Jason Heyward’s Value: How High Will it Go?

With many of his teammates straining to produce offense during the Cardinals’ 4-8 stretch, right fielder Jason Heyward has been the one constant in the Cardinals lineup.

jason heyward
Jason Heyward – Photo: St. Louis Cardinals

He’s batting .319 this month, has reached base 41 percent of the time, and has a September slugging percentage of .489.

Heyward struck his most dramatic blow of the season Tuesday night in Milwaukee, blasting a two-run homer in the top of the 10th inning to air-lift the Cardinals to a 3-1 victory at Miller Park. With the Cardinals’ offense in the no-show mode again, the team was in a dangerous spot.

After losing three of four games to the last-place Cincinnati Reds, the Cardinals were teetering against 62-82 Brewers and wasting a wonderful gem of a performance by starting pitcher Carlos Martinez.

With a loss to the Brewers, the Cards’ lead over the second-place Pirates would remain at 2 games.

With a STL win, that lead would ratchet up to 3 games.

So Heyward’s swing not only delivered an important win, but it also tipped the standings to give the Cardinals more space between themselves and the Pirates. With only 18 games left on the reg-season schedule, one game in the standings can mean a lot. And with Tuesday’s win that put the Cards’ lead at 3 games, their chances of securing the NL Central title improved to 85.2 percent according to FanGraphs.

While the home run into the second deck of Miller Park was Heyward’s most bombastic moment of the season, he’s helped the Cardinals reach the 90-win mark (and counting) in variety of ways this season. Heyward’s game is more blend than brawn. It’s more about about all-around skill than killer home runs. Heyward’s game has more coolness than heat.

Overall in his first season with the Cardinals Heyward is batting .296 with a .356 onbase percentage and a .449 slugging percentage. His baseball-card numbers _ 12 homers, 55 RBIs _ aren’t thrilling, or sizzling. They’re just components in Heyward’s multifaceted talent.

Not that we should overlook the several layers of quality in Heyward’s overall game.

As I wrote earlier this season, we spend too much time focusing on what Heyward doesn’t do _ bash a lot of homers _ instead of fully appreciating what he does.

After a frigid April, Heyward has batted .311 with a .374 OBP and a .470 SLG.

He’s been among the better National League hitters since the All-Star break, batting .311 with a .402 OBP and .505 SLG.

Heyward’s base-running is a plus, and it goes beyond his 22 steals in 25 attempts this season. According to the Base Running Runs metric at Baseball Prospectus, Heyward is the sixth most effective base runner in the majors this season.

Of course, defense is a big part of Heyward’s all-around skill set; for the second consecutive season he’s the top-ranked right fielder in the majors this season with 19 Defensive Runs Saved.

If you add it all up _ the offense, the defense, the speed, the base-running and the durability _ Heyward is worth 4.9 Wins Above Replacement to the Cardinals, which puts him at 14th among all MLB players in 2015. Strictly among MLB outfielders, Heyward’s 4.9 WAR ranks ninth. Heyward had 5.3 WAR last season in Atlanta, and he’ll be right there again this year.

A five-win player provides excellent value to a team. And as Craig Edwards of Viva El Birdos pointed out on Twitter:

“Jason Heyward has been 17 runs above average(RAA) on offense and 9 RAA on defense in 2015. No NL player has been better in both this year.” 

That leads to the obvious question: if Heyward as expected pursues free agency after the season, what will he command on the open market? He’s an interesting case.

Those that prefer to evaluate position players based on homers, RBIs and batting average tend to look at Heyward’s numbers and ask: “What’s the big deal? Why all the fuss? Good player, but do not overpay him. You invest the big money in guys who give you 30-plus homers and 100-plus RBIs.”

Those that believe in advanced metrics and a more refined method of evaluation see an intelligent 26-year-old player who has many viable seasons left in an athletic body who can win games for his team with a variety of tools. His multi-dimension game is more valuable than a one-dimensional game.

Heyward should be a coveted talent on the open free-agent market.

It’s probably a matter of whether teams are willing to commit eight, nine of 10 years to Heyward.

There’s been increasing industry speculation about Heyward accepting a long-term deal that would give him a chance to opt out after four seasons _ and then take another shot at free agency at age 30, 31.

Heyward is among the more intriguing free-agent candidates because the opinions on his value are all over the place.

Teams that put great trust and faith in advanced metrics will put a higher value on Heyward than teams that have stayed with a more old-world view talent evaluation.

Jeff Passan, MLB columnist from Yahoo Sports, recently put Heyward at No. 6 on the list of potential free agents for 2016 and wrote:

“Almost everyone agreed that Heyward will be the bellwether of this market. One personnel man said he thinks Heyward never hits the free-agent market and re-signs with St. Louis for seven years and $140 million. Another GM agrees, though at a much higher valuation: eight years, $175 million, with an opt-out after four seasons.

“The opt-out makes plenty of sense; Heyward’s agent, Victor Menocal, works with Casey Close, who negotiated Greinke’s opt-out as well as the one in Kershaw’s deal that triggers after the 2018 season. To get Heyward paid for four years and send him back into free agency at 30 years old is indeed a classic Close maneuver.

“Whether a player who hasn’t been an All-Star since his rookie season and at .291/.351/.433 this year is having his best showing since that debut is worth $175 million is a different question entirely. Heyward suffers from some Davis syndrome, in that it’s tough to peg what he ultimately fetches. Because it’s free agency, and free agency abides by a single rule – it only takes one team to be dumb – guessing on the high side is usually the safest route.

“And yet getting Heyward will require the team to take into account that he’s barely 26 and that room for growth as a hitter is baked in to the price. Heyward’s got the glove and the wheels, no question. For consistent results, on the other hand… “

(At that point Passan moved to the next candidate on the list, corner outfielder Justin Upton.

I believe the Cardinals will make an aggressive effort to sign Heyward to a deal. I don’t think the team would shy away from a contract that would give Heyward a chance to opt out after several seasons. I believe the Cardinals prefer to pay a higher annual average salary for a shorter-term deal than to take on the risk of a nine-year or 10-year deal.

The Cardinals have a couple of talented young outfielders in Stephen Piscotty and Randal Grichuk, and that could influence their thinking. But Matt Holliday is winding down in his STL career, and Jon Jay’s contract is up after next season. A future outfield of Piscotty, Grichuk and Heyward would be quite imposing.

Cards chairman Bill DeWitt Jr. and GM John Mozeliak are fans of Heyward the player, and Heyward the person. DeWitt appreciates Heyward’s all-around value. And the Cardinals are flush with cash and comfortable room for payroll growth. But the Cardinals are also pragmatic, and every owner has a limit on what he’s willing to spend … just as every player has a bottom-line price that he’s willing to sign for.

All of that will be determined later.

As we live in the moment during a September race for the division title, Heyward dramatically determined the outcome of a game that the Cardinals had to win. And that really mattered.

Thanks for reading …

Bernie 

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