The Chicago Cubs shortstop wears No. 22. So does new teammate Jason Heyward. Not that you need more reasons to like the Cubs after they agreed to a reported eight-year deal with the free-agent outfielder, but Russell's immediate deference to the veteran -- come on, at least negotiate a new Rolex for that number! -- shows a team with talent and chemistry and, yes, good karma. The last time the Cubs had all that working for them: 1908.
This move is the capper to the rebuilding job by team president Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer over the past several years, from making brilliant trades to acquire Anthony Rizzo and Addison Russell, to tanking to get high draft picks, to making the right picks in guys such as Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber, to having the money to spend on free agents such as Jon Lester and now Heyward, in part because they've built a young and inexpensive core. This is the blueprint other losing teams are attempting to follow.
Good luck with that because it's not all front-office brilliance: There obviously have been fortuitous events along the way. Who would have expected Jake Arrieta to emerge into a Cy Young Award winner? To draft Bryant, the Cubs needed the Houston Astros to pass on him and instead select Mark Appel. Manager Joe Maddon became available to hire only because Andrew Friedman left the Tampa Bay Rays for the Los Angeles Dodgers, activating an out clause in his contract.
But here we are: All that did happen. The Cubs arrived a year earlier than expected in 2015, winning 97 games and advancing to the National League Championship Series. They'll head into 2016 as the World Series favorite -- no matter what happens the rest of the offseason -- after signing Heyward, Ben Zobrist and John Lackey to that strong core. Players want to play for Maddon; that makes the free-agent recruiting process a little easier.
For now, Heyward slots in center field. How's this for a lineup?
CF Jason Heyward
2B Ben Zobrist
3B Kris Bryant
1B Anthony Rizzo
LF Kyle Schwarber
RF Jorge Soler
SS Addison Russell
Heyward has been maligned for his lack of power, but I think he has grown comfortable in understanding what kind of hitter he is: get on base, pop a few home runs, run the bases. He's entering his age-26 season, so the Cubs get his prime years. There's a small chance he improves at the plate, but I wouldn't bet on that. Still, he projects as valuable a player over the life of the contract due to his defense and on-base ability. That's a lineup with on-base skills at the top, power in the middle and depth all the way through. The bench is versatile, and along with Zobrist's flexibility, Maddon has a lot of toys with which to play.
The rotation lines up as Arrieta, Lester, Lackey, Kyle Hendricks and Jason Hammel, with Adam Warren and Travis Wood as long relievers. The rest of the bullpen is solid with closer Hector Rondon, plus Pedro Strop, Justin Grimm and Trevor Cahill.
You can look foolish projecting a team to win 100 games, but this looks like a 100-win team, even accounting for regression from Arrieta. Bryant and Russell should be even better in 2016; the defense will be better with a full season from Russell at shortstop and Heyward in the outfield. The rotation and bullpen are both a little deeper. The Cincinnati Reds and Milwaukee Brewers are expected to be awful, pushing the Cubs even closer to that 100-win mark.
The Cubs might not be done. Much of Heyward's value over the years has been his defense in right field. While he certainly can handle center field -- he has started 30 games there in his career -- he's probably not going to save 20 to 30 runs like he does in right. Considering Soler and Schwarber are both below-average defenders, the Cubs may want to keep Heyward in right and find another center fielder. How about Soler to the Atlanta Braves for Ender Inciarte, the superb fly chaser the Braves just acquired in the Shelby Miller trade?
You don't win anything in December; hey, I just wrote about that. But this has already been an offseason to remember for the Cubs.
We're not really talking about draft picks, are we? Heyward is one of the best players in baseball. This is a monumental loss.— viva el birdos (@vivaelbirdos) December 11, 2015
Then there's the other side of things. The St. Louis Cardinals, who have kicked the Cubs around for decades, lost out on Heyward and Lackey to them after losing out on the David Price bidding war as well. There was a lot of bitterness on the ol' Internet from Cardinals fans after the Heyward signing was announced. The Cardinals signed a $1 billion, 15-year local TV deal in August that kicks in for the 2018 season, a huge increase over their current deal that pays an estimated $30 million per season.
Their big move so far this offseason has been tendering a contract to Brandon Moss rather than letting him walk.
But there are plenty of players out there for the Cardinals to spend their money on: Outfielders Alex Gordon and Justin Upton make sense, especially with Matt Holliday in the final year of his contract; first baseman Chris Davis would be the power bat they need, if expensive and somewhat risky considering his poor 2014 season; and Johnny Cueto has some bad blood with the Cardinals, but he's the best remaining starter on the market.
The Cardinals didn't get Heyward, but they'll get somebody.
So cheer up, Cardinals fans, the offseason isn't over yet.