Jason Heyward signed a contract with the Cubs today for a reported 8 years, $184 million. The dollar figure/length should be familiar to Twins fans: it’s exactly what Joe Mauer got five years ago (meaning there are three years to go on that baby).
Heyward is a valuable player — one of the most valuable in the entire game if we judge this on WAR and look at his 2015 numbers– but he’s also an outfielder who had a lower slugging percentage last season than Eduardo Escobar did.
Cubs fans are extremely excited about this because Heyward will help them win and also because he was signed away from the rival Cardinals. He’s also only 26 years old, so there’s a decent chance he’ll earn his contract for many of the years ahead. Or since arguably his best year in the majors was still his 2010 rookie season, Heyward might torpedo into the ground, with the Cubs on the hook for his contract and all the guaranteed money.
And it will not matter either way.
OK, let’s back up. It will matter in the sense that the Cubs would be better off if he performed well. But in the context of the team, Heyward could be a massive failure and the Cubs in a couple years could just sign his replacement.
Of the four big-money U.S. pro sports leagues, MLB remains the one without a salary cap. There are penalties and revenue sharing, but there is also this: the Dodgers had a payroll that reached $300 million in 2015; the Marlins had a payroll that was one-fifth that much.
This lack of a salary cap is the single biggest reason, I would say, that when it comes to MLB and free agency, fans lose their minds. Like, normally rational people demand their teams do something, ANYTHING. Only I get it because in the context of this league, nothing is absurd. Your payroll is as big as you want it to be.
It leads to an interesting juxtaposition that is playing out with the Twins, Vikings, Wild and Timberwolves. All four teams arguably have nice young cores. The Wild is a little different because 1) the young players have been here a little longer and 2) the organization has spent considerably in free agency to bolster the roster. You could even argue that more of the “most important” players on the Wild came from outside the organization than from within.
But the Vikings and Wolves are at various stages of building. The Vikings have a solid defensive foundation built on young talent. They also have second-year QB Teddy Bridgewater, to whose right arm is attached many of their hopes and dreams. The Wolves similarly have a young core built around Andrew Wiggins, Karl-Anthony Towns and Zach Lavine (plus guys like Shabazz Muhammad, Gorgui Dieng and perhaps Tyus Jones).
Most local fans seem to understand — and even prefer — that the Wolves and Vikings build that way. Cheap young talent in both of those leagues is at a premium, and the salary cap keeps relative spending on a reasonably level playing field. If you miss on a big-time free agent in either sport, it’s hard to throw more money at the problem.
The Twins are somewhere in between the Wolves and Vikings when it comes to the evolution of their young talent. But they don’t have to be careful, at least relative to league rules. The Pohlads would lose money if the Twins had a $300 million payroll (largely because of the vast disparity between local TV deals), but there’s nothing in the rules that says they couldn’t do it.
So we get to this time of year and fans get ansty for action with the Twins in a way that they just don’t with the Vikings and Wolves.
I’m not saying any of this is right or wrong, good or bad. Just interesting. And perhaps there are other factors at play than just the cap factor.
Expectations for the Twins could play a role, as could feelings about the Pohlads. It’s also true that rebuilding projects in baseball feel as though they take an eternity because prospects take years to develop while in the NBA and NHL rookies draft picks can make immediate impacts.
Whatever the case, the Twins’ inactivity at the Winter Meetings — which isn’t even close to the end of free agency, by the way — is not playing well with a fan base that in general seems to understand that the Twins’ young core is the key to the future.
The Twins have tried to spend, especially on pitching. They have done it with mixed results, and that’s probably being too polite. That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t spend more effectively. It does mean spending for the sake of spending, even if they can always spend more, is not the way to go.
If you just want a couple good relief pitchers and a better plan in the outfield, I hear you. But if you want more than just some complementary players, why? Is it just baseball? Is it just Twins fans?
I’ll hang up and listen.