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Jason Heyward is more important to the Cardinals than ever

The Cardinals should sign Jason Heyward because the Cubs should sign him, too.

Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

The Cardinals might not do anything of note this offseason.  The Winter Meetings will be over soon, and the Cardinals may very well cruise through winter and field a team in April with some new faces but none of the marquee names from this rich pool of free agency.  And all the talk about "flexing payroll muscle" will be for naught.

It could happen.  Elite pitchers like David Price and Zack Greinke are already gone.  So is Jeff Samardzija, whose near 9-figure deal to the Giants seemed pricey given his brief and underwhelming stint with the White Sox but he's still a pitcher who's just a year removed from a 4.1 fWAR season.  The Cardinals missed out on John Lackey, too.  Personally, I would have liked two more years of Lackey at what is essentially qualifying offer money that he got from the Cubs, especially since he will now be aiding and abetting a division rival.  It was by no means outrageous to let him go; he's 37-years old and his home/road splits are profound enough that I think it's fair to wonder if taking the mound at pitcher-friendly Busch Stadium for half of his starts was one of his biggest strengths.  But still, the Cardinals not only lost a reliable asset, but lost that asset to their rival and likely biggest threat to block them from another NL Central title.  The Cubs needed a reliable third starter and they got one at the Cardinals' expense.  That stings.

Then there's Johnny Cueto, easily the best pitcher still available, and according to his agent a good fit with the Cardinals.  You may have heard Cueto has some ugly history with the Cardinals, and Derrick Goold seemed to recently imply that the 2010 incident is not forgotten inside the Cardinals' clubhouse.  For me, that was a long time ago, and I believe his agent when he says that if Cueto could change how he reacted in the heat of that moment he would do so in a heartbeat.  That said, it would still feel weird to not only see him in a Cardinals' uniform but, to Goold's point, also as the highest paid Cardinal in history.  I think I'll pass.

As for the bats, Ben Zobrist got scooped up by the Cubs late Tuesday evening.  Other notable free agents like Chris Davis, Justin Upton, Yoenis Cespedes, Alex Gordon, et al, don't seem to be on the Cardinals' radar at the moment nor should they be as the focus belongs squarely on Jason Heyward.  And to be fair to the Cardinals inactivity up to this point, that seems to be where the attention is at the moment and that's a good thing.  Heyward has been the best free agent available this entire time, which, in addition to his unique skill set, is why it was inevitable that signing him was always going to be a grind.

The Angels, a team who wasn't afraid to outbid everyone the last time the Cardinals had an elite free agent on the market, have reportedly expressed interest.

So have the Giants.

And losing Heyward to the Giants - a team the Cardinals haven't been able to conquer since Jeffrey Leonard was running around with one flap down would just be the pits.

There's a worse destination for Heyward though and that would be if he, like Lackey, signs with another team in the NL Central.  Besides St. Louis, there is only one logical landing spot.  The Reds and Brewers are rebuilding, and the Pirates already have a crowded and talented outfield.  That leaves, again, the Cubs, who are not only rumored to be interested, but who would also benefit mightily from Heyward's services.

Sahadev Sharma outlined this well last week at BP Wrigleyville, but the Cubs outfield defense and contact hitting weren't their strong points in 2015.  Defensive metrics are tricky (I'll confess to not truly understanding a lot of them) and therefore it's debatable just how bad the Cubs were in the outfield but you don't have to see too many Retweets of Jorge Soler positioned for a chalk outline or Kyle Schwarber badly misplaying several fly balls in the NLCS to correctly guess that it would be in the best interest of the Cubs to upgrade their outfield defense.  As for contact rate, the Cubs as a whole ranked last in baseball, and struck out 1,518 times, which, as Jon Morosi noted, was the third highest in MLB history.

With the Zobrist signing, the Cubs have already brought in one player who excels at putting the bat on the ball.  Heyward's plate discipline would help them even more.  In 2015, he had an 84.2 percent contact rate which was the fourth best in baseball and would have ranked first on the Cubs for every day players.  Dexter Fowler, who Heyward would likely be replacing, had a contact rate of 80.2 percent.  Of course, Heyward's best known commodity is his defense.  He's coming off his third Gold Glove in four years in right field and had UZR (20.2) and DRS (24) numbers that ranked in the top five in the major leagues for 2015.  Granted, Fowler played a different position - center field - but he did not rate well in either category (-1.7 and -12, respectively).  As the Cubs currently stand, outfielders Schwarber and Soler are bats the Cubs will want in the lineup, but both are unlikely candidates to handle center field, so if the Cubs landed Heyward that would be his job.  August Fagerstrom of FanGraphs recently observed that even though Heyward has spent a bulk of his career in right field, he's so good defensively he can absolutely pull off center field.  And we as Cardinals fans know this because we've seen it, most recently in the NLDS.

In Nick Lampe's post on Monday, he used Steamer projections to configure National League team WAR totals which suggested that the Cardinals, without Heyward, would be an approximate 86-win team in 2016 and just on the outside looking in on the wild card picture.  The Cubs (pre-Zobrist signing) were projected to be five wins better than the Cardinals.  Add Heyward to the Cardinals and they close the gap considerably on the Cubs.  Replace Fowler on the Cubs with Heyward, which Steamer projects to be an increase of 3.0 fWAR, and the gap likely widens even more.  Heyward's projections might slightly change if he's counted on to play center field instead of his normal position, but adding him to the Cubs roster in 2016 seem like a significant upgrade regardless.  Add in the fact that the Cardinals could be seeing him in Cubbie blue 19 times a year for the next decade, which is what Heyward is reportedly after, and this all starts to feel like a significant other leaving you for someone you not only dislike but who lives nearby and is an admitted perfect fit.  No thank you.

In the two wild card team era, and the 2014 World Series notwithstanding, the ideal way for a team to position itself for postseason success is to win the division and not be burdened with a random, play-in game.  To that end, sitting out this offseason would be a mistake for the Cardinals.  But the good news is they'll only need to make one big move and that's sign Jason Heyward.  If that means overpaying because Theo Epstein drove up the price then so be it.  They'll not only help themselves but also deny a division foe the opportunity to improve.  Perhaps Heyward will move on or worse wind up with the Cubs and the Cardinals will pull the ultimate devil magic trick and still win the NL Central, but I'd prefer it if they didn't take that chance.