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The value of John Mozeliak's acquisition of Jason Heyward

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The right field position was a black hole for the St. Louis Cardinals in 2014. Allen Craig, who was never known for being a particularly good defender, forgot how to hit (.237/.291/.346 in 398 plate appearances with St. Louis) after injuring his foot, Oscar Taveras didn't get off to the hot MLB start we all had hoped for, and despite seemingly "winning" the starting job late in the season, Randal Grichuk had only 16 right field starts to provide value to the club (and most of his value came from defense instead of offense). Combined, right field was worth negative 2.0 fWAR in 2014, the second lowest in baseball behind the Cleveland Indians (-2.5 fWAR).

With the sudden, tragic passing of Taveras over the offseason, general manager John Mozeliak was confronted by a difficult, borderline critical situation. Despite outfield depth rising through the farm system (Stephen Piscotty, Tommy Pham), the Cardinals could not afford negative production from right field for a consecutive season in 2015, not with an aging core and the possibility of a window closing (with so much youth production this season, this notion doesn't seem all that threatening anymore).

Thus, Mozeliak contacted a possible suitor in the Atlanta Braves and offered two attractive trade pieces from a position of depth (pitching) in hopes of landing a position player of need. And on November 17th, a deal was made official: the Cardinals were to receive Jason Heyward and Jordan Walden in exchange for Shelby Miller and Tyrell Jenkins. Losing numerous cost-controlled years of Miller and Jenkins was a tough pill to swallow, but it was a necessary one, and with depth coming to fruition this season, the Cardinals have seemingly reaped the benefits.

Notable Position Player Trade Acquisitions over the Offseason

Note: Ordered from earliest acquisition date to latest

Acquiring Team Player
Brewers Adam Lind
Pirates Francisco Cervelli
Tigers Anthony Gose
Blue Jays Devon Travis
Cardinals Jason Heyward
Athletics Ike Davis
Athletics Brett Lawrie
Blue Jays Josh Donaldson
Yankees Didi Gregorius
Indians Brandon Moss
Marlins Dee Gordon
Dodgers Howie Kendrick
Dodgers Yasmani Grandal
Padres Matt Kemp
Tigers Yoenis Cespedes
Rays Steven Souza Jr.
Padres Wil Myers
Padres Derek Norris
Padres Justin Upton
Dodgers Jimmy Rollins
Mariners Seth Smith
Reds Marlon Byrd
Astros Evan Gattis
Athletics Ben Zobrist
Cubs Dexter Fowler

For this exercise (link found here), I took the 2014 position-by-position fWAR for each team in the major leagues and compared it to the position-by-position fWAR for each team so far in 2015 (excluding last night's games because I gathered data yesterday evening). While not perfect, I found this to be a valuable exercise in helping to point out a given team's weaknesses and strengths from 2014 and subsequently being able to see whether or not they were able to improve this season.

After looking at each position, there were 15 instances where a team improved at a position by at least 4.0 fWAR in 2015, as compared to where they were in 2014. Admittedly, a 4.0 fWAR improvement is arbitrary, but this signified a significant improvement and provided a reasonable sample size. Of the 15 positional 4.0+ fWAR improvements, only five of them can be associated with offseason trades: the Cardinals and Dodgers in the National League and the Blue Jays, Yankees, and Mariners in the American League.

Team (Position) 2014 fWAR 2015 fWAR Difference
Cardinals (RF) -2.0 5.6 +7.6
Mariners (RF) 0.4 7.4 +7.0*
Blue Jays (3B) 3.3 8.6 +5.3
Yankees (SS) -2.0 2.8 +4.8
Dodgers (2B) -1.0 3.6 +4.6*

As you can see in the table, the Cardinals' acquisition of Heyward has been the biggest positional upgrade in terms of fWAR difference from 2014 to 2015. I included the Mariners' right field improvement with an asterisk because though one of its contributors came via trade in Seth Smith (2.1 fWAR), much of the value has come from Nelson Cruz (4.8), who was a free agent signing, and he has only played in 80 games as the team's right fielder.

The Blue Jays improved at third base by acquiring AL MVP candidate Josh Donaldson, but they weren't bad in 2014, so this limits the difference in value between the two seasons. The Yankees essentially improved by subtraction in 2015 because Derek Jeter (-0.1) and his back-ups was really bad last season. I put an asterisk on the Dodgers as well because though they did indeed acquire Howie Kendrick over the offseason, he has dealt with an extended stay on the disabled list, and a considerable part of the positional value has come from Enrique Hernandez, an internal fill-in.

Bottom Line

To be clear, in no way am I saying that Heyward has been a better player than Donaldson in 2015 because that is simply untrue. However, in terms of value added (+7.6 fWAR), Heyward is the exact acquisition the Cardinals needed over the offseason, and frankly, John Mozeliak deserves high praise for pulling the trigger. As many will point out, "look at how the rookies have done, though, they would have been fine replacements." Sure, what Pham, Grichuk, and Piscotty have been able to do has been remarkable, but injuries have not only hampered their seasons (Pham: quad, Grichuk: a list of things) but the rest of the outfield as well (Matt Holliday: thigh, Jon Jay: wrist). Heyward has been a steady fixture in right field for the Cardinals, and I hope this is the case for many years to come.