The Cubs announced Monday that outfielder Jason Heyward has officially been granted his unconditional release. President of baseball operations Jed Hoyer announced in August that the team would release Heyward in the offseason. Heyward is still owed $22MM next year under the terms of his eight-year, $184MM contract, which covered the 2016-23 seasons.
After a lengthy rebuild where the Cubs finished last in the NL Central for five straight years from 2010 to 2014, they finally turned the corner in 2015. Their 97 victories only resulted in a third place finish in the NL Central and a Wild Card berth, though they were able to defeat the two teams that finished ahead of them in the postseason, getting by the Pirates in the WC game and then the Cardinals in the NLDS. They were then swept by the Mets in the NLCS but it was clear that the rebuild was over and it was time to contend.
As such, the 2015-16 offseason was a busy one for the club. They gave $56MM to Ben Zobrist, $32MM to John Lackey and a few one-year deals, but their big strike was Heyward. He and the club agreed to an eight-year, $184MM deal that afforded him potential opt-outs after 2018 and 2019. Those chances to opt out were especially significant given Heyward’s young age, as he was only going into his age-26 season at the time. It was a huge investment for the Cubs at a crucial time in the history of the franchise, but Heyward had proven himself to be an all-around contributor. His defense was excellent and he had hit at an above-average level, in addition to stealing over 20 bases three time in his career already.
Unfortunately, Heyward’s production slumped immediately. After hitting .293/.359/.439 with the Cardinals in 2015, he produced a batting line of .230/.306/.325 in 2016. While the former line amounted to a wRC+ of 121, or 21% above league average, his first year as a Cub resulted in a wRC+ of just 72, or 28% below league average. In spite of the down year from Heyward, the Cubs went 103-58, winning the Central by 17 1/2 games over the Cardinals. Heyward’s bat was even worse in the playoffs, as he hit just .104/.140/.167. Regardless, the Cubs went on to break their century-old curse by winning the World Series. Despite Heyward’s poor on-field results, he supposedly contributed by rousing the club’s spirits with a rain delay speech in Game 7 against Cleveland, though Cub fans can debate among themselves how much credit he deserves for that.
Heyward continued to provide quality outfield defense for years to come but his bat never really properly recovered. Since joining the Cubs, the only season in which he was above-average at the plate, according to wRC+, was the pandemic-shortened 2020 campaign. Based on that diminished performance, he never seemed a threat to trigger his opt-outs and thus stayed on with the Cubs. Over the length of the deal, the team eventually entered another rebuilding period and traded away most of their core performers from the curse-breaking years. After the brief 2020 resurgence, Heyward’s offense plummeted yet again over 2021 and 2022. With the club gradually filling out the roster with younger players that they hope to form the next competitive core, they decided it was time to move on. Heyward was on the IL due to a knee injury in August when Hoyer announced that he would be released in the offseason, which has now indeed come to pass.
Heyward will now become a free agent again, available to sign with any team in the league. Despite his poor track record in recent seasons, he could attract interest as a no-risk candidate. The Cubs will be on the hook for the $22MM remaining on his deal, meaning that any signing club would only have to pay him the league minimum, with that amount being subtracted from what the Cubs pay. Despite his extended time a big leaguer, he’s still just 33 years old.
The legacy of Heyward’s time with the Cubs is already divisive among the club’s fans and will surely continue to do so. There’s no disputing the fact that Heyward was never the superstar that the Cubs paid him to be. Some will wonder about what could have been if those resources were committed to a different player. Others will take the “Flags Fly Forever” approach and point to the World Series title as all they need to declare the deal a success. Either way, today’s move is another symbolic move towards a new era of Cubs baseball. With various trades over the years, the recent free agency of Willson Contreras and now Heyward’s release, Kyle Hendricks is left as the last member of that championship core who’s still on the roster.
Image courtesy of USA Today Sports.
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