Cubs president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer spoke to reporters, including Jesse Rogers of ESPN, relaying that outfielder Jason Heyward will not be with the club in 2023. That would be the last year of Heyward’s contract, but it seems the club will go in a different direction. Heyward is currently on the injured list with a knee injury, which Hoyer says he is unlikely to return from this year, per Maddie Lee of the Chicago Sun-Times. That means it’s possible Heyward has already appeared in his last game as a Cub. Hoyer says that Heyward will eventually be released, but will stick around the clubhouse while on the IL for the rest of the year due to his respected clubhouse presence, per Patrick Mooney of The Athletic. Hoyer says that he and Heyward have discussed the situation “at length,” per Rogers, with the Cubs wanting to give more time to younger players but Heyward wanting to continue playing. By releasing him for the offseason, he can return to free agency and look for his next team this winter.
It’s a noteworthy but hardly shocking development, considering how Heyward has performed over the life of the contract. After five seasons with Atlanta and one in St. Louis, the Cubs signed Heyward in December of 2015 to an eight-year, $184M contract. At the time, the Cubs had just come out of a rebuild, making the postseason for the first time since 2008, still looking to snap their World Series drought that had been ongoing since 1908. One year previously, the club had signed Jon Lester as a way to signal their return to competition and the Heyward deal was one of many in the 2015-2016 season that compounded the club’s serious intentions.
In the first year of the deal, Heyward still provided excellent defense the same way he always had, but his offensive production took a nosedive. He hit .230/.306/.325 for a wRC+ of 72, or production 28% below league average, after having a wRC+ between 109 and 121 over the previous three seasons. His glovework still allowed him to produce 1.0 wins above replacement on the year, per FanGraphs, but it surely wasn’t what the Cubs had in mind when they laid out that massive contract. Nonetheless, the Cubs won the World Series for the first time in 108 years, which surely helped washed down any bitter aftertaste for a while.
Heyward improved slightly in the years to come but still struggled to get back to the form he showed prior to coming to Chicago. From 2017 to 2019, he hit .260/.335/.406 for a 96 wRC+ He seemed to turn a corner in the shortened 2020 campaign, as he hit .265/.392/.456 for a wRC+ of 129, accruing 1.6 fWAR in just 50 games. However, he crashed back down to earth last year, hitting a paltry .214/.280/.347 for a wRC+ of just 68.
Despite those ups and down at the plate, he’s always been a productive player due to his defense. Even with last year’s mediocre output at the plate, he was still worth 0.1 fWAR on the year. Here in 2022, however, things have continued to slide, with Heyward hitting a meager .204/.278/.277 for a wRC+ of just 59, causing him to slip below replacement level for the first time.
Over the span of his contract, the Cubs shut their competitive window and entered another rebuild phase, with Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Javier Baez and other faces of their championship team sent elsewhere. With the roster now largely devoted to younger players, it seems they will devote their playing time to those guys, with Heyward getting nudged out. Hoyer mentioned Nelson Velazquez and Christopher Morel as two such players who could take over some of Heyward’s role, per Meghan Montemurro of the Chicago Tribune.
Heyward’s contract runs through 2023, with his salary set to be $22M for that campaign. Given his performance in recent years, he will surely go unclaimed whenever he is placed on release waivers. He will then be free to sign with any team, with that club only having to pay the league minimum, with that amount being subtracted from what the Cubs pay.
Although this day has surely seemed inevitable for some time, it’s likely still emotional for many Cub fans. While there are segments of the fanbase that have grown impatient and been outwardly calling for this for some time, Heyward was still an integral part of one of the most important eras of Cubs’ baseball history, if not the most important. While he may have fallen short of some of the loftiest expectations, he was still a productive part of a team that broke a century-old title drought, making the playoffs in four out of his first five years with the club. Though Heyward could still land with another team next season, he will likely be forever associated with his time as part a legendary run of Cubs baseball.