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Jason Heyward is not exactly what the Cardinals need, but he is close enough

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Jason Heyward might not be the power bat that the Cardinals sought, but he is an incredible upgrade at right field. The price for one year of Heyward was high, in giving up Shelby Miller and Tyrell Jenkins, but the Cardinals had pitching depth, but lacked a player with Heyward's star potential in the field.

Jheyward
Jheyward
Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

There is a tendency in analyzing trades to immediately figure out who won. Unless there is at least one top prospect, like Wil Myers, whichever team getting the better player "won" the trade. Therefore the Cardinals won the trade. Analysis goes a step further to look at the team that brought itself closer to a championship. Hence, the Cardinals won the trade. Then, determine if one of the teams has a really good track record with trades and acquisitions. Again, the Cardinals won the trade. Declaring the Cardinals the winner of this trade is easy, but it is still just a declaration. The Braves did not give Jason Heyward away.

So we move to the years the teams obtained in order to have a counterargument. The Braves received potentially ten years of control of Shelby Miller and Tyrell Jenkins (actually eleven years if they properly manipulate Jenkins' service time). The Cardinals received just one year of Heyward and two years of reliever Jordan Walden. There are those who will argue that the Cardinals can sign Heyward to an extension, potentially giving the Cardinals more years in the deal. Don't do that. The extension argument is one teams make when they know they have given up too much in a trade, like when the Braves received Justin Upton from the Diamondbacks for Martin Prado and others and Prado received a contract extension.

The Cardinals obtained the exclusive rights to talk with Heyward about an extension for the next year, and they will be able to show Heyward the Cardinals organization for a year, but that is not why they traded for Heyward. Those considerations are minor, perhaps worth the same as the draft pick the Cardinals would receive if Heyward leaves after one year. The last two players the Cardinals brought into the organization and then signed to big contracts, Matt Holliday and Kyle Lohse, both received free agent prices with Holliday not signing a contract until testing free agency for months. The last two players close to free agency to sign extensions, Yadier Molina and Adam Wainwright, spent their entire major league careers with the Cardinals and had significantly more risk to injury as a catcher and pitcher, respectively.

This trade was not made because a Heyward extension is likely or even a possibility. Leaving the contract extension talk for another day, the Cardinals traded for Jason Heyward because he is a massive upgrade, both offensively and defensively over what the Cardinals received from right field in 2014. More importantly, the Cardinals traded for Heyward because he is a massive upgrade over the right field the Cardinals were projected to have in 2015. In giving up Shelby Miller, with Carlos Martinez or Marco Gonzales set to replace him with Jaime Garcia, Tim Cooney and Tyler Lyons set in reserve, the Cardinals are well-positioned to withstand the loss of Miller in 2015. Any loss in the bullpen with Martinez or Gonzales moving to the rotation was also taken care of in the trade by adding Jordan Walden.

Before getting to the gains and losses presented by Heyward, Miller and its aftereffects, John Mozeliak's ability as general manager to make positive changes to the roster should not go unnoticed. Since the end of the 2013 season, Mozeliak has made three complex trades intended to have multiple positive effects on the roster. When the Cardinals traded David Freese and Fernando Salas for Peter Bourjos and Randal Grichuk, Bourjos was acquired to be an ace in center while moving Freese allowed Carpenter to move to a more natural defensive position at third and make room for prospect Kolten Wong to start at second. When Mozeliak traded Allen Craig and Joe Kelly for John Lackey, he obtained Lackey's services not just for the remainder of the season, but for all of 2015 at a league minimum salary. The move also freed up right field for Oscar Taveras. Unfortunately, those moves did not all work out as planned, and in Taveras' case, a tragic loss was suffered. Each move presented multiple moving parts to help the Cardinals at more than one position.

The trade for Heyward was no different. Jason Heyward immediately fixes the Cardinals hole in right field, but it also allows the rotation to get younger and more cost-effective by replacing Shelby Miller with either Carlos Martinez or Marco Gonzales. Less than a week ago, Mozeliak indicated that those two would likely remain in the bullpen where they were needed. As part of the trade, Mozeliak acquired a hard-throwing pitcher in Jordan Walden, lessening the need for both pitchers in the bullpen. Giving up players on the major league roster and prospects on the farm should leave holes, but this trade may have strengthened the Cardinals at multiple roster spots without destroying the Cardinals pitching depth in the majors or the minors.

Giving up Shelby Miller and Tyrell Jenkins stings a little, and it should. The Cardinals picked Miller out of high school in the first round of the 2009 draft and less than a year later, he was among the top 50 prospects in all of baseball according to Baseball America and Baseball Prospectus. He was in the top 20 a year later, and entered the top ten heading into both 2012 and 2013. For the first four months of 2013, Miller justified the hype. His ERA sat at 2.89 and his FIP backed up his ERA at 3.10. He was hit in the forearm with a batted ball in early August, and was never the same pitcher. He finished the season with a solid 2.2 fWAR and placed third in the rookie of the year balloting, but expectations were high heading into 2014, hopeful of recapturing the first half of 2013 where he had accumulated two wins above replacement in just three months.

Miller had another up and down season in 2014, but finished on a higher note than 2013, finally earning that playoff start and providing some optimism that he was learning his craft. He will continue to refine his pitches for Atlanta. Still just 24 years old with four years of control left, Miller's floor is already close to a league average starter. He can be reasonably expected to generate eight wins over his four years in Atlanta, something Heyward will not be able to reproduce in St. Louis. Accepting that Miller will be a good value to Atlanta is not difficult, but we should also accept that Miller still has the ability to get better, to be a number two starter, the player that Lance Lynn has developed into over the past few years.

Atlanta does not "win" the trade if Miller moves on an upward trajectory. The Cardinals are keenly aware that the possibility exists. Choosing to keep Martinez over Miller is not some signal to the baseball world that Miller is broken. Martinez' promise still tantalizes. He is younger, a year further away from arbitration, and his stuff is better right now. Martinez deserves the chance that Miller just received, to prove himself as a starter.

Atlanta does not "win" the trade if Tyrell Jenkins blossoms. Jenkins mini-breakthrough this season after roughly two years of lost time, and most importantly for a 22-year-old, lost development, came as a surprise to most. He is athletic. he throws hard, and he too is learning how to pitch. Jenkins has promise, but the promise comes with red flags. He has never pitched above single-A and he still needs to refine his pitches. The potential outcomes for Jenkins are vast, and as the Cardinals let him go, we should accept already that Jenkins could still reach his potential.

Jordan Walden slides into the role Pat Neshek had last season, the role Carlos Martinez expected to have just 24 hours ago. Walden is a 27-year-old right-handed reliever who throws in the high 90s. He walks too many hitters (10.4% career and 13.2% in 2014), but makes up for it with his strikeouts (28.6% career, 30.2% in 2014). Those strikeouts have managed to keep his ERA and FIP low over his career (3.10, 2.80) as well as 2014 (2.88, 2.79) despite his high walk rate. Walden gives the Cardinals flexibility to move Martinez or Gonzales to the rotation. This move nets out in the bullpen, so the Cardinals are probably not done adding to their bullpen this offseason.

Jason Heyward is by far the best player in this deal. He is just 25-years old. He ranks first in fWAR among National League corner outfielders over the past three seasons, placing just ahead of Giancarlo Stanton and Matt Holliday. He projects as a major upgrade over Randal Grichuk, Stephen Piscotty, or even Jon Jay if the Cardinals chose to start Peter Bourjos in centerfield. Heyward's career line is not eye-popping. A .262/.351/.429 slash line does not bring the impact, power bat the Cardinals ideally needed, but that line was good enough for a 117 wRC+, solidly above average in this depressed offensive era. Heyward is a solid runner, worth roughly three runs above average per year in his career, and hitting that mark exactly in 2014. He stole twenty bases in 2014, and was caught just four times good for a 83.3% success rate.

In addition to an above-average offensive, Heyward brings superlative defense even from right field. No matter which defensive metric is used, Heyward rates as one of the very best rightfielders in the game. Both UZR and Defensive Runs Saved show Heyward  providing tremendous value. He is not a one-year aberration in the field. His numbers have been good for nearly five years now. Metrics using the eye-test, like Inside Edge also rate Heyward highly. Voters in both the Gold Glove (2012, 2014) and the Fielding Bible Award (2012, 2014) recognize his excellence. After he won the Fielding Bible Award this season, his defense inspired this writeup:

The Fielding Bible Award voters were unanimous about Jason Heyward as well. Heyward is the best defensive right fielder in baseball, bar none. He has had double-digit runs saved totals in every season of his five-year career. What makes him so consistently good? He refuses to allow an extra-base hit. Over his career he has been a bit above average on shallow hit balls (+18 plays in the Plus/Minus System) and on medium hit balls (+31). On deeply hit balls he is phenomenal. +140! That means he has saved 140 more bases making catches on deeply hit balls than an average right fielder. He was +40 on deeply hit balls in 2014 alone. Think of it like this: he saved 20 doubles last year! He excels at picking the ball up quickly off the bat and he always takes a good route to the ball. Overall, he had 32 Runs Saved for the Braves defensively in 2014, the highest total at any position in 2014 and a career high for Heyward.

Heyward does come with some concerns. Heyward's isolated slugging has gone down from .210 in 2012 to .173 in 2013 to .113 in 2014. As the Cardinals have seen with Allen Craig, the power does not automatically return. Heyward is still young enough, at 25, that his power could be recovered. Heyward appeared to be taking more outside pitches the other way last season and had little success on those pitches. A change in approach could lead to a return to Heyward's power stroke.

Unlike Craig, Heyward has been a patient hitter, drawing walks if the hits were not falling in. His 11.2% career walk rate is nearly identical to Matt Carpenter (11.5%) and his 10.3% walk rate was behind only Carpenter (13.8%) and Matt Holliday (11.1%) for 2014 Cardinals. Even though his power was down in 2014, Heyward still rated above average at the plate (110 wRC+) and that is before his contributions on the basepaths or in the field are added in. As a complete player, Heyward was the tenth most valuable position player in the National League using fWAR (5.1).

Heyward solidifies a lineup that currently has no weak links heading into 2015. Every single position player projects, according to Steamer, to have an above average WAR (2.0 or above), and every player except Kolten Wong projects to have a wRC+ above 100 (Wong comes in at 97 and with decent baserunning, could still end up above average offensively). Heyward has struggled against lefties, putting up a .221/.301/.349 line with a wRC+ of 88 against them in his career (Matt Adams, who is older than Heyward, has a wRC+ against lefties of 51, for reference). Heyward's overall stat line includes a healthy number of plate appearances against lefties. He has not been platooned and still put up good offensive production overall, and his defense makes up for deficiencies on offense against lefthanders.

Regardless of the outcomes for Miller and Jenkins, the trade is a win for the Cardinals. They improved on the field at the only position they were deficient in by obtaining one of the best young players in all of baseball. They gave up a pitcher who has ready replacements in the rotation, fortified the bullpen and did not give up one of their top five prospects.

The Cardinals did not quite go all-in for 2015, but they are pretty close. This trade comes with risks. At the end of 2015, the Cardinals could be left without Heyward and are already absent Miller. If Grichuk or Piscotty do not improve, right field will again be a hole. Bourjos and Jay are controlled only through 2016. Holliday, Molina, and Peralta are all on the wrong side of 30. After Lackey departs at the end of next season, the Cardinals surplus of starters will be gone, waiting for the next wave to come in. Wainwright, Wacha, Lynn, Martinez, and Gonzales should be a solid rotation in 2016, but there will not likely be another top prospect ready should any of those players falter.

The Cardinals are most definitely built to win in 2015. They still have the resources and players to compete beyond next season, but with the pending emergence of the Cubs, the Cardinals are clearly placing an emphasis on winning in 2015 while this window exists. Jason Heyward is a young, exciting player that the Cardinals might end up building their franchise around. The Cardinals have not acquired a player on Heyward's level in half a dozen years. The opportunities are rare and the Cardinals appropriately jumped at the chance. The Cardinals' front office continues to make aggressive moves to make sure the Cardinals remain ahead of the curve, reloading without sacrificing the future. That's all you can ask for from a franchise, at least until April.