Who doesn't love a good old-fashioned baseball trade?
The St. Louis Cardinals and Atlanta Braves made an unexpected swap of young players Monday, announcing at the start of the lunch hour (Eastern time) that the Cardinals had acquired right fielder Jason Heyward and right-handed reliever Jordan Walden and the Braves were landing right-handed starting pitchers Shelby Miller and Tyrell Jenkins, the latter a 22-year-old prospect having made 13 starts in high Class A ball this past season. All four players involved are 27 years old (Walden's age) or younger.
Well, fantasy baseball owners might react with some indifference, being that the move itself shouldn't change much in terms of 2015 stock. Neither of the prime pieces, Heyward and Miller, moved much in my rankings after the deal.
But not all trades need instantly obvious fantasy ramifications; sometimes change alone is fun to react to and analyze, and this deal fits that bill.
Heyward's move makes sense for both clubs: He'll play out the final, $7.8 million year of his contract before hitting free agency for the first time at the age of 26 next winter, and, if the Braves were unsure they could (or wanted to) sign him, he made sense to trade because his departure will open up left field for Evan Gattis, with Justin Upton moving to right field. The Cardinals, meanwhile, needed a right fielder after the tragic loss of Oscar Taveras, and they picked up an outfielder with contract-year motivation -- although fantasy owners should not overrate that potential effect -- and great defense.
For Heyward, a change of scenery could help. Once hailed as a future MVP candidate, and long regarded as a dynasty-league franchise chip, he has averaged .262/.351/.429 slash rates and 20/15 homer/steal numbers annually through five seasons. He made one substantial improvement the past two seasons that fantasy owners can point to for hope: He improved a contact rate that was 75.2 percent 2010-12 to 82.1 percent in 2013-14. That said, he sports a ground-ball rate that remains too high to expect an imminent power breakout; his 48.4 percent career mark ranks in the 73rd percentile since the beginning of 2010. I've watched a lot of Heyward over the years and am convinced he could use an adjustment to his swing; perhaps working with a new hitting coach in John Mabry might help, and the Cardinals did manage the majors' best line-drive rate (23.1 percent), sixth-best batting average (.261) and ninth-highest rate of hard contact (.161) in Mabry's first two seasons in the role.
In addition, Heyward could capitalize upon a right handed-heavy National League Central division (thanks to Tim Bennett for tweeting that point); as many as 17 of the 20 projected starters for the Cardinals' division rivals could be right-handed. That's big news considering Heyward's career wOBA is 74 points higher against righties than lefties.
I was already more willing to predict a Heyward rebound in 2015, so the scenery change merely strengthens the case. He's my No. 23 outfielder and No. 75 player overall, with neither of those rankings much different than at 2014's end.
Perhaps the new surroundings will help Miller, as well. Turner Field had a slightly better pitcher park factor than Busch Stadium from 2012 to 2014, so little changed there, although it's spacious to right field, which helps considering Miller has allowed a fly-ball rate 5 percentage points higher to left-handed (40.6) than right-handed (35.5) batters in his three big league seasons. It's a weaker case than Heyward's, though, because Miller's problem in 2014 was that his curveball got a lot worse: Opponents batted .259/.331/.388 against it, up from .219/.259/.336 against it in 2013. He'll need to show that it's sharper in spring training before he'd warrant a rankings bump into my top 60 starters. It's also not the best thing -- as far as his ERA/WHIP are concerned -- that the Braves traded their second-best defensive player to acquire him.
Gattis and Carlos Martinez might've enjoyed the most favorable impacts as a result. Gattis should receive regular playing time in left field while retaining his catcher eligibility in fantasy, increasing his "volume" appeal (that affecting his homers, runs and RBIs). Martinez, meanwhile, might have a greater chance at competing for a rotation spot, with Walden on hand to deepen the bullpen and Miller gone to sew up a starting role. How the Cardinals use Martinez will be a compelling NL-only storyline entering camp.
Meanwhile, Christian Bethancourt and Phil Gosselin now shape up as leading candidates to start at catcher and second base -- the latter as a result of Tommy La Stella's having been traded to the Chicago Cubs on Sunday -- so NL-only owners could find use in either contact-hitting type. Neither offers significant power/speed upside nor has a high walk rate, however, keeping each outside the mixed league pool. Gosselin would be a stopgap until top prospect Jose Peraza is ready; the team could also bring in a one-year, free-agent rental to help out.
A quick thought on La Stella and the Cubs
Might La Stella's arrival in Chicago signal a subsequent trade of a Cubs infielder? His move there was most curious in that it added him to a pile of 2015 infield candidates that includes Anthony Rizzo, Starlin Castro, Javier Baez, Arismendy Alcantara, Mike Olt, Luis Valbuena, Logan Watkins, Kris Bryant and Addison Russell, each of whom has a legitimate chance at big league playing time. Fantasy owners are surely rooting for a trade, since the more jobs for the Castro-Baez-Alcantara-Bryant-Russell bunch, the better, but, if the team stands pat, La Stella might have limited fantasy appeal as a part-timer with Alcantara shifting to the outfield full time.