Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Cubs Team to Beat

The revamped Cubs could win 100 games next year (CBS Chicago)
The Chicago Cubs didn't have to make any major splashes this offseason. They could have consolidated after winning 97 games last year, banking on improvement from youngsters like Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber to cover decline from aging veterans and departing talent. The Cubs would have been completely justified in making a few minor tweaks and leaving their roster as is, letting their young core blossom into perennial contenders..

Instead, Chicago has been the most active team in free agency thus far. They dipped their toe into this year's deep talent pool by poaching John Lackey away from the Cardinals. Then they stole Ben Zobrist from a market that underrates his skills.

But those deals were mere appetizers for the main course, which was served last Friday. Chicago capped a whirlwind week by picking St. Louis's pocket yet again, wooing Jason Heyward from their division rivals.

In just one week, the balance of power shifted not only in the NL Central, but all of baseball. The Cubs have established themselves as the team to beat next year, a team with 100-win potential. That's why Heyward turned down more money to play elsewhere. He wants to be on the World Series favorites.

I already wrote about how much I like the Lackey deal--a short-term bet on one of the game's better starting pitchers--so now please indulge me as I examine the Zobrist and Heyward deals.

At four years and $56 million, Zobrist is a veritable bargain in spite of his age (he'll be 35 in the spring). Consider that last year, Victor Martinez got more money over the same number of years despite being a) one year older when he signed his contract and b) a full-time designated hitter. Nelson Cruz, another DH-type, got virtually the same contract, and while his has worked out so far it will get ugly fast if his home run power disappears, which can happen overnight for a player his age.

Zobrist has been much better than either of those guys and is younger, He's quietly been the fifth-most valuable position player in baseball over the past seven seasons, out-WAR'ing all but the game's truest superstars (Mike Trout, Miguel Cabrera, Joey Votto, and Andrew McCutchen). While his defense went south last year and he didn't make the same impact on the bases that he usually does, at least part of that can be blamed on his midseason knee surgery. His balky knee didn't slow his bat, however, which remained as robust as ever despite injuries and a midseason trade to Kansas City.

Even if his defense and baserunning never recover, Zobrist will earn his paycheck as long as he keeps hitting like last year, when he was worth $16.4 million basically on his bat alone. If his hitting starts to slow too, however, then he'll be a bust. But seeing as how he's showed no signs of slowing down at the plate, the Cubs have no reason to worry just yet.

It was fitting that the deal for a long under-appreciated player was soon overshadowed by a monster contract attached to a much bigger name. Jason Heyward has been a breakoit candidate ever since scouts compared his likeness to Ken Griffey, Jr. during his rookie season. Heyward has failed to live up to those lofty expectations, instead settling into something just shy of a superstar. Skill-wise, he falls into the same category as Zobrist and Alex Gordon, but with the added benefit of being much, much younger.

Heyward is the rare free agent whose prime years are just about to begin rather than come to an end. So if Zobrist--the former type of player--is a bargain, Heyward's an absolute steal. Heyward has been one of the dozen-best position players in baseball since beginning his career in 2010 (notice the player right above him on that list). He's an excellent baserunner, a three-time Gold Glove winner, and a solid hitter. It's not worth discussing whether he'll be worth the eight years and $184 million (spoiler alert: he will be) because he'll opt out by the end of the decade, but when he does you can bet it will be for as much as or more than what he just accepted.

What's funny is that Zobrist and Heyward are essentially the same player. They both walk a lot, hit for medium power, have a bit of speed, and are plus defenders. While not great at any one thing, they are good at everything, and that's what makes them so valuable. Zobrist has played every position save pitcher and catcher, while Heyward can play anywhere in the outfield.

The Cubs seem likely to install the latter in center field, where he's only played sporadically. Still, Heyward can't be much worse than the man he's replacing out there--Dexter Fowler, who's provided positive defensive value just twice in his eight year-career according to Baseball-Reference. Thanks to his youth and athleticism, Heyward's one of the few corner outfielders capable of making the transition to center, as usually players go the other way.

So forget the Royals; the Cubs are baseball's model franchise. Their whip-smart front office has assembled a juggernaut around solid drafting, saavy free agent signings, and great trades. As for their latest spending spree, the rest of baseball should take note. If you're going to spend close to $300 million on free agents, this is the way to do it. Not, you know, how the Red Sox do it.

No comments:

Post a Comment