David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
Jason Heyward was going to sign somewhere, and we all knew it wasn’t going to be with the Mets. So if you’re outraged by Friday’s revelation that Heyward reportedly is heading to the Cubs on an eight-year, $184-million deal, it’s kind of like cursing at rush-hour traffic on the LIE.
Save your breath. This is how the Mets have operated for a while now. And for those with selective memories, assistant general manager John Ricco repeatedly said during the winter meetings that he did not expect them to be involved with any of the big-money free-agent outfielders — including the one who just helped carry the Mets to the World Series, Yoenis Cespedes.
For a team showing very little confidence in Juan Lagares, and also stuck with the lineup void created by Cespedes’ free agency, that’s a peculiar stance to take this offseason, especially as the defending National League champion.
That stance might soften a bit, however, after word came down late Friday that Michael Cuddyer is retiring, a surprising development that wipes his $12.5 million — minus a likely settlement portion — off the 2016 payroll.
On Dec. 12, it’s far too early to say the Mets will get burned by Sandy Alderson’s more conservative offseason strategy, but the Cubs are stockpiling ammunition for that argument. While the Mets choose to lean on their elite young rotation and give Terry Collins flexible lineup pieces for manufacturing runs, the Cubs — the team they swept in the NLCS — are busy writing checks to prevent that from happening again.
The Cubs have spent a total of $272 million on Heyward, Ben Zobrist and John Lackey, a bold series of moves designed to fortify the existing core of twenty-something sluggers. As an added bonus, Cubs president Theo Epstein was able to weaken two NL rivals in the process, swiping Heyward and Lackey from the Cardinals and luring Zobrist away from signing with the Mets at the 11th hour.
When asked Friday about the Cubs getting Heyward, a Mets official said it won’t alter the team’s offseason plans.
Two days earlier, the Mets quickly rebounded from the loss of Zobrist to acquire a pair of offensive-minded middle infielders in second baseman Neil Walker and shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera. Not exactly a big splash, but the Mets believe both will help stretch out a lineup missing Cespedes and Daniel Murphy.
That’s been part of Alderson’s philosophy — trying to squeeze runs from as many positions as possible — and those two fit that strategy, along with Travis d’Arnaud and Kevin Plawecki behind the plate.
As for the Mets’ budget concerns, they should realize how much they’re already saving by having four ace-type starters all under control, at a very affordable rate, for the next few years — and that doesn’t even include the rehabbing Zack Wheeler. With David Price getting $217 million from the Red Sox and the Diamondbacks signing Zack Greinke for $206.5 million, the price of pitching is skyrocketing.
“Because they all looked at how good we were,” Ricco joked this week at the winter meetings. “It goes back as far as the game. Pitching wins.”
Not all by itself, however. And with the Cubs dramatically improving on paper, they’re now the measuring stick in the NL, even with the Mets currently wearing the crown.
Winning the winter usually doesn’t end with rings in October — just ask the 2015 Padres — but the Cubs are coming off a 97-win season, so this is not recklessly throwing cash at a hasty rebuild. What the Cubs are doing is flat-out becoming a more dangerous team — regardless of the money it takes — and that could mean trouble for the Mets if they meet the Cubs again next year in the playoffs.
The Cubs are charging forward in a way the Mets haven’t been able to keep pace with, whether they choose to or not. As for who did it better, well, that won’t be answered before Christmas. It’s going to take much longer than that. But we’ll find out soon enough.