Yesterday, the Chicago Cubs and Jason Heyward announced they had come to terms on an eight-year deal worth $184 million. Wow, that’s a lot of McDoubles! Heyward’s new contract drew reactions ranging from, “Oh my that’s a ton of money, but he’s a good fit for the Cubs” to, “OH MY GOD!! HOW CAN YOU PAY HIM $23 MILLION PER YEAR!! HE ONLY HIT 13 HOME RUNS LAST YEAR!!”
Of course, the sabermetrically-inclined folks also weighed in, citing Heyward’s 6.5 WAR, 2.0 dWAR, 24 DRS. Something about wRC+, RAR, and fWAR may have crept in as well. I, however, typically tend to glaze over after three formula-based statistics are presented to me.
There are obviously two sides to the Jason Heyward debate. No, he does not produce the type of offensive numbers typical of a $23 million per year player (but he’s 6’5″ and looks strong so maybe he will start hitting home runs), but most of the players who do hit 35 home runs and drive in 125 are challenged defensively. Nolan Arenado, Josh Donaldson, Manny Machado, Mike Trout, and Adam Jones are of course, the exception rather than the rule. He does a lot of things well that impact a baseball team. Heyward puts the ball in play with regularity, steals bases, makes all the plays in the outfield, and has a decent amount of pop, but let’s be real. The St. Louis Cardinals did not win 6.5 more games last year because Jason Heyward was in their lineup. The opponent did not actually leave 24 runs on the table because Heyward was playing right field. These numbers are very idealized, and at the end of the day, baseball is a team game that takes a total team effort to win.
Here’s what we know for sure about Jason Heyward — he will hit .270-.290, knock at least 15 balls out of the park, steal at least 20 bases, take his fair share of walks, and corral most balls hit in his general vicinity. For good measure, Heyward will throw out some runners at the plate and score from first on some doubles. If that’s enough to turn the Cubs into World Series champions, $23 million per year is a steal.
Both sides — the traditional numbers types and the slide rule numbers types — are probably a little wrong in their evaluation of Jason Heyward. Regardless, he will be making a lot of money over the next eight years. That’s the way baseball is going. It’s a $9 billion business and growing rapidly. The owners are billionaires, and they want to win. To succeed in business, sometimes you must pay a premium to get the best talent on your team. It goes the same way in baseball and other professional sports.
With the league revenue, but also the individual team revenues, growing at a mind-boggling pace, there really is no point anymore trying to figure out who is overpaid. Every single free agent who signs can be viewed as overpaid because we just aren’t used to seeing virtually all of the top players in the league make $20-25 million per year. The contracts really have exploded in value to the point where the best course of action is to throw your hands up and label Pablo Sandoval, Hanley Ramirez, and Rick Porcello $20-plus-million players. Most teams can afford to do that because they have agreements with regional sports networks paying them sums of money beginning with b’s, not m’s. To wit, the Arizona Diamondbacks wrapped up the first year of their $1.5 billion mega-deal and promptly paid Zack Greinke over $34 million per year.
Salaries will just keep going up, and up, and up some more. Bryce Harper and Mike Trout will make $40 million per year at some point in their career. Clayton Kershaw may do the same if his arm continues to hold up. Madison Bumgarner and Noah Syndergaard could also be eight-year, $320 million types. It’s not unrealistic to think that someone will eventually sign a contract worth half a billion dollars at some point in the next 20 years.
To those of us out there who want to continue calling players overpaid, that ship has sailed. Better now to sit back with a hot dog and a cold one (take ownership in your fandom and help fund those massive contracts!) and just watch the product on the field. The salaries are enough to make your head spin, but just remember one thing — the owners are still making money more quickly than they are paying it out to players.
Jason Heyward makes a lot of money. Next story.