Looking Backwards (to look ahead)

The deep freeze of the offseason remains. The Gerrit Cole trade was the latest move that was going to break the impressive logjam in the starting pitching market. But we are less than a month before pitchers and catchers reporting with the four best free agent starting pitchers still unsure whether they are headed to Arizona or Florida. The only thawing of the frozen hot stove were deals signed by bench pieces Howie Kendrick (Washington) and Ji-man Choi (Milwaukee) on a minor league deal.

A looming and unsettled issue for this offseason remains the free agent bonzanza next year. A lot of baseball teams have spent years positioning themselves for this upcoming class headlined by two 26 year olds superstars. Throw in a few more elite to good position players and relievers, and it is understandable that teams have been reluctant to make moves this year to hurt their chances next year. The Cubs are no different as they appear to be waiting out this offseason market like the rest of baseball. There is little definitive news to discuss as the 2018 picture remains out of focus. This affords the opportunity to look back to the offseason of 2015-2016 to see how Theo Epstein has been laying the groundwork for 2018-2019.

The Cubs made a huge push in free agency in 2015-2016. The Cubs spent the most of any team that year in free agency. It was highlighted by the key additions of Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist. Those were the only two deals signed that extended into this year and beyond. The deals were notable for their size, but each had a few unique features that highlight preparing for 2018-2019. They also suggest that this front office might have been ahead of the curve yet again.

Jason Heyward’s deal received the most headlines at the time. Opinions have shifted quite a bit since then as a very good offensive player from age 20 to age 26 suddenly became a well below average hitter at age 27, but the contract had all sorts of unique provisions in it. The deal has two opt outs with the first coming ahead of 2018-2019 and the second in the immediately following offseason. The contract structure was clearly setup to encourage Heyward to opt out ahead of next year’s free agent class. $78 million of the contracts $184 million came in those three years, and Heyward would also be reentering the market at age 29. Heyward would be entering a very crowded market, but the opportunity to buy seasons before age 30 have been highly valued in the free agent market for years now.

The fact that the Cubs essentially “front-loaded” the deal in this case makes perfect sense. That goes against the trend as teams have long tried to backload deals as much as possible. The infamous Bobby Bonilla contract was the most extreme example, but it makes financial sense for billionaries and corporations to hold off paying money up front. That is factored into the value of deals with deferrals, Jason Heyward’s deal has some as well so the actual total value of his deal was estimated at $177,633,616 (MLB calculation) or $179,885,452 (MLBPA calculation). Not every deal is structured in such a way to defer money, but looking around baseball this pattern of “back-loading” deals is far more common.

The Cubs have been employing this startegy often in their largest free agent signings. Jon Lester’s deal pays him a “mere” $20 million in 2020 (the final guaranteed year). Ben Zobrist’s contract is interesting though. It is obvious that there was some creative accounting to allow Zobrist to fit into the 2016 payroll. The Cubs paid him “only” $10 million that year, but the salary ballooned to $16 million last year and this year before dropping to $12.5 million in 2019. This has been a clear philosophy running counter to a well established league wide trend. For example here is the Dodgers payroll figures from Cot’s Baseball Contracts:dodgers-payroll

These include deals made by two different front office regimes in Los Angeles, but shows that traditional escalating contract structure (or at minimum flat payouts) through the life of the deal. This is only one example, but it is difficult to find many deals that follow these front-loaded structures utilized by the Cubs. It could simply be about internal accounting and the need for financial flexibility as the salaries of the Cubs position player core continues to grow. The Cubs desire seems clear that it would just be a 3 year pact with Jason Heyward, and then they attempt to swap right fielders through free agency. Another feature in Heyward’s and Zobrist’s deal suggest that there is something more involved than just accounting though.

Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist were the second and third Cubs to be given no trade clauses by Theo Epstein. The front office has historically been loathed to hand those out (one of many departures from the previous regime), but like opt outs they are the price of doing business at the top of the free agent market sometimes. The Cubs gave Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist full no trade clauses in the first three years of the deal, and partial no trade clauses through the remainder of the deal (Heyward regains full no trade clause protection after five years as a 10-5 player). Heyward may block deals to 12 clubs and Zobrist may block to 8 clubs next offseason.

Now neither is likely to be a terrible attractive trade target unless Chili Davis truly is a bat whisper or Ben Zobrist finds the fountain of youth this offseason. However, the Cubs have the flexibility of moving them for luxury tax purposes solely. This is where the front office may have been preparing to leverage the Cubs currently most abundant resource, cash. Zobrist is scheduled to make $12.5 million, but his luxury tax salary is calculated at $14 million due to the AAV (average annual value of the deal). Heyward will make $108 million over the next five seasons, but his luxury tax calculation is $115 million. The Cubs could pay the entire salaries of Zobrist and Heyward and save $10.5 million towards the luxury tax threshold. Teams willing to take on any salary for these still potentially useful pieces in 2019 and suddenly the Cubs have even more flexibility in the upcoming offseason.

These “basketball trades” where teams are mostly interested in moving salary around far more than production on the field has been one of the few sparks of activity this offseason. Some are rightfully bemoaning what it means to the usual flair of the baseball offseason, but they are unlikely to disappear though with the draconian financial and talent acquisition penalties for violation of the “competitive balance” tax threshold . Instead it appears like this front office was ahead of the curve once again.


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  • Great Article and insight.

    There have been some minor grumblings on this site and others and in the media that the "Cubs" should do this or do that.

    I don't know who is right or who is wrong but one thing I am very sure of is "Theo is one smart SOB". I for one am confident that he knows exactly what he is doing and that in the long run it will be best for the Cubs this coming season and going forward.

    Ten years from now all of will look back and see how lucky we were to have Theo at the helm.

  • In reply to cubbybear7753:

    The problem I have with your premise is that it makes no sense. You say you don't know who is right or who is wrong but you are confident that Theo is right and those opposed are wrong. Huh?

  • Another good read Mike. It's a good time to be a Die Hard for sure. Finally, we are a good organization from top to bottom. It took vision and patience to get there and will take more of the same to stay at that level. Most of us waited a lifetime for it. Enjoy!

  • I have to think the reason for the front-loading of the recent Cub FA contracts is due to their glut of players that are going to hit free agency in 2021. Some of these players will be resigned, and the FO will need the dough to retain them.

    Also, part of me is thinking that with the nonintuitive thinking of this FO, seeing big players like LA and NYY bow out of the FA market this year, that they just may jump in and snag Darvish if they value him on the team enough.

  • Interesting read Mike, thanks. I was again looking at Heyward's numbers. I could not find any year where you said Heyward was "a very good offensive player from age 20 to age 26". He might of had a couple years as a good hitter but, nothing close to very good. Heyward in my opinion looks like he will go down as the worst signing by the Cubs ever.

  • In reply to 2016 Cubs:

    I the four years before arriving in Chicago Heyward averaged 118 wRC+ or in rough numbers an 18% above average run producer. That's a very good offensive performer. Mike didn't say great.

  • In reply to TC154:

    I did not say great either. I said he he was not a very good hitter before coming to the Cubs. Sorry TC, that is not very good. Heyward was never a very good hitter, ever.

  • In reply to 2016 Cubs:

    Hitting is just one part of a player. Heyward averaged between 5 and 6 WAR for 4/5 years before his age 26 season. That is equal to what Bryce Harper has averaged at the same age. That is a very good player.

  • In reply to John57:

    I was disagreeing with the article that said Heyward was a "very good hitter". I know he is an excellent defensive player and a high character guy. I am just taking about a hitter. It was a huge overpay for the Cubs to sign Heyward.

  • In reply to 2016 Cubs:

    Players are paid based on the totality of the player. He had averaged 5.5 WAR over 5 seasons. The contract reflected that and, this is important, was not an overpay at the time. It has turned out to be a massive overpay but if he was still putting up 5 plus WAR it would not be. As far as his offense if he he had hit that average of 118 wRC+ in 2016 or 2017 he would have been the 49th best run producer in MLB. His average wOBA in that same time period would have put him at 63rd in 2017 and 58th in 2016. Just looking at the Cubs he would have been the 5th best run producer in 2016 and 4th best in 2017 had he hit that 118 wRC+. Again those averages over those years prior to becoming a Cub made him well above average offensive player and one of the top 50 run producers in all of MLB.Going in the Cubs were paying him to be their 4th or 5th best offensive threat and he would have been had he put up his prior numbers. To look at what he has become and ignore those numbers and say he was "not very good" is inaccurate.

  • In reply to TC154:

    Sorry, but it was a huge overpay for a corner outfielder since day 1. He has hit over .280 once. Has one 20+ home run seasons. My argument is his offense not his total WAR. Before he cam to the Cubs I would say he was a below offensive player. I look at the numbers and that is what I see.

  • In reply to 2016 Cubs:

    You are cherry picking offensive numbers. WAR measures overall value of the player. It includes offense and defense. If you look at WAR, Heyward was an elite player when he was signed. And I too look at the numbers and that is what I see.

  • In reply to 2016 Cubs:

    John, wrong. My first post was about the article saying Heyward was "a very good offensive player from age 20 to age 26". That is not cherry picking. I am only talking about offense since that is what the article was saying. Try to keep up LOL.

  • In reply to 2016 Cubs:

    I did not look at your first post. I commented on your post that said

    "Sorry, but it was a huge overpay for a corner outfielder since day 1."

    The contract was for the whole player not just his offense. If it was for just his offense then I would agree with you but it was not. If you take the whole player into consideration, the contract was not an overpay.

  • In reply to 2016 Cubs:

    I disagree but I respect your opinion John.

  • In reply to 2016 Cubs:

    First thank you. Second, I can understanding quibbling about the line between good and very good. Depending on your perferred metric of choice Jason Heyward was anywhere from 15% to 30% better than league average the 4 years prior to becoming a Cub. He was a better than average hitter in every season except his sophomore campaign. He was a good hitter and the rate to which he has declined at this age is virtually unprecedented in baseball history (save those caused by injuries). So I will accept quibbling about where exactly the line between solid, good and very good lies, but the fact remains that Heyward was a more than above average hitter with an elite glove and baserunning prior to arriving here.

  • Nice piece, Mike. One of the most interesting things about this FO is that, even when they aren't clear, their is a reason behind every single move. They might work, they might not but I don't think moves are made from an emotional standpoint or made off the cuff. You're spot on with the way the Heyward deal was structured. Clearly they wanted him to opt out. I still think there's a lot of revisionist thinking on that deal. While it absolutely has turned out to be a mistake it looked pretty good at the time. Here was a player entering his age 26 season who had averaged 5.5 WAR over his previous 5 years (with one shortened by injury) and had actually posted his second best statistical season the year before. The idea that he would follow that up by averaging 1.2 WAR for the next two seasons was not logical. Even if he had declined some and averaged 4 WAR over the three seasons before the opt out he would have almost certainly tested the FA waters after 2018. By every standard of analytical thinking the deal made perfect sense. Until it didn't. I'm frankly OK with those kinds of mistakes. I'd rather a team fail at a move that way than by "going with their gut" that a guy might improve or be better than the numbers said he was. Now, I do think the Cubs thought Heyward had more power in him and the fooling with his swing that first year might have been unwise, but that's a different issue IMO. These guys don't make a move without doing the math but unlike some analytical teams they also take into account who their signing, who the player as a human being. Clearly with heyward the math failed, it happens, but they sure were right on who he is as a man.

  • In reply to TC154:

    The Theo led FO puts the Cubs with the odds in their favor. All moves don't work out as planned but they were well thought out. The Heyward signing was a smart move. The problem was he hurt his wrist in the first year and then he played through it causing his offensive stats to be very bad. He seems to be recovering but slowly. But if you look at his defense and leadership, those are still very good. I expect his offense to trend up this year providing he doesn't get hurt again.

  • I was (admittedly) against signing Zobrist initially,... because I thought that with Baez, Russell, and Castro all already on the roster at the time (obviously the 'Castro' issue went away quickly) to potentially cover 2B - I thought it was an unnecessary overpay for something that they already had on hand.

    I just as wholeheartedly admit now - I was wrong, and signing Zobrist was a brilliant move to get more veteran leadership and a solid bat on the team. Even with the fact that he's probably not going to be worth what they pay him that last year - it was a solid move and a good contract.

    I'm guessing that Heyward has a better year (closer to his career offensive averages) this year, and then it becomes a question (to him and to the Cubs) of whether the option on his contract is done or not,... If Heyward could get back up to being a >2.5-3 WAR player again for 2018, I think we see him take the option.

    I still don't think that Heyward's contract was a bad idea,... especially the way you have framed it here Mike.

  • In reply to drkazmd65:

    As I posted above I didn't think the Heyward contract was a bad deal based on the numbers at the time either but he was a 5.5 WAR player prior to getting to Chicago and I think he'd have to get to at least that in 2018 to even consider opting out and even then it's extremely unlikely. After 2018 he's due to be paid $118 mil, based on what we're seeing with contracts I can't imagine anyone would give him close to that.

  • In reply to drkazmd65:

    I don't think you were wrong per say. It really depends on how you viewed the Cubs. In many ways the Cubs decided to sacrifice a fair amount of the future for the 2016 season, and boy did it work out.

    Flip side is, if the Cubs failed in 2016, we'd be lamenting the sacrifices, which does include the Chapman, Zobrist moves. I never was a fan of the Heyward move, that said, I still suspect 2 things. 1 the Cubs didn't think Fowler was coming back in 2016 and Heyward was supposed to be CF. 2. Almora has come along in 2017 even better than the Cubs hoped.

    A defense first RF for that kind of money doesn't make sense. I suspect they thought his D would transition nicely to CF when they made that offer.

  • In reply to SenatorMendoza:

    I think your assessment of the CF/Fowler/Heyward point for 2016 is - right on point Senator. I think Hayward was initially supposed to be the primary CF guy that season, and Heyward's 'glove first' ability there would have made his weaker offense a bit easier to take. Given that offense ended up much weaker than anybody expected in 2016.

    And moving Heyward to CF now, with Almora developing so nicely, and with Happ displaying decent CF defense, is a bit more problematic IF the Cubs do keep both Almora and Happ on next year's roster.

  • "That goes against the trend as teams have long tried to backload deals as much as possible. The infamous Bobby Bonilla contract was the most extreme example."

    The Bruce Sutter contract is even crazier.


  • In reply to hoffpauir6:

    Indeed hoffpauir,... that's nice 'work' if you can get it. I wasn't aware of how back-loaded Sutter's last contract was.

  • In reply to hoffpauir6:

    WOW! I never heard of that contract before. That is insane. Good for Sutter even though I can't stand the traitor.

  • In reply to 2016 Cubs:

    Just a heads up that Sutter was not a traitor, the Cubs traded him to the birds. That trade did net Leon Durham so it wasn’t a bad trade either.

    Plus Sandberg wouldn’t have the Bruce Sutter game if he was a Cub.

  • In reply to bleedblue:

    Yes, I know that. I just called him a traitor because he went into the HoF as a Cardinal. Not sure if it was MLB's decision or not though.

  • Just ripping off the Cardinals for Heyward was with about 10 mill alone.....

  • In reply to Wickdipper:

    Hopefully the Cards will return the favor and sign Arrieta---and be stuck with him for the last 3 years.

  • In reply to veteran:

    As long as he keeps losing his control, I’m fine with that.

  • fb_avatar

    I have 100% Confidence in Theo Epstein. End of story.

  • Very good article! thanks.

  • we should be careful on how much money we have to spend
    each of next 5 years. We so many young players becoming
    FA in 3 or 4 years we need the money to sign some of them
    to extentions early if possible

  • Well said TC, one thing that is often forgotten on JH at this point is the Cards and Nats had better offers. Forget the exact dollar amounts, since we will ever know. What we can say is two really smart organizations were hard after him, that is undisputed. Some act like our FO was hoodwinked on that deal but many smart baseball people we were getting a special player at the perfect age.

    Some things just don’t work out.

  • Yelich for Almora and a minor league pitcher. Make it happen.

  • Duensing back in the fold, 2/$7 mil. That's a solid pen.

  • In reply to TC154:

    I like it! Duensing was solid last year. If Maples pitches like I hope, and Justin Wilson returns to form it could be a really good pen.

  • In reply to Cubswin09:

    Maples, Grimm and Farrell probably compete compete for pen spot one spot, if they sign a starter of course.

  • In reply to TC154:

    Butler likely competing for that spot too, as he is out of options.

    That’s also to say nothing of Mazzoni, Alvarez, and Rosario.

    My money is on either Grimm or Butler, as neither can be optioned.

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