What does a Heyward extension look like?


We're all familiar with the Cardinals biggest move of the offseason, which saw the Cards bring in Jason Heyward (and the currently injured Jordan Walden) and send out Shelby Miller (and prospect Tyrell Jenkins). It wasn't long before talk of an extension began. Some, like myself, supported giving Heyward a long-term commitment, a 9 or 10 year contract approaching (or even exceeding) $200 million. This was largely based on the following:

  1. The preseason projections saw Heyward as a 4-5 WAR talent
  2. As a corollary to 1, adding an young elite talent would be nice with our current core aging.
  3. Heyward was unique in his ability to offer many prime years.
  4. While our current outfield is crowded, it will be thinning out in the near future
Fangraphs' preseason projections, which combine Zips and Steamer projections for rate stats and then use writer-maintained depth charts for playing time, gave Jason Heward a 4.8 WAR projection. That was with a .269/.350/.432 slash line good for a 122 wRC+ and 11.4 runs above average on defense. The projection was calling for a slight improvement from his 117 career wRC+ and some regression from his stellar defensive numbers from the last three years. That seems fair, considering he was entering his age 25 season and his outlier status as a defender.

The projections have soured a bit as you'd expect considering his poor start. He is projected for the rest of the season to put up a 116 wRC+. He is forecast for 2.3 WAR in 318 PA, or a 4.3 WAR over 600 PA. So Heyward's early season struggles lead the projections to dock him one half win over a full season, a not insignificant amount. But that's still a valuable player.

The question is: Is Heyward due a ten year deal at this point? I really don't think so. There isn't much precedence for a player like him signing a ten year deal, and his slow play out of the gate might have made it all the more unlikely. Because of Heywards' age (next year is his age 26 season) he will probably prefer at this point to sign a 4 or 5 year deal that allows him to test free agency again at 30 or 31. This would be fantastic for the Cardinals to sign him for that term, as we would be buying at most just one decline season.

How much then, is Heyward's prime worth? Still a whole lot. Heck, even if we just take his performance so far this year, with the early struggles (1.6 WAR in 254 PA) he's still played like a 3.8 WAR/year player thus far. So Heyward is a valuable asset. This latest off season had teams on average signing free agent talent at a $7-$7.5 million rate. Let's take the low end of that and assume 5% inflation in the next year's offseason. I tend to think it was higher than $7 million last year and because player's salaries are very low despite exploding revenues I think the inflation will be higher than 5% next year , but let's take the conservative approach. As is standard we will deduct a half a win in each decline year, which would begin in Heyward's fifth free agent eligible season.

So what are those 4 or 5 years worth then with these inputs? First let's go based on his Rest of Season projection, spread out over 600 PA/year to get a full season:

Year 2016 2017 2018 2019 2020 Total
Age Age 26 Age 27 Age 28 Age 29 Age 30
$/WAR 7.35 7.72 8.10 8.51 8.93
WAR 4.3 4.3 4.3 4.3 3.8 21
Value 31.61 33.19 34.84 36.59 33.95 170.17

As you can see, under current market conditions it will be difficult to actually overpay Heyward if you believe the projections. Let's say you think his performance to date in 2015 is closer to the player he is. The numbers are still pretty big:

Year 2016 2017 2018 2019 2020 Total
Age Age 26 Age 27 Age 28 Age 29 Age 30
$/WAR 7.35 7.72 8.10 8.51 8.93
WAR 3.8 3.8 3.8 3.8 3.3 18.5
Value 27.93 29.33 30.79 32.33 29.48 149.86

So even with the horrible April representing about a third of the sample size, Heyward has still played like a very good player, and as you can see when a very good player has many prime years to sell, he is a pretty valuable commodity. Now, of course a lot of people will say that defense doesn't get paid as well on the open market. That has been true to an extent. But I see that as an opportunity to lock up a valuable commodity at a discount. As these calculations show, a 5 year/$120 million deal would discount the defense pretty heavily and still be an attractive contract to Heyward and his agent (and allow them to possibly cash in big again in the 2020-2021 offseason). This is especially true if he enjoys his time in St. Louis this year and prefers to stay a Cardinal.

Let's say though that hypothetically Heyward and his agent insist on a ten year deal, do to his relative youth and proximity to free agency. First starting with the projected numbers:

Year 2016 2017 2018 2019 2020 2021 2022 2023 2024 2025 Total
Age Age 26 Age 27 Age 28 Age 29 Age 30 Age 31 Age 32 Age 33 Age 34 Age 35
$/WAR 7.35 7.72 8.10 8.51 8.93 9.38 9.85 10.34 10.86 11.40
WAR 4.3 4.3 4.3 4.3 3.8 3.3 2.8 2.3 1.8 1.3 32.5
Value 31.61 33.19 34.84 36.59 33.95 30.96 27.58 23.79 19.55 14.82 286.86

And then based on the season-to-date numbers:

Year 2016 2017 2018 2019 2020 2021 2022 2023 2024 2025 Total
Age Age 26 Age 27 Age 28 Age 29 Age 30 Age 31 Age 32 Age 33 Age 34 Age 35
$/WAR 7.35 7.72 8.10 8.51 8.93 9.38 9.85 10.34 10.86 11.40
WAR 3.8 3.8 3.8 3.8 3.3 2.8 2.3 1.8 1.3 0.8 27.5
Value 27.93 29.33 30.79 32.33 29.48 26.27 22.65 18.62 14.12 9.12 240.64

And while some will be quick to say that Heyward would decline quicker because defense declines quicker than other skills, they would be wrong. While Heyward's defense would decline, athletic players like Heyward see their bat decline much slower because of said athleticism. Think Rickey Henderson, although of course he's only one data point. So while it would be a risky endeavor, a 10 year/$180-$200 Million deal for Heyward at this point seems to be worth the price.

There's also the angle that the Cardinals represent a very good fit for Heyward, both because of his position and the Cardinal's future payrolls. While we have some bigger deals on the books right now in Wainwright, Holliday, and Molina, we can still fit in another $18-$20 Million salary and stay under budget (or at least not over budget). Especially when you consider that Heyward is on the books for $8.3 Million this year, making next year only a $10 Million raise. While our resources may be constrained a bit in the next couple of years, it won't be long before the bigger salaries come off the books.

There's also the coming mass exodus of outfielders on the Cardinals' major league team. Heyward is set to leave this year, followed by Jon Jay and Peter Bourjos at the end of 2016. Holliday's last guaranteed year is also 2016, but we hold an option for the 2017 season. But who knows what type of player 37 year old Holliday will be? Resigning Heyward at least gives us a very good outfielder under contract for 2018. Grichuk and Piscotty will still be under control at that point, but they also come with high error bars, particularly Piscotty who has yet to play in a major league game. Counting on just one of them being a starting caliber player is probably closer to the average outcome than both of them.

While I would much prefer a five year deal to a ten year deal, I wouldn't walk away if it took ten. Heyward's prime years are worth a boatload of money and it might require subsidizing some decline years. Premium position players don't reach free agency very often anymore and supply and demand dictates he'll be paid handsomely. Recent years in the free agent market has showed that the players have preferred more years even if it means a hit in AAV. Ten years is a long time but the Cardinals front office is in the business of analyzing risk. I would prefer a shorter term pact though, and if they got him for 5 year/$120 million I would probably do something similar to what The Red Baron did when we drafted Rob Kaminsky. At the same time, a ten year deal for Heyward is still a great move because of all the prime years he has to offer. 10 years/$200 million still isn't a bad deal even if you think who he's been thus far in 2015 is his real talent level. I'm willing to bet that he's even better than that though, and the projections agree. I think Heyward is worth opening DeWallet for.