Have the Cardinals already lost the Jason Heyward trade?

Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

When the St. Louis Cardinals traded starting pitcher Shelby Miller and minor league starter Tyrell Jenkins to the Atlanta Braves on November 17 of last year for right fielder Jason Heyward and reliever Jordan Walden, it made sense. Miller, after being a Rookie of the Year candidate in 2013, had an iffy 2014: He was worth a pedestrian 1.6 wins above replacement per Baseball Reference and was a very underwhelming 0.5 WAR per Fangraphs and 0.4 WAR per Baseball Prospectus. And after the loss of Oscar Taveras just twenty-two days earlier, the Cardinals landed a replacement in Heyward that there was reason to believe would match Taveras's charisma while greatly surpassing his 2014 production--the 2014 season was a down year for Heyward offensively and yet he still managed 6.2, 5.2, and 6.0 wins according to the aforementioned equations. With that said, Shelby Miller was due to make the league minimum in 2015 and be paid at a significant discount before hitting free agency after the 2018 season and Jason Heyward was scheduled for free agency at the end of the 2015 season. That we are asking if the Miller for Heyward trade was a loss for the Cardinals should not surprise anybody.

That we are asking on May 19, 2015 is a bit more alarming.

Short of catastrophic injury, it's nearly impossible to imagine more factors working against the Cardinals with this trade to this point in the season. Shelby Miller has pitched terrifically, posting a 1.33 ERA in 54 innings in 2015. Like virtually every player with an ERA that low, his peripheral statistics imply he's not a true-talent 1.33 ERA pitcher, but even so, if he duplicates his 2014 innings total of 183, his fielding-independent pitching fueled Fangraphs WAR projects to be 3.4 WAR. Jason Heyward, meanwhile, has turned in a mediocre 2015 thusfar, posting 0.2 fWAR and 0.2 bWAR, with an even worse -0.2 WARP on Baseball Prospectus. While Miller had appeared expendable to the Cardinals due to pitching depth in the organization, injuries to Jaime Garcia, Marco Gonzales, and particularly Adam Wainwright would make Shelby Miller a very valuable commodity to the team. And in the meantime, Jason Heyward's presence means that when both are healthy, either Peter Bourjos (3.1 fWAR per 600 PA based on 2014-15 production) or Jon Jay (3.4 fWAR by the same standard) is relegated to the bench.

The trade is often, understandably, compared to the December 2003 trade in which the Cardinals sent J.D. Drew, like Heyward one year away from free agency, and Eli Marrero to the Atlanta Braves for Jason Marquis, Ray King, and prospect Adam Wainwright. But that trade started out very poorly for the team which had traded away its free agency-bound right fielder. The young starter who was the centerpiece of the deal did not even play in MLB in 2004 while J.D. Drew finished 6th in MVP voting, worth 8.3 bWAR and 8.6 fWAR. As great as the 2004 Cardinals offense was, it would've undoubtedly been stronger with J.D. Drew as the everyday right fielder instead of Reggie Sanders. It wasn't until years later that it became clear that while the Braves may have won the battle, the Cardinals won the war. Meanwhile, Miller-Heyward is already paying dividends for the team with the long-term trade strategy.

In retrospect, I do wonder how much of my enthusiasm for the Heyward deal (and I supported it at the time) was my desire for it to work. Jason Heyward was to be the best young Cardinals position player since Albert Pujols. In a city which had experienced a truly horrible year for race relations in which, fairly or unfairly, the Cardinals became viewed nationally as a symbol of a city grossly unaware of its own warts, Jason Heyward was to be the team's first African-American star since Ray Lankford. Jason Heyward wasn't supposed to make us forget about Oscar Taveras, per se, but he was supposed to live up to the impossible expectations that Taveras did not live long enough to inevitably fall short of.

Before his first game with the Atlanta Braves in 2010, Jason Heyward caught a ceremonial first pitch from Hank Aaron. It was supposed to a torch-passing of sorts. Amazingly, it's impossible to say for sure which team had more unreasonable expectations of him.

To finally get around to answer my titular question: No, but it's getting increasingly difficult to imagine a scenario in which the Cardinals do not lose the Jason Heyward trade. And I fully believe that Jason Heyward will, for the remainder of 2015, be closer to what was expected of him than what he has produced so far as a Cardinal. ZiPS rest-of-season projections have Heyward with a 3.2 WAR season, which is a perfectly fine season. It obliterates the production from right field that the Cardinals got in 2013 and 2014 and it actually comes surprisingly close to Carlos Beltran's 3.3 WAR season of 2012. But Shelby Miller, at league minimum, projects for 2.5 WAR. Heyward would exceed the expected WAR return on the free agent market of a player with his salary by about two wins, but Miller would manage to exceed his salary (league minimum) by even more while then providing another three seasons at below-market prices.

But this is merely an example of the trade not being an unmitigated disaster. And it's absolutely believable that this trade will come across historically as a mild loss for the Cardinals. Maybe Shelby Miller regresses back to the fickle player he was in 2014. But regardless, the one hope that all Cardinals fans should have is that the team now considers the Jason Heyward trade a sunk cost. Whether it was a good trade or a bad trade (and it's increasingly looking like the latter), it happened, and now the Cardinals have Jason Heyward, a 25 year old who has shown flashes of brilliance but has also shown signs of lingering disappointment. Even before this season, Heyward was never quite the generational hitter that hype suggested he could and would be.

And at the end of the season, the Cardinals will have to make a decision on whether or not they want to invest in Jason Heyward going forward. And since I have no idea what the price would be, I don't have an opinion on whether or not the Cardinals should make that investment. But the best case scenario for the Cardinals is to not act out of emotion. It seems unlikely that Heyward will give any substantial discount to the Cardinals going forward (and I don't blame him; the day that I decide I don't want to make more money at my job is the day that I start labeling baseball players as selfish and greedy). The Cardinals may have already made a mistake in trading for one season of Jason Heyward; hopefully, they won't dig a deeper hole by throwing an irrational amount of money at him in order to attempt to justify the trade. But by the same token, I can only hope the Cardinals don't take Heyward's disappointing season personally--any player wants to do well, but especially a player with as many millions on the line as Jason Heyward has. If Heyward continues to struggle and can't even clear a single win above replacement (this is not a prediction) and the team can somehow sign Jason Heyward at a comically low rate long-term, it would be in the club's best long-term interests. And it would not change the fact that the St. Louis Cardinals would have lost the Jason Heyward trade.