MLB.com Columnist

Phil Rogers

Cubs-Cards rivalry more than making moves

Cubs-Cards rivalry more than making moves

CHICAGO -- Here's a word of advice to fans who follow the Cubs and the Cardinals.

Come next April and May, don't start your day by checking boxscores to see what Dexter Fowler and Jason Heyward did in the previous night's game.

When the one on your team has a good night and the one on your rival's team has a bad night, do not smirk and rush to a message board. When the reverse happens, do not feel like you have to avoid the person in your office who is always looking to give you a bad time.

Hot Stove Tracker

While Fowler and Heyward are connected by the offseason maneuvering of the teams the past two years, the Cubs-Cardinals rivalry hasn't become a Fowler-Heyward rivalry. That's silly on its face, and doubly so, considering the long friendship between the two players and the huge respect they have for each other.

Business is business in baseball. That's really about all you can learn from Fowler signing a five-year, $82.5 million deal with the Cardinals on Friday after Heyward jumped to the Cubs for $184 million last December.

The Fowler/Heyward transactions with the Cubs and Cardinals have been pretty straightforward.

The Cubs traded Luis Valbuena to get Fowler from the Astros after 2014, and they signed Heyward as a ranked free agent in '15, costing them the 22nd pick of the '16 Draft.

The Cardinals traded Shelby Miller and Tyrell Jenkins to get Heyward from the Braves, picked up the 34th pick of the 2016 Draft for losing Heyward and signed Fowler as a ranked free agent, which will cost them a first-round pick (no lower than 17th overall). The Cubs will get a comp pick after the first round for Fowler.

Fowler's three-hit Game 7

While the Cardinals bid high to try to keep Heyward, his statistically disappointing first season based at Wrigley Field (slash line of .230/.306/.325 with his bWAR dropping from 6.5 to 1.5) was one of the few things many St. Louis fans enjoyed last season.

Many analysts had questioned the Cubs' willingness to give him $23 million a year for eight years, and they looked smart when Joe Maddon kept him out of the starting lineup in six of the Cubs' 17 postseason games, in which Heyward was 5-for-48 at the plate.

But statistics only scratch the surface in evaluating the Heyward-to-the-Cubs storyline.

Giving an honest appraisal, Heyward said he was partly motivated to leave St. Louis because he was joining a young team with tremendous upside. He knew the quality of Chicago's young players would impact him greatly during his eight-year contract.

Fans in St. Louis didn't like that analysis, but it proved to be spot-on, as the Cubs followed their 97-win season in 2015 with 103 regular-season wins and one of the most dramatic World Series championship runs ever.

The Cubs knew the Heyward deal would look like a massive overpay if judged purely on his hitting -- he'd averaged only 13 homers and 52 RBIs in 2013-15 -- but they were investing just as much in his Gold Glove fielding and leadership, which they valued highly. The North Siders needed a lot of both from him to win the World Series for the first time since 1908.

Does winning one World Series justify a $184 million contract?

If there were ever a team and a time when it might, that was with the Cubs in 2016.

Heyward's not going to get a pass from fans in Chicago or St. Louis if he remains a .230 hitter with the pop of a No. 7 or 8 guy in the lineup. But he earned a place in franchise lore with his one-hand-on-the-wall catch in the taut Game 5 and, even more so, the team meeting he called during the Game 7 rain delay.

"Greatest rain delay ever,'' Anthony Rizzo calls it.

Heyward on team meeting

Fowler, of course, made bigger contributions. He capped a career year with a leadoff homer and two singles in Game 7 against the Indians. He's leaving a huge void behind him as he departs the Cubs to join the Cardinals.

But when the Cubs signed Heyward and Ben Zobrist last winter, they were making the only major free-agent, position-player outlays in their plans for many years. Heyward got it right when he pointed to the Cubs' youth.

Albert Almora Jr., now in his fifth year working toward a long run as the center fielder, was prominent in the planning that Heyward discussed with Theo Epstein before signing on the dotted line. He was told he might be asked to play some center until Almora was ready. Well, guess what? Almora hit .303 with elite defensive skills in Triple-A last season, at age 22. He's ready.

As tempting as it had to be for the Cubs to yield to popular demand and find the money to re-sign Fowler, this is Almora's time. Epstein knew there was a strong chance that Fowler would wind up in St. Louis, and when he did, he was happy for him. A good man had gotten the deserving payday that eluded him on last year's free-agent market.

That's the story.

Fowler and Heyward will always be connected, especially by partisan fans, and they're going to be friends who earned a World Series ring together. They may only be at the midpoint of their careers, but it's gravy the rest of the way.

Phil Rogers is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.