Jason Heyward is one of the more intriguing free agents to hit the market in years. Because he was just 20 when he reached the majors, he hits free agency in the prime of his career at age 26. That makes him a safer investment than many older free agents, as even a nine-year contract would take him through just his age-34 season.
But what kind of investment will it take to sign Heyward? Since he entered the league, he ranks eighth among all position players in Baseball-Reference WAR, behind only Robinson Cano, Adrian Beltre, Miguel Cabrera, Mike Trout, Andrew McCutchen, Joey Votto and Jose Bautista.
That will surprise those who view Heyward as a disappointment because his offense hasn't really improved since his rookie season. Since 2010, he's tied for 71st in home runs (behind Kelly Johnson and Garrett Jones), 84th in RBIs (fewer than James Loney or Aaron Hill), 35th in runs (behind Nick Markakis) and 74th in OPS+ among players with at least 1,500 plate appearances (tied with Adam Eaton). In 2015, he hit .293/.359/.439 and ranked tied for 48th in the majors among qualified hitters in wOBA. So while teams can still dream on his power -- he did hit 27 home runs one year -- it seems unlikely he's going to be that 25-homer guy given he already has more than 3,000 at-bats in the majors. He is who he is at the plate: good, not great.
But that defense -- since 2010, he ranks first in the majors in defensive runs saved. Over the past three seasons, he ranks second only to former Braves teammate Andrelton Simmons. He just won his third Gold Glove Award, and nobody disputes that he's the best defensive right fielder in the game.
So the question: Will teams pay for that defense? The metrics are so strong that combined with his good on-base skills, he's been one of the better all-around players in the game, even hitting just 13 home runs. The other question: How will that defense play out in upcoming years? He's a big guy at 6-foot-5 and not blazing fast, relying more on reads and positioning than raw speed.
Experts predict he'll get close to $200 million. That price tag eliminates most teams, including the Royals, who had the lowest weighted on-base average from their right fielders in the majors. Five potential landing spots:
The Cardinals won 100 games thanks to a pitching staff that allowed the fewest runs in more than 40 years. Heyward was a big reason the pitchers were so successful, and the Cardinals certainly appreciate Heyward's value. The biggest contract in Cardinals history, however, was the $120 million extension Matt Holliday signed, though they reportedly offered Albert Pujols a 10-year, $200 million deal before he signed with the Angels for $240 million. The Cardinals also have a replacement available in Stephen Piscotty, though they could move him to first base if Heyward re-signs. The bet is that Heyward would have to take less to remain in St. Louis.
They need an outfielder -- their left fielders had the worst production in the majors, so they could sign Heyward and move Kole Calhoun to left. They need a left-handed hitter with on-base ability to hit between Trout and Pujols. There's room in the budget: While the team has some big contracts on the big books with Trout, Pujols and the money owed Josh Hamilton, they'll also wipe $40 million off the payroll after 2016 when Jered Weaver and C.J. Wilson hit free agency; Hamilton then comes off after 2017. And money has never stopped owner Arte Moreno before.
This would seem contingent upon the Dodgers first trading Yasiel Puig. Heyward fits two criteria the Dodgers are looking to emphasize: defense and getting younger. Remember, last year they brought in Howie Kendrick and Jimmy Rollins basically to shore up the middle infield defense. Heyward would give them that cornerstone outfielder. Or maybe they don't trade Puig. How about an outfield of Puig, Joc Pederson and Heyward?
4. Chicago Cubs
Yes, this is a long shot, as everyone expects the Cubs to spend money on pitching not position players. But hear me out. The team is currently without a legitimate center fielder on the 40-man roster. The outfield corners would be Jorge Soler and Kyle Schwarber, both below-average defenders, with Chris Coghlan filling in. So two options here. Heyward would be passable in center field, at least for a couple of seasons, if the Cubs wanted to go that route. Or to maximize his defensive value, they play Heyward in right and move to Soler to left, especially if they believe Schwarber can catch. Or they trade Soler or Schwarber. Remember, there's always a big free-agent signing that comes out of nowhere. This wouldn't shock me.
ESPN's Wallace Matthews just wrote about this idea in the "Spend Hal's Money" series. His verdict: unlikely.
"Heyward is a tough one to pass up, and if this were 10 years ago, there would be no question he would be a Yankee in 2016. But this is a different era and different ownership, even if the name remains the same. It seems Hal's Yankees are more likely to aim slightly lower or even sit out the outfield sweepstakes and wait a few years for the rest of their big contracts to expire -- and for someone like Mike Trout to hit the market."
Not just Trout. Somebody named Bryce Harper as well. Plus the Yankees have an up-and-coming right fielder in Aaron Judge, who should be ready for a midseason call-up. If they trade Brett Gardner, however, that opens up the possibility of signing Heyward.