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Cardinals should rush to sign Jason Heyward to an extension

Jason Heyward is a rare player, combining production and youth just a year from free agency. This winter might be the only chance the Cardinals have to lock up Heyward long term. If Heyward has another good season in 2015, the free agency prices may blow the Cardinals out of the water for a player who still have five seasons left in his twenties.

Denis Poroy/Getty Images

Three years ago, the Cardinals decided not to pay for past performance, instead insisting that 31-year-old Albert Pujols be paid based on expected future production. The Cardinals made Pujols a massive offer, but were outbid by the Angels. Pujols left, the Cardinals moved on, and John Mozeliak and Cardinals' ownership look wise for failing to make the highest bid. Fast-forward three years and the Cardinals are presented with a different sort of problem. Newly acquired Jason Heyward will enter his Age-25 season (the age on July 31 of that year) just one year away from free agency. John Mozeliak and company need to determine the future production of a potential superstar with multiple prime years still ahead of him. If Jason Heyward is not set on exploring free agency, the Cardinals should do everything in their power to lock him up.

Jason Heyward has been a very good player since entering the league as a 20-year-old five years ago. He has put up above average offensive numbers and excellent defense in his five seasons. Some of Heyward's value is based on incredible defense, but both Fangraphs and Baseball-Reference, which use different methods for evaluating defense agree on his prowess. He has been worth on average more four wins above replacement (4.3 fangraphs, 4.9 B-ref, see previous links), inlcuding seasons above five (5.1 Fangraphs, 6.3 Baseball-Reference) in 2014. Steamer600 (based on receiving 600 plate appearances) projects 4.9 wins above replacement in 2015, the system's tenth highest projection for position players. Using his past performance and projections for 2015, we can attempt to place a value on his worth going forward.

If we estimate that Jason Heyward will be worth on average 4.5 wins per season in his 25-29 seasons and then lose half a win every season we can estimate the value of a potential long-term contract. Assuming that one win will be worth $7 million on average over the course of the contract, and that Heywad will lose half a win per season in his 30s, we come up with this chart that brings a bit of sticker shock. (Chart starts in 2016)

Age Seasonal WAR Seasonal Value Accumulated WAR Accumulated Value
26 4.5 31.5 4.5 31.5
27 4.5 31.5 9 63
28 4.5 31.5 13.5 94.5
29 4.5 31.5 18 126
30 4 28 22 154
31 3.5 24.5 25.5 178.5
32 3 21 28.5 209.5
33 2.5 18.5 31 228
34 2 14 33 242

Add in the roughly eight million that Heyward is owed in the coming season, and a reasonable argument can be made that an extension to Heyward should be in the range of ten years and $250 million starting in 2015. Of course, Heyward is still a year from free agency so that value should be discounted. How much of a discount is difficult to say. Guaranteeing Heyward more than ten times the money he has earned in his first six seasons is a major step up, and by playing in 2015, Heyward risks security without an extension. If the long-term deal discounts, say 20% off the value, the contract comes in right around $200 million. (In my post after the trade, I discounted the value of exclusive negotiating rights with Heyward. It was pointed out in the comments by Guayzimi that I downplayed those rights in evaluating the trade. This post should correct that oversight, although I do not think a lack of an extension ruins the trade.)

In looking at similar contracts and similar player for a potential extension for Heyward, Dave Cameron wrote:

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.

While Cameron is speculating from the outside, in his chat earlier this week, Derrick Goold, a little closer to the Cardinals' thinking, offered a different take:

Dave Cameron suggest it will take at least $200 million to lockup Heyward. Can you see the Cards going into these waters? They have the payroll to do so, right? Thanks
by John November 18 at 12:49 PM

I don't believe it will take that much.
by Derrick Goold November 18 at 12:49 PM

The disparity exists because, as both Cameron and Goold noted, teams pay so much more for power than they do defense. Heyward has hit for power before, belting 27 homers in 2012, and John Mozeliak indicated in an interview with Chris Hrabe at KMOX (the link also includes a Heyward interview indicating the Braves never made an effort the last two years to keep Heyward long-term), that the Cardinals GM believed the loss of power the last few years was approach-based after being put in the leadoff spot. If Mozeliak believes Heyward's power will return, he needs to get Heyward signed before the season starts because the price could get astronomical.

Dating back to Matt Holliday's re-signing with the Cardinals, ten free agent position players have received $100 million contracts. (From MLB Trade Rumors)

Player Age at FA Contract Years Contract $
Shin-Soo Choo 30 7 130
Robinson Cano 31 10 240
Jacoby Ellsbury 29 7 153
Josh Hamilton 31 5 125
Prince Fielder 27 9 214
Albert Pujols 31 10 240
Jose Reyes 28 6 106
Carl Crawford 28 7 142
Jayson Worth 31 7 126
Matt Holliday 29 7 120

Do you know what these contracts have to do with Jason Heyward? Almost nothing. Teams guaranteed salaries for 75 years in these contracts, but they paid for just two seasons in a player's twenties. They received just the Age-29 seasons of Carl Crawford and Jose Reyes. Every other year of those contracts occurs in the players' thirties. After 2015, Jason Heyward will play four more seasons in his twenties.

Free agents are not the only players to sign $100 million contracts. Many teams have locked up players before they became free agents, but it is rare to do so just a year before free agency. Mike Trout, Freddie Freeman, Buster Posey and Evan Longoria were all three or more years away from free agency when they signed their extensions. Ryan Zimmerman, Joey Votto, Dustin Pedroia, and Miguel Cabrera were all two years from free agency when they reupped and none of them were set to hit free agency before age 28. Elvis Andrus and Giancarlo Stanton would have been 25 and 26, respectively, when they hit free agency if they had not signed extensions two years out.

The only players in the previous three offseasons to sign big deals a year out from free agency were David Wright, who signed an 8-year, $138 million contract before his Age-30 season and Matt Kemp, who signed an 8-year, $160 million contract before his Age-27 season. Jason Heyward is about to enter his Age-25 season. All contracts have risks for the teams that give them out, but Heyward is rare because he entered the majors so young and most teams give players with established production like Heyward a new contract buying out the free agent years in their prime. There is the potential for the market to undervalue Heyward right now because he receives a lot of value from defense and teams almost never have the opportunity to pay for years 26-29. A year from now, the opportunity to beat the market will likely be gone.

For some perspective, here are a few of the Cardinals long term contracts as well as a player under control and the age the Cardinals have them signed through. The last column is the number of years the Cardinals would need to offer Heyward to keep him a Cardinals player through that age.

Player Age in final contract season Heyward seasons to reach same Age
Jon Jay 31 7
Allen Craig 32 8
Matt Carpenter 33 9
Yadier Molina 34 10
Jhonny Peralta 35 11
Matt Holliday 36 12

Jon Jay has not signed an extension. He is simply going through arbitration and at Age-31 could be a free agent. To keep Heyward until his Age-31 season, the Cardinals would need to offer him a seven-year contract. It is easy to focus on the years of a potential Heyward contract, but it is better to examine the seasons the team is getting.

In his last column on Heyward, Bernie Miklasz indicated that the Cardinals could afford to keep Heyward, but that 2015 would dictate whether Heyward stuck around. Derrick Goold joined Milkasz' opinion on twitter.

I agree with Bernie that the Cardinals can afford Heyward, but I'm not sure I agree with the assessment about 2015. If Heyward has type of 2015 where the Cardinals want to keep him around, his price tag will likely push the Cardinals out of the bidding. In a free agent class headlined by position players like Justin Upton, Matt Wieters, Chris Davis, and 31-year old Alex Gordon, a 25-year old Jason Heyward would be primed to lead the class if he is following another solid year.

If Derrick Goold is right that the Cardinals can sign Heyward for under $200 million, they should make that deal before the season starts. If Heyward has a good year, the deal will look like a steal (although as pointed out by Dan Moore, maybe not to all Cardinals' fans). If he has a less than stellar year, the Cardinals will still have a young player with proven production locked up for the rest of his twenties. Five of the eight projected starters for the Cardinals are 29 or older with only Heyward, Matt Adams, Kolten Wong and Matt Carpenter still in their twenties. Signing Heyward keeps the Cardinals younger as the rest of the core continues into their 30s.

Signing Heyward is a rare opportunity, and we do not know, given the contract Stanton just received, if Heyward is bound for free agency without something close to Stanton. If Heyward is agreeable to an extension, the Cardinals should not wait to see how 2015 plays out. This winter and next spring very well could be the only real opportunity the Cardinals' have if they want to keep him past 2015.