CHICAGO -- How times have changed for the Chicago Cubs. The front office had to sell its master plan to potential free agents in the past, but now the success and “vibe” are bringing them in -- and for less money.
The latest to sign for a lower total deal is outfielder Jason Heyward, who admittedly figured the young Cubs were a better fit for him over the St. Louis Cardinals, who might be facing a bit of a transition phase in the coming years. That’s not a reporter’s opinion -- that’s Heyward’s.
“I know I keep hitting on this but being 26 years old and knowing that my contract would probably put me in any clubhouse for longer than most people there, you have to look at age, how fast the team is changing and how soon those changes may come about,” Heyward said Tuesday afternoon. “You have Yadi [Molina] who is going to be done in two years, maybe. You have Matt Holliday who’s probably going to be done soon. Jon Jay and Tony Cruz (are) gone. [Adam] Wainwright is going to be done in 3-4 years ... If I were to look up in three years and saw a completely different team that would be kind of different for me.”
That’s as honest as it gets and hits home a huge point: The Cardinals are still a class organization, but the Cubs have entered their airspace. Not in terms of championships, of course, but with the vibe -- a word used often in discussing the Cubs on Tuesday. The Cubs have created something out of nothing -- or at least out of tanking -- and Joe Maddon accelerated that process.
“If you set out to try and create a certain vibe you usually end up creating the exact opposite vibe,” Epstein said.
There was no visit to Wrigley Field for Heyward -- he’s played there enough -- nor was there a sit down to listen to the master plan. The baseball world knows what the Cubs are all about and Heyward got to see it firsthand, as his old team got knocked out of the playoffs by his new team.
“They didn’t have to do too much,” Heyward said of the front office. “They let the product on the field and the atmosphere speaks for itself.”
Here are five more things to know after Heyward was introduced wearing a No. 22 Cubs jersey:
Heyward is the Cubs' centerfielder after winning three gold gloves in right:
“That helped in being able to sign him without executing other moves,” Epstein said. “We expect him to be a solid to excellent centerfielder.”
The Cubs were forced to trade Starlin Castro to make room for Zobrist but not so for Heyward. He’s in center for now. He credited his good defense to being focused throughout the game.
“I never take a pitch off,” he said. “There are 27 outs. I'm not asleep for any of those."
Heyward could bat first or sixth -- or anywhere in between.
“Some early mock-ups had [Ben] Zobrist No. 1, Heyward No. 2 but that will change a dozen times before Joe [Maddon] puts on his music and figures out that first lineup in Anaheim,” Epstein said.
The feeling is Heyward and Zobrist are such good contact hitters that if the Cubs are struggling to hit with men on-base one of them might move down in the order. Knowing Maddon there won’t be a set lineup unless the team takes off and doesn’t stop scoring.
The Cubs are big on bringing in players that will fit into the clubhouse atmosphere which has developed over the last couple of seasons.
Epstein had high praise for Heyward and what he can bring to the team.
“When you talk to players who have been in the same clubhouse as Jason Heyward, to a man, they say that Jason is one of those rare guys that makes his team better,” Epstein stated. “That’s a rare compliment to throw around.”
Heyward displayed some of that attitude with reporters, repeatedly declaring he would do what’s best for the team, starting with playing center field.
The creative contract the sides devised allows for flexibility for the Cubs, big paydays for Heyward when the team has more money in its coffers, and the ability for him to opt out two different times.
“There was some effort to recognize the prime years and compensate him for those while pushing the money into the years when we’ll have a robust television contract,” Epstein stated.
Heyward’s 2016 salary is only $15 million as the Cubs are nearly maxed out for this offseason. They’re not likely to add big during free agency next year, when Heyward’s paycheck goes up to $21.5 million. They also potentially lose a sizable salary in Jason Hammel if the team doesn’t pick up his option. The Cubs created flexibility where they needed it, while Heyward gets paid even more if he performs and opts out of his deal after 2018 or 2019.
Heyward was appreciative of Addison Russell giving up No. 22.
“I’ll send him an IOU and we’ll agree to terms on something,” Heyward said.