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The myth of the Jason Heyward contract

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Claims that Jason Heyward "signed with the Cubs for less money" have been greatly exaggerated for effect by those who want to see the move as a referendum on the Cardinals.

Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

When Jason Heyward signed an 8-year, $184 million contract with the Chicago Cubsfirst announced on December 11, the narrative almost immediately became about how the Chicago Cubs had wooed Heyward to Wrigley. The story was how the Cubs promised less money than the St. Louis Cardinals, incumbents in the Jason Heyward sweepstakes, but offered what the Cardinals could not: the opportunity to help end a 108-year World Series drought, the opportunity to play for an up-and-coming team rather than a team with an allegedly aging core, and, of course, the opportunity to play for a manager who brings actual, real live cubs onto the field during Spring Training.

The last part came a few months later, but all of the signs pointing to this kind of thing were there.

"Free agent signs with baseball team that offered him a more financially advantageous contract than a different baseball team" is, frankly, not a very interesting story. Although baseball's free agent market may not be a true capitalist market, it is generally very close to one. So when the story might differ, it draws attention.

But let's apply the principles of Occam's razor, which says that the simplest explanation is most likely the correct one, to this scenario. Jason Heyward signed for $184 million in guaranteed money, which if Jon Heyman of MLB Network is to be believed, and I'm not sure why he shouldn't be, was not the leader in the guaranteed money clubhouse.

Some team, perhaps the Cardinals though perhaps not, offered Heyward $16 million more than the Cubs. Let's assume that the $200 million was for eight years, which has been widely rumored but which was not confirmed.

The key to the contract for Heyward is its structure, not its raw dollar amount. Jason Heyward's Cubs contract, which includes an opt-out after only three seasons, pays him an even $23 million per season throughout the contract assuming he does not opt out, while most free agent contracts pay a disproportionate amount of the total salary in the later years of the contract.

Even when not giving consideration to basic investment-related reasons that it's better to make money today than it is to make it several years from now (net present value, time value of money, other Finance 101 terminology), it is more beneficial if a player has an opt-out for an evenly distributed contract, because it means he can get the money, rather than forfeiting a larger share of it on a backloaded contract.

Jason Heyward will earn $69 million over the first three seasons of his contract with the Cubs, and if things go according to plan for all parties involved, this will be the only money he will make under the contract he signed in December. Unless his career flounders, Heyward should opt out of his contract with the Cubs after the 2018 season in order to make more money (this free agent class will likely include Bryce Harper and Manny Machado, among many other notables).

He may love Chicago and may sign another contract with the Cubs, but that doesn't change the equation for him: he can get more money, or he cannot, and there's little-to-no precedent for baseball players, or anyone, to not take more money if it is being offered. And the Cubs should be happy with this, because it would mean that they came out ahead on the first three years of the contract; it would be a problem for them if Heyward didn't opt out because it likely would mean that he could not command more on the open market, leaving the Cubs overpaying a player over the next five seasons.

I can't read his mind, but if Jason Heyward was motivated primarily by money, he probably made the right move signing with the Chicago Cubs.

And, to be perfectly clear, I don't blame him. I don't buy any sort of "greedy athlete" archetype: the alternative to a millionaire who earns MLB money through his play making a few extra millions is a billionaire who doesn't provide entertainment keeping it. But it's not a story anybody wants to hear.

Before reading too much into what Heyward said, consider how you, in his position, would answer the question.

Zack Greinke aside, it is very rare for an athlete to admit that money was a primary motivator in his decision-making process. Even Alex Rodriguez, upon leaving the exciting young Seattle Mariners to sign with their last-place division rival Texas Rangers for  double the previous record contract of Kevin Brown, insisted it wasn't about the money.

And while this is partially so he is not chided for being a mercenary, there is also the matter of appealing to his new fans. Would Cubs fans rather hear that Heyward signed with them because Tom Ricketts offered him more money, or because of some intangible qualities which give the credit to them as fans?

Of course, there's also this.

The Cardinals are hated, particularly Cardinals fans. But that these comments, poorly thought out as they are (Willie McGee, worth 25.5 Wins Above Replacement as a Cardinal, was voted by fans into the team's Hall of Fame before Ted Simmons, worth 44.8 WAR as a Cardinal; Lou Brock, ranked 10th in WAR among Cardinals, was voted by fans as one of the club's "Franchise Four" last season; countless other examples to act as counterpoints), managed to get significantly up-voted on the breaking news article about Heyward signing with the Cubs should give you an idea of how widespread the sentiment is.

And this was before yesterday's debacle, with the New York Daily News reporting that Cardinals fans had yelled racial slurs at Heyward based on...four tweets from random people. A major daily newspaper in the biggest city in the country, as well as countless others, ran with the story.

And even when the television feeds which allegedly contained the derogatory word were examined and nobody could hear anything more vulgar than boos, it was a perfectly acceptable response to note that fans yelling the n-word at Jason Heyward could have happened, giving new life to Stephen Colbert's concept of truthiness. If something seems right, that's good enough.

The sentiment in the case of Heyward's contract sounds ridiculous on the surface: Jason Heyward conceded tens of millions of dollars just to spite Cardinals fans. Consider how preposterous this is. And yet some people were absolutely willing to believe it because it fit a very convenient narrative.

It has become a crutch of denigration of St. Louis, and not always with regard to the Cardinals. Some take offense to the politicization of sports. I take offense to the cheapening of the biggest social issue in the history of the United States, combating racism, in the name of grinding sports axes.

But for as long as the inclination to scapegoat St. Louis in order to preserve delusions of utopia elsewhere exists, blame will be misapplied. The simplest explanation, that it was a business decision unswayed by fans, simply isn't as interesting.

It matters not that Heyward has spoken nothing but positively of Cardinals fans, even after he was booed on Monday night. There is incentive for too many people to spin Jason Heyward's decision to head to Chicago as something other than a private contractor, largely divorced from the emotions of baseball which largely exist in the hearts and minds of fans, taking advantage of the most lucrative potential option.