Two former St. Louis Cardinals returned to Busch Stadium in Chicago Cubs uniforms Monday. One of them made an indelible impression in the Cubbies‘ 5-0 win.

Jason Heyward won the crowd reaction competition, hands down. The Cardinals faithful greeted the outfielder—who ditched the Cards this winter for an eight-year, $184 million deal with Chicagowith a chorus of boos and some genuine vitriol, as Dan Katz of Barstool Sports (Chicago) captured:

“If somebody boos me here, that means they were not happy to see me leave,” Heyward said before the game, per ESPN’s Mark Saxon. “I’m kind of glad that people weren’t happy to see me leave.” 

In the end, though, it was veteran right-hander John Lackey who did the damage against his former employer. And, valuable as Heyward is, Lackey could be the player St. Louis misses the most.

Lackey downplayed the negative reaction to Heyward, per Benjamin Hochman of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch:

Maybe he wished his boos were louder. Either way, he spoke loudly on the mound.

Yes, it’s just one game, but the stat disparity is striking.

Heyward went 0-for-4, lowering his average on the young season to .188.

Lackey, meanwhile, tossed seven shutout innings, scattering four hits and striking out 11. And he even outdid Heyward with the bat, as USA Today‘s Bob Nightengale noted:

Lackey, who turned 37 in October, enjoyed a renaissance season with St. Louis in 2015, posting a career-low 2.77 ERA in 218 innings.

The Cubs and president of baseball operations Theo Epstein—who was general manager of the Boston Red Sox during Lackey’s time in Beantown—then inked the playoff-tested hurler to a two-year, $32 million pact.

Lackey wobbled a bit in his first two starts with the Cubs, yielding eight earned runs and 14 hits in 12.2 innings. On Monday, though, he turned in a vintage performance, befuddling a Cardinals lineup that paced baseball with an .872 OPS.

Which brings us back to the question of whether St. Louis might ultimately miss Lackey more than Heyward.

Yes, Heyward is a three-time Gold Glove winner and all-around offensive stud who has racked up the fourth-most wins above replacement (11.3) among MLB outfielders over the last two seasons, per FanGraphs.

But the Cardinals offense, as mentioned, has been humming along in the early going, Monday’s shutout notwithstanding.

Catcher and franchise backbone Yadier Molina looks rejuvenated after a pair of offseason thumb surgeries. And while Randal Grichuk and Stephen Piscotty, Heyward‘s heirs apparent in the outfield, have gotten off to uneven starts, rookie Jeremy Hazelbaker has been an early revelation.

That’s not to say St. Louis wouldn’t gladly slot Heyward back into its outfield mix. Nor is it to suggest the Cardinals will remain an offensive juggernaut through the dog days of summer.

But right now, they sure could use Lackey.

Ace Adam Wainwright has been downright dreadful through three starts, coughing up 15 earned runs and 22 hits in 16.1 innings. Mike Leake, the rotation’s biggest offseason addition, owns a 5.71 ERA.

Lance Lynn, meanwhile, is lost for the season after undergoing Tommy John surgery.

There’s talent to be found, with Carlos Martinez, Jaime Garcia and Michael Wacha rounding out the starting five. 

But in a division as competitive as the National League Central—with the Cubs loaded for bear and the Pittsburgh Pirates lurking—depth and experience matter.

Lackey boasts a 3.11 career ERA in 127.1 postseason innings. He’s pitched for a pair of World Series winners, the 2002 Los Angeles Angels and 2013 Red Sox.

And, as he displayed Monday, he’s still got it. The slider slides. The fastball is fast enough.

At least one jilted Cardinals fan burned Heyward‘s jersey when he pulled a Benedict Arnold and bolted for the North Side. Perhaps they should have been torching Lackey’s laundry instead.

In the end, Heyward will almost assuredly be the more impactful player in the WAR department. Assuming he stays healthy, a guy with exemplary defense, plus speed and double-digit home run pop is going to net more wins than all but the most ace-like hurlers. 

Lackey, though, might have filled a greater void for the Cards at a fraction of the price.

It’s too late for what-ifs now. Both men are Cubs, end of story. On Monday, one of them made that fact sting especially hard for St. Louis.


All statistics current as of April 18 and courtesy of unless otherwise noted.

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