As the winter meetings drew to a close yesterday, the market for Jason Heyward heated up, and based on reports from around the game, it appears that the three finalists for his services are the St. Louis Cardinals, Chicago Cubs, and (surprisingly) the Washington Nationals. The Cardinals interest in keeping their star right fielder has been known for a while, while the Cubs have long been a rumored suitor; Heyward is the kind of player that analytically-inclined organizations are more likely to pay for, and teams don’t get a lot more analytically inclined than the Cubs right now. Besides, with a hole in center field — though Heyward could slide to right field if the team traded Jorge Soler and acquired another CF — and a young core of players poised to put the team on the brink of perennial success, Heyward makes plenty of sense for Chicago.
The Nationals weren’t really attached to Heyward much at all until yesterday, when Jon Heyman outed them as the mystery team in this chase. The team apparently jumped in on the outfielder after losing out on Ben Zobrist, and would likely slot Heyward in as their center fielder as well, creating an elite trio along with Bryce Harper and Jayson Werth. The Nationals have been looking to add another left-handed bat to their line-up, and with Michael Taylor maybe best suited for a fourth outfielder role at this point, signing Heyward is perhaps the easiest path to solving that problem while also upgrading perhaps the weakest spot on the team.
But where does he fit the best? Who needs him the most, and should be incentivized to pay the highest price? Let’s look at all three options.
Non-Heyward Outfielders, 2016 projections
LF: Matt Holliday, 611 PA, 124 wRC+, +2.1 WAR
CF: Randal Grichuk, 590 PA, 101 wRC+, +1.8 WAR
RF: Stephen Piscotty, 500 PA, 103 wRC+, +1.0 WAR
#4: Tommy Pham, 263 PA, 103 wRC+, +0.8 WAR
#5: Brandon Moss, 400 PA, 110 wRC+, +0.9 WAR
On the one hand, it’s easy to look at this group and see a big need for Heyward, as Holliday is reaching the end of his career, and neither Grichuk nor Piscotty have estabilshed themselves as everyday players just yet. Pham might be one of the next in the long line of middling prospects that the Cardinals magically convert into a good player, but Moss was pretty close to replacement level a year ago, and even if he bounces back as the projections expect, he’s a platoon bat with questionable defense and a bad hip. The Cardinals could piece together some useful platoons out of that group, but Heyward would be the team’s best outfielder by a large margin, and with Holliday entering the last year of his contract, retaining Heyward could keep them from having a big problem in the outfield next year.
On the other hand, there are reasons to think that Steamer may be too low on both Grichuk and Piscotty, and if the Cardinals are interested in giving both a full season to show what they can do, then Heyward is more of a luxury item than any kind of necessity. Especially with Pham and Moss around as depth, the team already has some insurance in case either struggle, and with Charlie Tilson not too terribly far away, the organization has another classic Cardinals-esque prospect in the center field pipeline. The team has plenty of options even without Heyward, though no one at his level, but re-signing him would end up taking some playing time away from some other interesting young players. Even if Heyward is a +5 WAR player again next year, playing him at the expense of Piscotty, Pham, Moss, or Matt Adams — assuming Piscotty and Moss would get some 1B time — means that the Cardinals probably only net three wins over the alternative.
But if not Heyward, then what? They already ended up as the runner-up for David Price, and with Zack Greinke off the board, Heyward is the last elite free agent remaining this winter. Ken Rosenthal suggested the team could use the Heyward money to sign both Alex Gordon and Kenta Maeda, but Gordon would offer the same playing time roadblock as keeping Heyward without also offering a long-term replacement for Holliday. The Cardinals are clearly in spending mode this winter without a lot of long-term commitments on the books, and next winter’s free agent class is terrible, so it’s probably not a great idea to end up sitting on a horde of cash waiting for future opportunities to sign players instead. Spreading the money around is a feasible option, but it would likely mean going long-term with aging players, and that’s often been a way to get burned in free agency.
I wouldn’t say the Cardinals need Jason Heyward, but of all the ways to spend their money this winter, he probably makes the most sense. Having Heyward lets them evaluate Grichuk and Piscotty again for one more year before handing them both starting jobs next year if they prove worthy, or gives them the ability to flip a guy like Adams for pitching if they want to go that direction. They can afford a $200 million commitment to an elite player, and if they’re going to keep up with the Cubs and Pirates in the NL Central, going forward with a collection of average to slightly above average players probably isn’t the best plan. The Cardinals have enough good-not-great players already; ponying up for a star is probably better than adding two more lower-tier guys.
Non-Heyward Outfielders, 2016 projections
LF: Kyle Schwarber, 501 PA, 124 wRC+, +2.6 WAR
CF: Arismendy Alcantara, 351 PA, 82 wRC+, +0.3 WAR
RF: Jorge Soler, 520 PA, 107 wRC+, +1.2 WAR
#4: Chris Coghlan, 318 PA, 96 wRC+, +0.5 WAR
#5: Matt Szczur, 324 PA, 77 wRC+, -0.3 WAR
Now this is what a hole looks like. Or a couple of holes, really. The Cubs have a glaringly obvious need for a center fielder, and Heyward would be a tremendous upgrade over Alcantara (or Szczur, who is listed as the current starter on the team’s official site), allowing the team to get nearly the full benefit of Hewyard’s expected production. There’s no contender in baseball in need of an outfielder more than the Cubs, and Heyward is the best outfielder on the market, plus his youth would allow them to push their window of contention open even further, as opposed to signing an aging player who might not be that productive in another year or two.
But Heyward isn’t really a perfect fit. For one, putting a guy who has played mostly right field in center, and then sticking a catcher in left field next to him, could make for some defensive challenges on balls hit to left-center. But there’s also some offensive issues, as both Schwarber and Heyward are much better against right-handed pitching than when facing lefties, and the same is true of Coghlan as well; there are only so many weak-against-LHP outfielders you can stockpile before match-ups become an issue. Sure, the team could (and probably will) flip Coghlan, either for a right-handed outfielder or for a guy who helps them fill some other hole, and then they use the money saved at that position to sign some kind of platoon-mate for Schwarber, with Rizzo and Montero already around, the line-up might start to lean too heavily to the left-hand side of things if Heyward was their next big piece.
And if the Heyward-to-CF experiment doesn’t work, there’s no easy fallback plan; there’s not much CF depth in the organization currently, and moving Heyward back to a corner would mean benching one of the team’s two promising young hitters. In fact, If I’m the Cubs, I’m probably not looking at signing Heyward as my CF so much as I am signing him to allow me to trade either Schwarber or Soler, hopefully landing a true center fielder (and maybe some other stuff) in the deal. But that’s a lot of moving parts, and might not be as easy to pull off, especially when Heyward may want to know where he’s playing before he signs.
So the Cubs have the need in the outfield, but there are enough concerns with positional and handedness fit that I wouldn’t be surprised if they ended up going another direction. Heyward is good enough to help them win even with the questions about his platoon splits and whether he wants to commit to center field on a daily basis, and the team desperately needs an outfielder or two, but I’m not quite convinced that this match is as good of a fit as the one in St. Louis.
Non-Heyward Outfielders, 2016 projections
LF: Jayson Werth, 517 PA, 113 wRC+, +1.4 WAR
CF: Michael Taylor, 536 PA, 83 wRC+, +1.0 WAR
RF: Bryce Harper, 647 PA, 164 wRC+, +6.8 WAR
#4: Tyler Moore, 245 PA, 97 wRC+, +0.0 WAR
#5: Matt den Dekker, 185 PA, 95 wRC+, +0.3 WAR
Heading into the winter, I don’t think too many people had the Nationals linked to the Heyward sweepstakes, as they already have the best right fielder in baseball, but the team has spent the winter chasing left-handed hitters, and with an aging Werth in left, Taylor’s questionable bat in center, and no depth behind those two, Heyward actually does fit pretty well. They could run an offensive-oriented alignment with Heyward in center when Werth is healthy, and run a defensive-oriented one with Taylor in center when he’s not. The upgrade would be substantial, and with Stephen Strasburg entering his final year of team control, adding another elite talent would give the team their best chance to live up to the promise that the Strasburg/Harper tandem suggested when they were acquired.
And if the team is looking at paying Strasburg north of $200 million next winter, signing Heyward now is almost certainly a lower-risk use of funds; Scherzer/Heyward might not be as sexy as Strasburg/Harper, but the certainty of having a star at both SP and OF instead of trying to fight the market to keep the home-grown kids has some real appeal. Heyward would provide the team with a real upgrade in 2015 and keep the talent from dropping off too quickly as free agency raids their stockpiles, and would give them a terrific player who checks a lot of the boxes they were looking for heading into the winter.
But like with the Cubs, the fit isn’t perfect; Heyward would have to agree to split time between CF and LF, and Dusty Baker is the kind of manager who might not see enough of his value to keep him in the line-up against tough left-handers. Heyward almost certainly isn’t going to sign anywhere he thinks he might be platooned, and both St. Louis and Chicago probably offer more playing time certainty than Washington, as well as more organizational appreciation for his skillset.
Additionally, if the Nationals don’t turn things around in 2016, they could potentially enter some kind of mini-rebuilding scenario while they transition away from the last core group of stars to turning the franchise over to guys like Lucas Giolito, Reynoldo Lopez, and Trea Turner. The Cubs and Cardinals probably have higher short-term floors than the Nationals, especially if a poor 2016 leads the team to believe that next winter is the time to trade Bryce Harper; it’s hard to see either St. Louis or Chicago pivoting away from contention focus during the next few years, so there’s a bit more risk of ending up on a team looking towards the future than there is with the other two suitors.
This isn’t quite a David Price scenario, where it’s easy to put the best pitcher on the market on the big money team with a stated preference of signing an ace this winter, as all three teams do make sense for Heyward in some ways and don’t in some others. But in looking over the three options, to me, it looks like the Cardinals are probably the team that could use Heyward the most. They are less likely to be able to pivot to multiple other pieces to fill out their roster, they have the long-term need for a franchise corner outfielder, and Heyward is already comfortable with the organization and his role with the team. The Cubs and Nationals are likely going to ensure that the price is a bit higher than the 9/$195M or 8/$186M that I or the crowd predicted at the beginning of the off-season, but even at 8/$200M, Heyward could still be a bargain.
It sounds like we’ll get some resolution on the deal today, with Heyward signing for something like $24 or $25 million per year, and probably for eight years guaranteed with an opt-out that would let him hit the market sooner. My guess? He ends up back in St. Louis. They could use him more than the Cubs and Nationals, and their alternate plans are less obvious if they lose him.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.