Because of how quickly he got to the big leagues, Heyward is in line to hit free agency after his age-25 season, and he’s going to have roughly +25 career WAR when he reaches the open market. Barring a disastrous 2015 season, he’s going to get paid, and you can be certain that his agents will be pointing to the 13 year, $325 million deal that Giancarlo Stanton has agreed to as the new precedent. Sure, Heyward isn’t going to get 13/$325M, given the massive differences in power, but it seems likely that he’ll demand a deal that starts at 10 years and goes north of $200 million.
Robinson Cano got $240 million as a similarly valuable player entering his age-31 season; Heyward might not have Cano’s offensive track record, but he’s going to be selling his prime years, and the deal won’t extend into the period of his career where you’d expect him to essentially be worthless. If the Cardinals want to lock up Heyward before he gets to free agency, it’s probably going to take something like the contract they refused to give Albert Pujols. Maybe they might be able get him to take a slight pre-free agent discount and get him for 9/$200M or something in that range, but let’s dispel the notion that the Cardinals are going to be able to sign Heyward for anything other than a mountain of cash.
Which generated a lot of responses like this.
Since I basically just made the claim without any evidence to support it, I figure it’s on me to actually back up my assertion. So, let’s go through and see if we can estimate what Jason Heyward’s market price would be as a free agent next winter.
The primary assertion against that kind of valuation is that teams simply don’t pay for defense the same way they do for offense, and that assertion it’s true. There’s absolutely a premium paid for power hitting in free agency, and Heyward doesn’t have the kind of skillset that other $200 million players have had. If we want to estimate what a good bat/great glove corner outfielder is going to get, we need to look beyond what guys like Prince Fielder, Albert Pujols, and Robinson Cano signed for. We need to look at how the market has paid this kind of player before.
Thankfully, Heyward’s skillset isn’t really all that unique. Over the last decade, we’ve seen a pretty decent number of players who achieved their value through similar methods. For instance, here are Heyward’s career numbers in a table with the the performances of four other similar outfielders, up to the point at which they reached free agency.
There are some differences, certainly, but overall, they all established themselves as something like +4.5 WAR/600 PA players in their pre-free agent careers, and they all did it with positive contributions from their bat, their feet, and their gloves. If you prefer to look at the more narrow window of a player’s final three years before free agency, Heyward’s 2012-2014 numbers still measure up remarkably well with this group, especially Crawford’s final three years in Tampa.
Since it’s the closest match, let’s deal with the Crawford comparison for now, and we’ll circle back to the others in a minute. Crawford hit the market after his age-28 season and signed a seven year deal for $142 million, which is in line with what several people in the comments suggested they think Heyward should sign for. Only $142 million in 2010 is not the same thing as $142 million in 2014. If we think Crawford is a good stand-in for Heyward’s market value, then we have to bring Crawford’s value into present day dollars. Actually, we have to bring them into 2015 dollars, since that’s when Heyward is hitting free agency, so Heyward will hit the open market with five years of inflation between his deal and Crawford’s contract with Boston.
Rather than turn this into another post about the different ways of calculating the market price of a win, let’s just take the simple route and look at the total spending differences in MLB payrolls during that time. Crawford’s deal began in 2011, when the total of all 30 MLB payrolls was $2.78 billion. Last year, MLB was at $3.45 billion, and they’re already at $3.1 billion for 2015 without including any of the free agent contracts. 2015 league payrolls are going to end up around $3.7 billion or so, most likely, so the league will have seen roughly 37 percent more money going to players since Crawford’s deal was signed.
If you simply scale Crawford’s annual salary to match current spending levels, his $20 million AAV becomes $25 million to keep pace with inflation. If we assume that he’d be able to command the same contract length, Crawford’s inflation-adjusted price becomes 7/$175M. And Crawford was selling his 29-35 seasons; Heyward is going to be three year’s younger than Crawford was when he hit the open market, and very likely will have little interest in a seven year deal. If we’re going to use Crawford as an example of Heyward’s market value, then we essentially have to admit that Crawford is evidence that Heyward is likely to land a deal in excess of $200 million as a free agent, even if he just takes the same inflation-adjusted AAV and adds an extra year.
But, of course, a lot of people hated the Crawford contract at the time, and it’s just one deal. So, let’s look at the others.
Carlos Beltran got $17M per year when total league payroll was $2.18 billion. If we translate that into a $3.7 billion spending economy, Beltran’s $17M per year turns into $28.8 million per year; Beltran also got seven years, starting with his age-28 season.
Ichiro Suzuki got $18M per year when league payroll was $2.69 billion. In a $3.7 billion economy, that turns into $24.8M per year. Ichiro only got five years, but the contract began when he was 34, and his three most recent seasons averaged about +4 WAR per 600 PA, about a win less than Heyward’s three most recent seasons. Ichiro was a decade older and well into his decline phase, and he still got the equivalent of $25 million per year.
Ellsbury’s the easiest one of all, given that he just signed last year, so we don’t have to inflate his salary all that much. Adjusting upwards slightly, his $22M per season becomes about $23M per year. Ellsbury got seven years starting with his age-30 season.
Four very similar players to Heyward, skills and value wise. The inflation-adjusted salaries put them squarely in the $23 to $28 million per year range. Even if you don’t think Heyward is as good as these guys, you could essentially perform the same exercise with Vernon Wells or Torii Hunter, and you’ll get the same results, essentially. $18-$20 million per year, even four or five years ago, is $25+ million per year in today’s dollars.
And then there’s the age factor. Assuming Heyward’s market value in 12 months is roughly the same as it is now, he’s not settling for a seven year deal. Heyward’s going to be looking for 8-10 years at around that $25 million per year AAV, and that’s assuming he doesn’t have a breakout season. If he does, and he hits for power again, the price might get near $30 million per year, or push to 12 years if teams would rather inflate the contract length rather than the annual salary.
His 2015 performance will go a long way to determining which side of the $200 million coin Heyward falls on. If he struggles with injuries or continues to be a slightly above average hitter, maybe he’ll settle for $175-$200 million, basically just taking the Ellsbury contract and adding a year or two in length. If he hits as he has through his career, I’m guessing $225-$250 million is probably more likely, as he’ll aim for something like the Robinson Cano contract. If he has a breakout year and becomes the hitter that people have been projecting, then $300 million isn’t out of the question. At that point, he’s a a younger version of what Beltran was, but still heading into his prime years, and would easily be the most coveted free agent in years.
This is why the Braves traded him. It’s why I doubt the Cardinals will get him to sign a long-term deal any time soon. They have a history of getting players to take below-market deals to stay in St. Louis, but they’re not going to get Heyward to take $150 million for the peak of his career. He’s bet on himself to this point, and a year from free agency, there’s no reason to sell himself short now. The market doesn’t pay for defense quite the same way it pays for power, but it has paid plenty of similar players enough money that $200 million for Heyward is probably the starting point in negotiations.
Are the Cardinals prepared to go there? I wouldn’t be surprised if they did. I don’t think they gave up four years of Shelby Miller with no plan to even try and keep Heyward, and they know he’s looking at a huge contract in a year if they don’t get him signed. The Cardinals have proven they’ll put their money where UZR’s mouth is, and it paid off nicely with their faith in Jhonny Peralta. They’ll probably face a similar reaction if they give Heyward $200+ million to keep him in St. Louis, but I wouldn’t be surprised if that turned out to be a similarly good idea.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.