It’s been more than a month since an atom bomb detonated in the middle of the Cardinals’ offseason in the form of Jason Heyward’s decision to accept an eight-year, $184 million contract offer from the Chicago Cubs, and we’re still no closer to understanding exactly how that decision went down. We’re probably never going to be.
Broadly speaking, there are three ways the story of Heyward’s departure can be (and has been) told. Story A is the one told by Ben Hochman immediately after the news broke, in which the Cards were “jilted” by Heyward after they offered him a better deal than the Cubs. Distilled to its essence, Story A is this, from Hochman’s column:
What else could the Cardinals have done? We begged them to splurge, and they did, and they still didn’t get the guy.
Story B, on the other hand, posits that the Cardinals never offered Heyward a better deal, and instead backed out of another bidding war after years of empty promises about “payroll muscle,” casting serious doubt on Bill DeWitt’s reputation as an owner fully committed to on-field success. I basically told Story B in this post.
Story C attempts to find a murky middle ground between the two, holding that the Cards offered a deal that was neither clearly better nor clearly worse than the Cubs’, and that Heyward’s preference for Chicago was a sort of tiebreaker. Story C is the view that has more or less been taken by Post-Dispatch beat writer Derrick Goold.
I use the word better and not bigger or higher or more money because this isn’t simply a matter of adding up the nominal dollar value of each contract offer and comparing the two figures. The Cardinals did reportedly offer Heyward the most guaranteed money overall, but the offer he accepted from the Cubs was a shorter deal with a higher average annual value and two potentially very lucrative opt-outs. In order to truly know whether Story A, B, or C is closest to the truth—whether the Cards’ final offer was better, worse, or roughly equal in value to the Cubs’—we’d need a much clearer picture of how the final days and hours of contract talks played out. Did the Cards offer two opt-outs? Did they even offer one? Were they ever willing to offer a shorter, higher-AAV deal, or did they take that off the table? What kinds of ultimatums were made, and when? How seriously was Heyward engaging the Cardinals at all?
We’re never going to learn the answers to these questions. We’re never going to know how the Cards’ offer to Heyward stacked up, not only because front offices and players and agents are reluctant to disclose such details about negotiations, anyway, but for a very simple additional reason, which is that literally everybody involved has an incentive to tell Story A.
Everyone benefits from the narrative that Heyward took “less” to play for the Cubs. Everyone. The Cubs get to reaffirm to their fans, the media, and other players that their future is so bright that superstars are taking pay cuts to be a part of it. Their fans get to revel in the feeling that something special is happening with their team. Heyward gets to instantly endear himself to those fans by having sacrificed to don Cubbie blue. Local Chicago media gets to amplify and profit from all the buzz. The national media gets to present a narrative that’s more compelling than [Player] goes to the team that offered him the best deal, and one that’s especially compelling to fans in the nation’s third-largest media market, to boot. The sizable number of baseball fans invested in disliking the Cardinals get to troll Cards fans about how badly Heyward wanted to get away from them.
And perhaps most importantly, the people with the most direct knowledge of what the Cardinals did and didn’t offer Heyward—John Mozeliak and the DeWitts—get to turn up their palms at fans and local St. Louis media and say, There was nothing more we could have done.
None of this is a conspiracy; it’s just a simple matter of the incentives that various parties have to let a particular version of the story proliferate. And look—maybe that version is true. Maybe Jason Heyward entered negotiations with his mind already made up, fully committed to signing with the Cubs and completely averse to signing with the Cardinals. Maybe—to be a bit more realistic—his preference for Chicago was such that the Cards would’ve had to offer a staggering amount of money (or a contract that was in some other way ill-advised) to lure him back to St. Louis. We can’t be sure.
What we can be pretty sure of, though, are two things: that everyone involved benefits from the story being told this way, and that logic and common sense and the entire history of free agency and pro sports and human commercial activity suggest that players almost always act in their own economic self-interest and accept the best deal offered to them.
It all comes down to the question that Hochman posed rhetorically above: What else could the Cardinals have done? The answer to that question—to whether or not Bill DeWitt could have offered more within reasonable limits to get Heyward to stay—could speak volumes about how genuine DeWitt’s commitment to putting a winning team on the field really is. It’s uncomfortable, then, for those of us who care about the club’s future not to know what that answer is. But it looks like we’ll just have to get used to it.