Peter Gammons: Cubs’ Leadership Ensures a Merry Christmas in Wrigleyville

Jason Heyward

It’s easy to understand why John Lackey left St. Louis for the Cubs; Jon Lester is one of his closest friends, everyone who’s ever played with David Ross wants to be re-united, and he had signed with Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer once before.

It’s easy to get Ben Zobrist’s decision. Begin with Joe Maddon and Davey Martinez, then pick the easiest flight from Nashville.

Jason Heyward is a little different. To start with, he was offered more money by the Cardinals to stay and by the Nationals to play in Washington. Hence, the media “overpaid” hyperbole doesn’t exactly hold.

Epstein and Hoyer looked at this free agent class and next year’s class and saw little in the 2016-17 market. Ownership accepted the concept of taking two years of spending and using it in one off-season, and before the local TV and ballpark revenues are realized, they went and signed Heyward, Lackey and Zobrist, continued pounding the Cuban market and reminding their fans why a 12 game delay in the arrival of Kris Bryant will be worth it when they get to 2020.

But from the beginning of the free agent primary season, it was evident that Heyward had his eye on the Cubs. After what soured into a divisive situation for him in Atlanta, Heyward loved the Cardinal culture of Matt Holliday and Adam Wainwright and Matt Carpenter, the nightly red seas and the tradition of the team with the most wins over the last three seasons.
Yet, there was that new culture upstate from St. Louis, the culture of Anthony Rizzo, Maddon, Theo and Jed, Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber, et al.

“To get a player and person of Jason’s stature and allow him to grow with this team is an unusual opportunity,” says Theo Epstein. “We are very much a building franchise, and he becomes a major part of it.”

Looking at the 2016 team, Zobrist and Miguel Montero are the only regulars older than Anthony Rizzo and Heyward, who were born one day apart and will be in their age 26 season. Epstein sees Heyward’s ability to play right (at the highest level) or center field as more of a part of the team’s flexibility that Maddon employs so well.

Bryant can play third, center and right. Zobrist second, first, third, left, right. Chris Coghlan plays all three outfield positions and third base. Javier Baez can play second, short, third and the outfield, and when he is playing third or second, he is a gold glove level defender. Kyle Schwarber can play left and catch. Tommy La Stella plays a handful of positions, as does Arismendy Alcantara.

In moving Starlin Castro’s contract—which enabled the Heyward deal—the Cubs also got Adam Warren, whom the Cubs see as a backend starter who can also pitch out of the bullpen. Trevor Cahill, Travis Wood and Clayton Richard can pitch multiple relief innings or spot start, and the way Cahill threw in September (17 8 4 2 5 22), one wonders if he can’t get back close to what he was when he first came up with the Athletics.

Baez showed improved plate discipline and use of the entire field working with Manny Ramirez. Soler has what the Cubs believe is 35 homer power.

Hoyer and Epstein tried to get one young, controllable starter to fit in behind Lester, Jake Arrieta and Lackey with Kyle Hendricks and Jason Hammel. They were in the Shelby Miller sweepstakes, but the Braves insisted on both Soler and Willson Contreras, but Chicago would not include Contreras, who may well end up catching in the big leagues as the season progresses.

Tampa wanted Baez, but the Cubs still have concerns about the medicals on Drew Smyly and Alex Cobb, coming off injury. They tried to get involved with Carlos Carrasco or Danny Salazar with the Indians, but the price is high. It may be that come Memorial Day, the Cubs are settled enough and the Indians have started slowly enough that some sort of deal could be worked around one of the Indians starters and a Baez/Soler package. But the Indians know that if they have their current rotation and things break right, they can be serious contenders in the American League Central, and be serious contenders built on starting pitching. So why move one of the Big Four before seeing where Michael Brantley is come April?

There are a couple of factors in play right now that make it more difficult to trade for talented, young, controllable starting pitching. The first, well discussed by Sirius’s cerebral Mike Ferrin, is that the price the Braves extracted for Miller was so high that it makes similar deals more difficult because if you are the Indians, Padres (Tyson Ross), Tampa Bay, Oakland (Sonny Gray) or the White Sox (Jose Quintana), you have every right to ask for the equivalent of Dansby Swanson and two prospect pieces for a young arm, and, truth be sold, there is no industry-wide conviction on Miller; the Cardinals don’t trade their own for one year of Jason Heyward in most circumstances.

The second is the high cost of pitching, period. Jeff Passan pointed out that after the Johnny Cueto signing that the industry had paid $1.12B for free agent starters and relievers this off-season. Line that up with Daren Willman’s statistic that 385 pitchers threw 95 MPH or higher this season (up 15% from 2014).

Breakdown by year of pitchers throwing 95 MPH+ (just regular season)

Season Pitchers
2015 385
2014 330
2013 330
2012 315
2011 311
2010 304
2009 297
2008 279

Then connect the dots to the developmental system, where the year-round showcase baseball system rewards and judges teenage pitchers on velocity, not the craft of pitching. Take Dylan Bundy, the fourth pick in the draft in 2011 and referenced by several scouting directors as the best high school prospect they’ve ever seen. He’s thrown 68 innings the last three years, and because someone in the Orioles organization signed him to a major league contract out of high school, he must be kept on the major league roster in 2016.

Or Tyler Kolek. The Marlins took him with the second pick in the 2014 draft because of his prodigious radar gun readings. He is 4-13, 4.55 in low A in two pro seasons. Carlos Rodon, bypassed for Kolek, has already won nine games for the White Sox, and while scouts who saw Kolek this fall wonder about his future, put Rodon in back of Jose Fernandez in the Marlins rotation and they would be a totally different team.

The Cubs understood this flawed element in the baseball system when they loaded up on position players like Schwarber while teams like the Marlins drooled over the teenage showcase readings of Kolek. Having accumulated what Epstein sees as two 26 year old leaders in Rizzo and Heyward and a team of young, skilled position players, they can now see what young pitchers have survived the velo abuse, learned to pitch, and are worth two young position players in deal.

Would anyone be stunned at Soler, Baez or Billy McKinney and a C.J. Edwards going for a Carrasco or Gray come June? Of course not.

And, as Lackey and Heyward hummed Marvin Gaye’s “Hitch Hike” and left for Chicago, the game’s best rivalry between coasts got warmer. The Cubs and Cardinals have a unique quality. It is like college football, seas of red against seas of blue.

But, unlike the two coastal rivalries between the Yankees and Red Sox and Giants and Dodgers, 2009 is the only time the two teams have finished 1-2 since World War II, and only five times in history. In contrast, the Yankees and Red Sox have finished first and second 20 times, the Giants-Dodgers 17.

The Cardinals do not seem inclined to take the $290M they offered Heyward and David Price and start throwing money around at outfielders. Bill DeWitt said “the willingness to reach” was specific to Heyward and Price. So it appears they will sign a pitcher like Mike Leake or the under-appreciated Wei-Yin Chen and add complimentary parts with an outfield of Stephen Piscotty, Randal Grichuck and Matt Holliday and whoever else they decide to sign.

They strongly believe in their own. Luke Weaver, a former no. 1 pick out of Florida State who had a big Arizona Fall League, is the guy John Mozeliak thinks can fit into the rotation come June or July. Talk to other teams, and they may have the best stable of young pitching in the game: Alex Reyes, Jack Flaherty, Junior Fernandez, Sandy Alcantara and outfield convert Rowan Wick. How they fast-track them is as much a part of what they’re planning as major league fill.

The Pirates can only look at the half-billion dollars spent by the Cubs and keep searching for undervalued assets and fix-ups, with whom they have had so much success. They will trade Mark Melancon, but otherwise are looking for a starter, reliever, first baseman and utility infielder for less than what Lackey or Zobrist will cost. By the end of the season, they will have Jameson Taillon and Tyler Glasnow working into the rotation, with Josh Bell and others on the horizon.

What the Pirates have done the last three years speaks volume about the work of Neal Huntington. Only the Cardinals have more wins in those three years, but budget limits are budget limits, and Huntington is at work trying to find a starter or two, a reliever, a first baseman and a utility infielder for about what Lackey will make this season.

Right now, it is a Cubs Christmas, two free agent off-seasons rolled into one. We all know what winning the off-season means, but somehow this feels different. When your core leadership begins with a pair of 26-year olds who play every aspect of the game with dignity and character and you have the veteran presence of Lester, Lackey, Zobrist and David Ross and a manager who ran 20 instructional leagues and understands “70 per cent of managing is about people, there is a sustainable base laid to sing “this year we go all the way.”

Comments

  1. Great read. Gj PG!