clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

A Consideration of Two Outfielders and Their Potential Contracts, and Some Carlos Martinez Hyperventilation

New, 133 comments

Jason Heyward is coming down to the end of his first season in Cardinal red, and there has been plenty of speculation about his next contract. Considered in light of another prominent outfield free agent, Heyward's next deal is an interesting cipher, to be sure.

Consider the majestic Heyward.
Consider the majestic Heyward.
Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

Good morning, all.

I'm writing this in a terrible hurry; I apologise for both the tardiness and brevity, but hey, things come up occasionally.

I have two things today:

First, a consideration of two players, both of whom will be hitting the market this particular offseason. We all know Jason Heyward. We all (mostly), love Jason Heyward, save a few holdouts who have stubbornly dug in their heels and like to go on about home run totals or, worse yet, RBI numbers as reasons not to sign Heyward to a long-term contract.

The thing is this: Jason Heyward has been one of the best young players in all of baseball since the day he set foot on a major league field, and this year is really no different. He is the best player on one of the best teams in baseball. FanGraphs pegs him for 4.9 wins above replacement on the season, while Baseball-Reference's version of the WAR statistic likes him even more, to the tune of a 5.4 total.

To be sure, the way in which he has gotten to those totals is not the most orthodox. A very large percentage of the value Heyward brings to the table is of what I like to think of as more or less invisible value; the kind of value amassed wearing a glove or running the bases, doing all the things old-timers would once have lauded a player for, and held up as reasons why Marty Marion was once worth an MVP award, and the sabery types of ten to fifteen years ago would have scoffed at. Nowadays the numbers people are saying Heyward is one of the most valuable players in baseball, and the so-called old-school fans out there want to know why he's 6'5" and only has twelve homers and 55 RBIs.

Even with a large amount of Heyward's value coming on the bases and in the field, where it's much harder to concretely pin down when and where he's really adding value, it should not be ignored he is, in fact, having a pretty great season offensively as well. As of this morning, Heyward's season line stands at .296/.356/.449, good for a 121 wRC+, or in other words, 21% better than a league-average hitter. Now, to be fair, it doesn't necessarily look like the line a man of his massive proportions would be producing; looking at Heyward, you might expect him to be doing something more along the lines of Giancarlo Stanton's hitting line. But that's not Heyward. Never has been, probably never will be. And strangely enough, Jason Heyward of 2015 looks suspiciously like a Cardinal hitter; in other words, his line is pretty much what we would expect from, say, Matt Carpenter. The walk rate is a bit low, at just 8.5% on the season, but much of that comes from his very slow start to the season, which obviously can't be discounted, but increasingly feels like some other player.

Since the 1st of June, Heyward's line is even more impressive: over 362 plate appearances, Heyward has hit .319/.383/.477. That's an OPS of .860, which in this offensive environment is positively elite. His walk rate over that span is 10.2%, while his strikeout rate is just 12.7%. He has 22 doubles, four triples, and seven home runs. He has stolen 17 bases, and been caught only twice. No, we should not discount or ignore the early part of the season, when Heyward was not laying waste to the league, albeit in an oddly quiet manner, but the fact is for the biggest part of the year, and the part after he got over some initial struggles with swing adjustments and perhaps some self-inflicted pressure, Jason Heyward has been a monster.

He is 26 years old, which is a staggeringly young age, considering he will be hitting free agency this offseason. We all know all of these things. Still, to see them all laid out is important, I think. In 2012, Heyward was a 6.5 fWAR player. In 2013, he got hit in the face with a baseball, and missed considerable time. Even so, in just over 100 games he was worth 3.4 wins. Last year, he was worth 5.2 WAR. He's probably going to end up close to 6.0 wins this season. In other words, if you're looking for a consistent source of value, a centerpiece player for a championship-caliber team, it's hard to imagine a better bet than Jason Heyward, even if the shape of his value is a little different than you might expect.

On the other hand, you have Yoenis Cespedes, who has made such a remarkable impression on baseball since joining the New York Mets at the trade deadline this season. Cespedes was the Mets' second choice, actually, after the Carlos Gomez deal rather infamously fell through, but he's absolutely been a godsend for the pond scum, and has as much to do with their current position atop the NL East as just about any player on that squad.

And here's the thing about Cespedes: he's exactly the sort of big, hairy beast in the middle of the lineup that I'm sure many Cardinal fans think the Redbirds need. And when I say I'm sure many think that, I mean I've heard and read plenty of people say pretty much exactly that. So no conjecture needed, really.

To be sure, Cespedes is having an incredible season. He's hitting .296/.332/.558, with 35 homers and a .263 ISO. His 141 wRC+ makes Jason Heyward's batting line look all the more modest by comparison. And to top it all off, Cespedes has been worth a huge number of runs on defense this season, even moving over to center field for the Mets and playing there at a surprisingly solid level.

I say surprisingly because, up until this season, Cespedes was a fairly mediocre corner outfielder, rather than an above-average center fielder. I view his ability to repeat this defensive performance with some definite skepticism, honestly, but for now, it's working for him in a big way.

Since Cespedes and Jason Heyward occupy fairly similar positions on the defensive spectrum, i.e. both of them have the physical toolsets of rightfielders, and both have played at least some center as well at a reasonably productive rate, it's easy to see them as directly comparable players. And, really, that's not the worst way to look at things.

Part of the reason I'm putting these two against each other is because of some recent scuttlebutt about contracts, beginning with Jeff Passan's column this past weekend regarding where the contracts of various free agent players might end up. In it, he puts Cespedes somewhere north of $125 million, probably approaching $160 million. In that same column, he pegs Jason Heyward between $140-175 million, over seven or eight years, possibly with an opt out after four.

The day after that, there was a piece in the Belleville News-Democrat, which I read with a fair bit of interest, because pretty much everything regarding the possible Jason Heyward deal we might be looking at soon is of interest to me these days. In this particular piece, the author, one Scott Wuerz, opines the Cardinals would be insane to give Heyward the kind of deal Passan is suggesting, particularly in terms of the opt-out clause after four seasons. Personally, I find the idea of an opt-out fairly distasteful, simply because it feels like entering into a marriage agreeing to reassess every five years or so, which may be good business practice, but just...ick. However, when you're talking about a baseball contract, even if I don't care for the feel of an opt-out, it's almost surely a great idea for both the club and the player.

For instance, if the Cardinals were to sign Heyward to a deal with a four-year opt-out, that would cover his age 26, 27, 28, and 29 years, while putting him back on the market at 30. That's still young enough for him to get paid again, in a huge way, and I'm sure if you're offering the Cardinals what will probably be four of the best six years of Heyward's career, they would take that in a heartbeat.

The other thing Wuerz fails to recognise is the fact these contracts with opt-outs built in are almost always backloaded. By making the early years cheaper and the seasons after the opt-out the most expensive, the team giving out the contract can actually save a much larger chunk of change than they would otherwise, again while getting the best years of the contract guaranteed, and then watch as the player walks away from the most expensive portion of the deal, which would also happen to coincide with the player's decline. Teams should love opt-out clauses; or at least, they would if it wasn't for the fact that in reality, pretty much every time a player has opted out of his deal, the club he was under contract with has taken it as some sort of personal challenge to hang on to their player (I won't bring up the marriage analogy again), and has followed the good money with bad, re-upping the player to a deal that takes them through their late 30s, at an absurd AAV, and completely blown the surplus value they accrued on the front end by refusing to be disciplined enough to let the player just walk. Whether the Cardinals could have that kind of discipline or not is tough to say. If any organisation could, I would say it's probably this one. Then again, it's just flat-out hard to do that, and I'm not sure if even the Cardinals could show that level of restraint.

So here is my query to you, denizens of El Vivi Birders: if you had to offer Yoenis Cespedes a contract for, say, $130 million, covering the next six years, or Heyward for that eight year, $175-with-an-opt-out-after-four deal, which would you take? One has the home runs and the power numbers, but is also going to turn 30 this offseason, had on-base numbers hovering right around .300 the last two seasons, and very much looks like a player having a career year at exactly the perfect moment. The other has been a WAR monster his whole career, but does it in a way that doesn't maybe excite the gas station fans as much as you might hope. He's heading into possible the best years of his career, but could opt out early, forcing you to either watch him walk away still smack in the middle of his prime or re-up for his late 30s, potentially, in order to ensure his cap reads STL when he goes into Cooperstown.

Personally, I'm taking Heyward every day of the week. I would probably push for a longer contract, say ten years with the opt-out after the fifth or sixth, but even at the four-year mark I would be thrilled with what I've gotten from him. And I'm going to love that every year that somewhat-invisible value of his makes my team the class of the league, all the while confounding the people looking at his home runs totals and wondering why they aren't higher. But I'm interested to know what all of you think, given you've been watching this at least occasionally anemic offense all season the same as I have, watching as wRC+ and OBP has failed to translate into tallies on the board more often than feels random.

*******

The other thing I have this morning is much simpler, and much shorter.

Holy shit, did you see Carlos Martinez last night?

That's pretty much it. Just...holy shit.

There have been plenty of games this season which felt like benchmarks for Carlos, or perhaps turning points, or whatever else you want to throw out there. But this one felt big. This was Carlos reasserting himself, putting down the vague concerns about innings and fatigue that have been swirling a bit, even if most of us have recognised he's been largely as good if not better lately than at any point this season, only with a bit of bad BABIP luck sprinkled in.

To wit, over that period of time we've heard quoted quite often of late, the period in which Carlos allowed at least three runs in eight straight starts up until last night, El Gallo has been dinged to the tune of a 4.56 ERA and .774 OPS. However, a .394 BABIP will do that to you, and while anecdotally it seems to me that Carlos's stuff has been every bit as good as ever but his location has occasionally been a bit fatter than you might like to see, that's also a flukey-feeling number right there.

And over the last 53.1 innings, including last night's dismantling of the Brewers, Carlos has struck out 57 hitters while walking only twelve. Two-thirds of his pitches over that time have been strikes, whether in or out of the zone. He's given up just three home runs, a far sight better than his early season woes with the long ball. In other words, even the roughest stretch of Carlos's season could be seen, quite easily, as further proof he is emerging as one of the best pitchers in baseball, and we're all in for quite a ride over the next few seasons.

While we're on the subjects of Carlos Martinez on the one hand and contracts on the other, who here thinks it's time to get El Gallo extended long-term as soon as possible, before he starts winning Cy Young awards? It feels to me like this offseason is the time to do it, and push through his twenties.

Finally, let's all just bask for a bit in the glory of Carlos doing Carlos things last night, shall we?