With one decision Friday, free agent Jason Heyward reshaped and redefined a rivalry.
After negotiations intensified this past week, Heyward chose the ascending Chicago Cubs over the established Cardinals, a team that made a robust offer and had spent the previous summer wooing him with their culture. Heyward agreed to an eight-year, $184 million contract with the Cubs that will be finalized after a physical, according to multiple sources. Two sources confirmed for The Post-Dispatch that the Cardinals’ offer was greater in guaranteed value while the Cubs’ had the higher annual average value, at $23 million a year.
For the second time this winter, the Cardinals reached for the best available free agent at his position and came up short despite newly aggressive financial offers to go with organization’s decorated history and packed-house atmosphere, traits the team has relied on as its strongest enticements. With lefty David Price, the Cardinals fell shy on the money. With Heyward, the Cardinals kept up with the bidding but were unable to secure the contract.
The archrival Cubs have financial might – and can sell a future.
This winter, the Cubs have used some payroll elasticity to commit $272 million to free agents Heyward, Ben Zobrist and pitcher John Lackey. Heyward, the youngest major free agent in at least a decade, joins a young core that are his contemporaries, including Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo. He’ll provide a lot of what the Cubs did not have in 2015: a superb outfielder and baserunner, he’ll improve the defense, possibly by starting his Cubs career in center.
Signaling a shift in the division with two of the three big-splash signings, the Cubs have signed two of the Cardinals’ top four contributors from the 2015 team. Lackey had a career-low ERA and led the Cardinals’ rotation with Adam Wainwright on the disabled list, and Heyward was a dynamo in right field and a steadily improving contributor at the plate. Heyward had a career-high .293 average to go with 13 home runs and 60 RBIs. Starting last winter with their successful pursuit of lefty Jon Lester, the Cubs have lobbied free agents with the chance to be part of the team’s first World Series championship since 1908 and thus legends in the Windy City.
With the Cubs signing Lackey and Heyward, the Cardinals will receive two additional picks in the 2016 draft and the Cubs will lose two. According to MLB Network’s Peter Gammons, Heyward’s contract includes two opt-out clauses, including one after three years, that will allow Heyward two different chances to re-enter free agency before turning 31. The Cardinals expected to also have an opt-out in any offer and were not averse to one. Washington also pursued Heyward but didn’t appear to be seriously in the running.
Without Heyward, the Cardinals, who won 100 games and the past three National League Central division titles, now pivot to other options for their lineup or rotation.
This past week at the annual winter meetings, Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak and his staff continued working on alternative moves should Heyward not accept their offer. The free-agent market still has options in the outfield, with Justin Upton and Alex Gordon having been discussed by the Cardinals. Upton, just two years older than Heyward, has the better power profile, with at least 25 homers in four of the past five seasons. Gordon is similar to Heyward with a Gold Glove-reputation in left field, but since he’s about to turn 32 he’ll command a short contract.
The Cardinals have also kept apprised of the market for slugger Chris Davis, a first baseman who has been linked to his former team, Baltimore, and its reported $150 million offer.
The Cardinals could also tack in a different direction. They continue to be interested in signing a starting pitcher and have been linked to Mike Leake. The Cardinals have had discussions about outfielder Carlos Gonzalez with Colorado, and the Rockies are open to trading outfielders Gonzalez or Charlie Blackmon. Gonzalez, 30, had 40 homers in 2015 and has two years and $37 million remaining on his contract. Blackmon, 29, is a leadoff hitter, and while it’s unclear if the Cardinals are interested it is the style of batter the Cardinals could consider. Free agent Gerardo Parra may be a more appealing target, as the arrival of a leadoff hitter would allow the Cardinals to move homer-leader Matt Carpenter down, into the heft of the order.
Team officials do not comment until contracts are finalized.
Cubs players weren’t as silent.
“Lackey, Zobrist, & J-Hey,” NL rookie of the year Bryant tweeted, following it with a series of three wide-eyed emoji. “Cubbies comin (sic) in hot!!”
The Cardinals acquired Heyward a year ago in a four-player swap with the Atlanta Braves. After the death of outfielder Oscar Taveras, the Cardinals felt they had to upgrade right field and sent starter Shelby Miller and prospect Tyrell Jenkins to the Braves for Heyward and reliever Jordan Walden. Miller has since gone on to help Atlanta speed its rebuilding process by netting Arizona’s top two prospects in a deal this past week. The Cardinals hoped to spend the season pitching Heyward into staying long-term, becoming part of the team’s next core along with Carpenter.
The Cardinals did not approach Heyward about an extension during the season per his wishes, Mozeliak said. Heyward repeatedly said that he wanted the time to get comfortable with his surroundings without distractions. Even as the sides had talks this winter, Mozeliak described how the Cardinals wanted to be cognizant of Heyward’s preferred approach.
“We’re not at a point where we have to draw a line in the sand,” Mozeliak said Wednesday. “If we decide not to go after something then we either feel that in the end — if we continue to wait — we’re not going to get to where we need to go, then we best look at other solutions. … Understanding our own net-net is what we have to do.”
Mozeliak used “net-net” to describe how the Cardinals ultimately exit what has, thus far, been an unkind offseason. The Cubs ended the Cardinals’ season by eliminating them in the National League division series and now have signed two key contributors. As if that long overdue clash in October wasn’t enough, the Cubs have made it clear they’re the challenger to the Cardinals’ crown – on the field, during negotiations and in the minds of free agents.
Hochman: So what should the Cardinals do now?