There is no doubt Jason Heyward has been a pleasant surprise for the Chicago Cubs through the first half of the season. Despite his Gold Glove in the outfield, his performance at the plate had been miserable the last two years.
During 268 games in 2016 and 2017, his .243 batting average, .315 on-base and .353 slugging percentage looked like a slash line you’d see from a mediocre fourth outfielder. By also hitting a combined 18 home runs and 108 RBI during that run, it only exacerbated his woes on the north side.
Even before he signed an eight-year, $184 million contract in December 2015, no one had ever considered Heyward a high-end power guy or an above average hitter. While it was obvious the Cubs brought him in for his stellar defense, his offense was poorer than expected and made the contract hard to justify.
But something has clicked in the batter’s box for Heyward this season.
Through 77 games, Heyward is slashing .285/.344/.431 with six home runs and 41 RBI. Whether it’s less pressure or the “Chili Davis effect,” seeing him locked in at the plate makes his contract much easier to swallow.
What you’re seeing now is player the Cubs meant to pay for. Heyward’s first-half batting stats are similar to what he did with the Atlanta Braves and St. Louis Cardinals.
There’s no doubt that both Cubs fans and the organization would embrace a similar performance in the second half. Any extra production in an already stacked lineup is welcome, especially when the team is embarking on a second World Series championship in three seasons.
But it also could create a bigger headache after the season.
Manny Machado and Bryce Harper will be the most sought-after players this coming offseason. Trade rumors surrounding Machado and the Cubs have been prevalent since last winter, but links between Harper and the organization have been widespread for a couple of years.
Signing Harper this winter would have a ripple effect on the outfield. As a natural right fielder, he would be taking regular playing time from Heyward, Albert Almora, Kyle Schwarber and Ian Happ. Having five outfielders who are everyday players seems like a good problem to have, but that might be too difficult for even the Cubs’ brain trust to handle.
Before the season, Heyward easily would’ve been the sacrificial lamb due to his below-average offense in a Cubs’ uniform. Even if it meant eating a ton of his remaining money, Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer would’ve had little to no reservations about trading him to bring in a bat like Harper’s.
But if Heyward’s second half is on par or better than his first half, parting with him is not so simple.
Heyward not only is top-level defensive outfielder but also a clubhouse leader. If he turns a corner offensively as well, would the Cubs be better off keeping Heyward to spend that money elsewhere?
Moving Heyward would be difficult if they choose to sign to Harper. While his contract might not be an albatross when he’s hitting his career averages offensively, the remaining years and money on the deal still make him hard to trade or waive.
If the Cubs do find a team interested in Heyward, Tom Ricketts most likely would have to cut a steep check to the team that trades for him.
Let’s say they’re on the hook for half of Heyward’s remaining contract and sign Harper to a mega deal in the offseason. The Cubs would be investing anywhere between $300-400 million combined for their former and future right fielder.
Harper is a better option offensively. Over his seven-year career, he has a solid slash line of .277/.384 / .510 to go along with a .894 OPS. While he’s only hit more than 30 home runs in a season once, he still has plenty of pop and might generate a higher clip playing in a hitter-friendly park like Wrigley Field.
Despite a poor batting average and on-base percentage this season, he still leads the National League in both home runs (23) and walks (78). Whether it’s the looming free agency or pressure to carry a struggling Nationals team that’s causing a dip in batting average and OBP, don’t think it’s going to scare GMs away. Plenty of teams, including the Cubs, will still be interested.
Just the thought of adding his bat to a lineup featuring Schwarber, Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo and Javier Baez makes any Cub fan want to light up a cigarette in bed.
The warts on his game aren’t glaring but definitely noteworthy. His defense in right field is average at best, and he has a history of missing time due to injury. Does that warrant a major investment?
While the Cubs certainly aren’t crying poor, it’s worth asking given the team’s current situation. There are still a lot of young guys who are due big pay raises. Schwarber, Bryant, Baez and Addison Russell are just a handful of names set to cash in. Paying Harper a ton of money will restrict the number of player they can re-sign.
Whatever path Theo and Jed choose has merit.
Passing on Harper would allow them a better chance to re-sign more key pieces. They also would keep their current outfield rotation of Heyward, Schwarber, Almora and Happ intact. The foursome has been a strength for the Cubs, and they’re the envy of a lot of teams in the National League.
Signing Harper, on the other hand, could create some much needed addition by subtraction. Given his overall production and contractual situation, Heyward won’t net a Top 100 prospect or valuable major leaguer in a trade. However, the other three outfielders could be dangled to help restock the farm system or add a high-end starting pitcher to the rotation in 2019.
It would also prevent a logjam. For instance, trading Schwarber would allow Joe Maddon to plug Harper in left field, Almora/Happ in center and Heyward in right. If Almora or Happ are dealt, Heyward would platoon most likely in center field, and Harper would play his natural position in right.
Either scenario could end up working out for the Cubs. But prior to Heyward’s improvement at the plate this season, the decision this offseason would’ve been a no-brainer. And it’s very possible that he could go into a slump after the All-Star break, making this whole discussion pointless.
But if he doesn’t, then Theo and Jed have their work cut out for them this winter.