Press Box Wag

Wittenmyer: Cubs have 99 problems and Heyward ain't No. 1


The comments on social media were as prolific as they were predictable as soon as the story on Jason Heyward’s tenuous and controversial status with the Cubs was posted a few days ago.

Words such as “worthless” and “waste of a roster spot” (and worse) thrown around. All-caps tweets like this one: “Worst signing Theo ever did. Period.”

Forgetting the fact that “worst” was misspelled, that tweet’s not true.

Heyward’s contract isn’t even the worst Cubs contract in the last five years.

For one, Tyler Chatwood’s three-year, $38 million deal before the 2018 season was worse. It wasn’t as big or as lenghty as Heyward’s, but the Cubs got no value out of that deal — actually negative WAR the first year of the contract, when they need most what they were paying for.

Yu Darvish’s six-year, $126 million deal arguably was worse than Heyward’s, too, having been signed during that same offseason and producing similarly negative WAR, again, when the Cubs needed production the most that year. On the other hand, Darvish at least had enough value by 2020 that the Cubs netted a promising return prospects by trading him.

The point isn’t to cherry pick comparisons and debate Heyward’s value all day long.

He certainly has underperformed his eight-year, $184 million contract.

But he’s not the problem for the Cubs. He doesn’t even make the list of top five problems.

Mostly, he’s an easy target for a rightfully angry fan base that has a hard time stomaching what it’s watching and what the suits are shoveling — and in many cases an even harder time paying face-value prices for the privilege.

But for perspective, consider two points when it comes to Heyward and his contract:

First, the Cubs hadn’t won a World Series in the 107 previous seasons when they signed the most pursued free agent position player on the market that winter, were competing against teams with 10-year, $200 million offers on the table (Nationals, Cardinals), and had a unique and bigger need than those other teams for the skills actually that did show up — none more than the Gold Glove fielding for a team with a poor-fielding outfield and that planned to use Kyle Schwarber on the left side of it every day.

And, much like when Alfonso Soriano signed a then-franchise-record seven-year, $136 million deal entering 2007, a common and widely accepted sentiment was that the contract would be more than worth the money if it helped produce that long-elusive championship. You know how that turned out, rain-delay meeting, subsequent gouge-pricing profits and all.

Second, fast-forward to now, when detractors are howling for Heyward and the sunk cost of what’s left on the contract be jettisoned so that younger players — or just other players — can be used instead.

What other players? Rookie Nelson Velázquez started Saturday, had two hits and will play more as his performance and the matchups present chances to succeed. He also has a career strikeout problem that suggest a free run to play everyday might not be the best approach right away. Top outfield prospect Brennen Davis is hurt. Free agent right fielder Seiya Suzuki is on the injured list and probably starting a rehab assignment at Iowa next week.

Heyward’s place on the roster isn’t creating a 40-man jam right now, and until Suzuki returns from the IL, his playing time isn’t costing anyone else.

Obviously, when those factors change again, the Cubs might have decisions to face.

But how many Cubs on this roster right now — the 40-man roster — can be counted on as pieces for the Cubs’ next playoff team? Go ahead, name 10. And then how much of the mortgage are you betting on those names?

During a recent casual conversation with somebody close to the team, we came up with maybe five.

None of which is to ignore the bottom-rung OPS and negative WAR that is startlingly low, even compared to some of his previous, suboptimal seasons.

The Cubs and Heyward are in all likelihood looking at a tough conversation and severing of ties before the contract expires after next season.

But Heyward has been nothing but respected within the team from the day he got there and a constructive influence in the clubhouse — more so now than ever on younger players as a veteran with a track record that includes eight playoff seasons for three franchises and an unmatched reputation for work and preparation.

And the respect the Cubs are showing him at this stage of their who-the-hell-knows-where-it-goes-next rebuild is at least appropriate.

There will come a time, probably soon, when the Cubs make the move.

But Heyward deserves a lot better than to be Twitter-kicked on the way out when the time comes.

Double majors

The Cubs on June 17 became the first team this century to end a double-digit losing streak by beating a team that entered the game with a double-digit winning streak.

The last team to do that was the 1999 Phillies.

What’s next? The Cubs get outscored by 20 in back-to-back series for the first time in 143 years and then beat the defending World Series champs in the next series?

Star watching

One of the coolest moments of the Cubs season was Willson Contreras getting to play in a game for the first time at any level with his little brother, William, during the Cubs win over the Braves last weekend.

The only thing cooler might be if William joins presumptive starter Willson on the NL All-Star team.

Could a Cubs-fan bump in voting put William over the top (he was second on the fan ballot at DH in the first released voting update)?

It looked doubtful at best with Phillies superstar Bryce Harper holding a sizable lead in the DH voting.

But Harper suffered a broken thumb when hit by a Blake Snell pitch on Saturday. And his misfortune might open the door for William, whether to eventually win the voting or to gain a spot as an injury replacement for Atlanta skipper Brian Snitker's NL team.

Definitely worth watching — even if you’re not named Contreras.

“That would be amazing,” said Bengie Molina, the eldest brother of the baseball’s royal catching family. “Can you imagine that — the All-Star game?”

For all their historic accomplishments, the Molinas never paired up on an All-Star team.

On the other hand…

Where’s the Cubs bump for Ian Happ, a top-three WAR outfielder in the National League who ranked 17th in the early fan voting? Is the team’s awful performance suppressing his All-Star vote?

“It could, as much as I don’t want to talk about it,” manager David Ross said.

“Hopefully, there’s a nice push towards the end, and you get a chance to be involved in that,” said Happ, who hasn’t made an All-Star team. “It’s something that would obviously be incredible and mean a lot to me.

“Regardless, it’s about going out and continuing to play good baseball and put up good numbers and help the team win. That’s all you can control.”

PBW endorsement of the week

Corn, beer and NBC Sports Chicago: The staples of every balanced, Midwest diet.

And if you don’t believe us — at least about that last one — then who better to trust than one of Chicago’s leading sports media experts and top local pundit, David Haugh?

ICYMI, the tweet of the week, via Mr. Haugh:

Douche of the Week

Frank Schwindel obviously is not a major-league pitcher and doesn’t claim to be — despite the fact he has made more pitching appearances for the Cubs this season (three) than left-handers Locke St. John and Conner Menez combined (two).

But “not a baseball player”? Come on, Stephen Colbert. We know it’s just a joke for The Late Show crowd, but that cheap shot crossed the line into Douche-of-the-Week territory. So congrats for that.

“I didn’t appreciate that one,” Schwindel said.

(Also receiving votes: Marquee Sports Network.)

Previous winners: Josh Donaldson (May 23), Marquee Sports Network (May 30), ESPN Mic’d-up Player Dept. (June 6), Orioles Rain Delay Dept. (June 13).

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