost too perfect. The Cubs enjoyed Fowler last year. Now they have to imagine a Fowler who is so good in the outfield, that he's worth an extra four wins every year. That sounds impossible, like he's Barry Allen, zipping to home plate to keep foul tips in catcher's mitts and zipping back before the human eye can notice. In 2014 alone, Heyward was worth an extra 4.6 defensive wins. That might translate to actual wins. The available evidence suggests it does. It's just hard to process.
That's why Tom Verducci had such an easy time finding people around baseball who saw Heyward's contract as a substantial risk. What if Heyward really is just a complementary player? What if he's good, not great, making great-player money for the better part of a decade?
It's a fair question. It's something most teams would have had to worry about, alright. The Cubs, though, are not one of those teams.
Ghost of Disappointment Future: Ha ha! It turns out that Jason Heyward is merely good and not great! *rattles chains* OoooOOooooooOOOOooooo, good not great, ooooOOOOOoooo.
Ghost of Disappointment Future: Dammit, scream or something.
Granted, the Ghost of Disappointment Past will be right behind them both and ready to bite their necks, but the Cubs more than any other team can gamble on Heyward being a complementary player. They aren't a team bringing him in to be a centerpiece. They aren't a moribund offense counting on him to hit in the middle of the order. He'll hit in between Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo, unless he's hitting in front of them, unless he's hitting behind Addison Russell and Ben Zobrist. They could put him anywhere in the lineup, and he would make sense. This will be true for the next few years, at least.
And that's if he's just an above-average player. If those defensive numbers are sound, or if Heyward taps into the latent potential that made people call him the J-Hey Kid in the first place, the Cubs just got exponentially better for a long, long time. If you're excited about the youth of Bryant and the potential of him being a Cub forever, note that Heyward is just 30 months older. Which isn't to say that Bryant is old, but that Heyward is still very much a young player. If the WAR is an accurate measure of his value, the Cubs just got an absolute steal.
Heyward might be overrated by the advanced statistics we can pull up on our phones, and in five or 10 years, we'll have moved on to the newest analytic frontier and wonder why the pendulum swung so far toward defense back in the wacky old days. If there's any team that could deal with that realization, it's the Cubs. That's how deep they are.
And if that day of sabermetric reckoning never comes, if Heyward really is as valuable as WAR suggests, then, oh my, are the Cubs set up beautifully. It wasn't a deal they had to make, but now that they've made it, doesn't it fit just perfectly?