The Cubs-Dodgers Field Swap Puts Them In Different Positions

The Cubs and Dodgers didn’t trade this offseason, but a series of transactions effectively added up to one. This is what I mean.

  • August of 2022: Cubs president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer announces that they will release Jason Heyward at the end of the season.
  • November of 2022: Heyward is officially released.
  • November, 2022: Cody Bellinger a non-offer by the Dodgers.
  • December 2022: The Cubs sign Bellinger to a one-year deal.
  • December 2022: Dodgers sign Heyward to minor league deal.

Both clubs had a long-term outfielder who was producing disappointing results. In both cases, they could keep the player for one more year. Heyward had one season left on his contract and Bellinger had one arbitration season remaining. But in both cases, the club decided to cut bait, then swooped in to collect the other team’s castoff.

Now each club will be looking to coax a comeback season from their respective new outfielder. In a vacuum, the Cubs are more likely to succeed. Bellinger has struggled over the last two years, producing a terrible .165/.240/.302 batting line in 2021 and then a subpar .210/.265/.389 slash last year. However, he was above average in 2020 and was the National League Most Valuable Player in 2019. He hit 47 home runs in that MVP season while hitting .305 / .406 / .629 for wRC + of 161. He stole 15 bases and graded out well for his defensive work, being valued at 7.7 wins above replacement, according to FanGraphs.

Heyward, on the other hand, has never touched that kind of ceiling, and certainly not recently. He had a strong showing at the plate in 2020 but hasn’t hit for average in a full season since 2015. He hit .293/.359/.439 for the Cardinals that year, posting a 121 wRC+. He also stole 23 bases and was strong in the field, resulting in a 5.6 fWAR score. However, it has been well below that type of production since then, including being below replacement level last year.

Bellinger himself was below replacement level in 2021, but that was at least partially due to shoulder issues. Both players have struggled in recent years but Bellinger was the MVP not too long ago. Heyward has never been on that series and hasn’t been close in nearly a decade. Bellinger also plays the most important position, figuring he’s the Cubs’ everyday center fielder. Heyward played center field occasionally but was primarily a right fielder in his career. Since Bellinger is only 27 years old and Heyward is 33 years old, it seems like the likelihood of him returning to stronger form with Bellinger would be greater.

The Cubs seem to have backed the horse more likely to finish in the winner’s circle, but they also have a lot more on the line. Heyward still had $22MM left on his deal when he was released and the Cubs are still on the hook for that. Assuming he ends up being added to the Dodgers’ roster, they will only be responsible for paying him the pro rata league minimum, minus what the Cubs pay.

On the other hand, Bellinger is owed nothing by the Dodgers since they did not offer him a contract for this year. The Cubs brought him on board by guaranteeing him $17.5MM, in the form of a $12.5MM salary and a $5MM buyout on a joint option for 2024. That means the Cubs are paying the salaries of both players, and the figures are even. nearly $40MM. The Dodgers aren’t really committed to either player right now and won’t even be paying significant money if Heyward makes the team.

Heyward’s chances of cracking the roster seem to have increased recently. With Gavin Lux maybe out for the whole season, it seems Chris Taylor more time will be spent on the infield and less on the outfield. That subtracted a bit from the club’s outfield depth, perhaps increasing the need for a non-roster invite like Heyward.

There has been quite a bit of positive buzz around Heyward this spring so far. Last month, Freddie Freeman reporters said, including ESPN’s Alden Gonz├ílez, that Heyward changed his stance and “may have dropped something.” Heyward has four hits in ten at-bats so far this spring, including a pair of home runs. A few good spring games don’t mean much and it’s dangerous to draw meaningful conclusions from them, but it’s encouraging nonetheless, especially given the club’s commitment to helping tourists find the best versions of themselves. Jon Heyman of the New York Post wrote last week that Heyward is impressing LA officials and is expected to make the team.

Again, this is not a get away. The season hasn’t even started and a few good spring games shouldn’t make us forget about Heyward’s six full seasons. He may always be disappointed and this hot spring will eventually be a footnote. But the Dodgers don’t have much to lose in that case. It might be a little embarrassing if Bellinger returns to form after they let him go. But at least they saved his salary, which was projected at $18.1MM by MLBTR contributor Matt Swartz. They were then able to redirect that money into players like Noah Syndergaard and JD Martinezwhich will cost a combined $23MM this year.

The Cubs may be facing a much cringier worst-case scenario. There’s a non-zero chance they have to watch Heyward thrive in Los Angeles and Bellinger struggle in Chicago, while paying the salaries of both players. Time will tell if that story is likely or not, but the Cubs have almost forty million reasons to hope it doesn’t come true.

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