Theo Epstein just pulled off a week with the Cubs like he never had with the Red Sox.
Now all the Cubs team president has to do is recreate the October results he pulled off in Boston.
That’s where Jason Heyward comes in.
The Cubs landed their top free agent target Friday when the Gold Glove, All-Star outfielder agreed to an eight-year, $184-million, sources said – Heyward turning down bigger offers to play for the young, rising Cubs.
Also finalists for Heyward were the Nationals and the Cardinals, who got just one year from the right fielder after acquiring him a year ago from the Braves for Shelby Miller.
Sources say Heyward will open the season as the Cubs’ center fielder.
The deal, which includes vesting opt-out clauses after the third and fourth seasons, is expected to become official in the next few days. If he plays to the end of the contract, it would be the biggest in franchise history.
The club would not confirm nor comment on the deal.
“BOOM!!!” Cubs catcher/left fielder Kyle Schwarber tweeted after news broke Friday.
Heyward, 26, is the third big free agent the Cubs added in an eight-day stretch, including starter John Lackey (two years, $32 million) and Ben Zobrist (four, $56 million).
Heyward and Lackey both were signed away from the rival Cardinals, with Heyward turning down more overall money (but less than the Cubs’ $23 million average), the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported.
They were the National League Central-champion Cards’ top performers in terms of wins above replacement (WAR) in 2015, swinging a combined 12.1 value north to the Cubs — who finished three games behind the division-champion Cardinals in the National League Central before beating them in the playoffs.
It was the kind of winter week against a rival Epstein never experienced against the Yankees during his nine years as Red Sox general manager.
Thirteen years ago this month he had the Red Sox rent out every room of a hotel in Nicaragua to keep out the competition during negotiations for Cuban free agent Jose Contreras – and still lost the pitcher to the Yankees. The following winter, after losing in the playoffs to the Yankees, he had a deal done with the Rangers for Alex Rodriguez, only to have the players’ union nix the deal over terms on a restructured contract – and the Yankees swooped in five weeks later to trade for Rodriguez.
This time around Epstein has a team built around a young hitting core, with a popular players manager, coming off a 97-win season and seeking the biggest championship story left to be told in American sports – factors Zobrist said made him, too, decide to sign for less than others were offering.
And the Cubs have an especially bright-looking two-year window to chase it – which may have played into ownership’s decision in recent weeks to increase the baseball operations budget enough to create the means to land Heyward.
“We’re much more focused on the short-term than we were,” general manager Jed Hoyer said leading up to the Heyward deal – comparing the front office mindset to even last winter.
“Our now is very bright.”
A source said some of the payroll increase came out of the $12 million windfall from the Cubs’ unanticipated playoff.
It boosted the major-league payroll budget to roughly $140 million, one source confirmed.
Team sources say the Cubs are still looking to add pitching depth for 2016, but are likely done with major moves.
The plan for now is to keep defensively challenged right fielder Jorge Soler – who has been the subject of trade talks with multiple teams in an effort to acquire pitching.
Heyward, who homered off the Cubs’ Carlos Zambrano for the Braves in his major-league debut in 2010, was an All-Star that season but was considered by some an offensive disappointment since then – largely because of his unimpressive power numbers.
On the other hand, he’s one of the best outfielders in the game, both according to scouts and metrics – his 122 “defensive runs saved” leading the majors by a large margin during his six-year career.
And he’s a uniquely young free agent – the Cubs locking him up through his prime-age years even if he opts out after three or four years.
Tweeted Rookie of the Year Kris Bryant (with awestruck-face emojis): “Lackey, Zobrist & J-Hey. Cubbies comin in hot!!!”