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St. Louis Cardinals free agents: What might Jason Heyward's contract look like?

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The stove has not yet been lit and isn't warm let alone hot. Per the collective bargaining agreement that govern's Major League Baseball labor relations, players cannot even file for free agency until the fifth day after the World Series' final out. Despite the fact that the Royals or Mets have not yet recorded one out in the World Series, baseballdom's eye is wandering to the offseason. Winter is coming. What might the Hot Stove bring?

Rumormongering and gossiping are rampant. Speculation is another favorite pastime among the commentariat. That's not to say that such exercises are inherently bad. Rosterbation is fun and helps pass the dark, cold days of winter. But it's important to keep the lay of the Hot Stove land when reading tweets, posts, articles, and columns about trades and free agents. Speculation and gossip on the part of writers and front-office types from other teams are shaky at best. That's why it's important to parcel out speculation and gossip from reporting.

St. Louis Cardinals fans will be doing a lot of this with respect to the free agency of outfielder Jason Heyward.

It begins as it so often does, with full-time Twitter gossip and part-time blogger Jon Heyman. Last week, Heyman authored what might amount to a paragraph on Heyward and the Cardinals' pursuit of him. We'll discuss his two sentences separately. First:

St. Louis is expected to try to re-sign Jason Heyward, a worthwhile endeavor since it gave up Shelby Milller and Tyrell Jenkins to get him.

"St. Louis is expected to try to re-sign..." An odd turn of phrase that demonstrates the limited knowledge that national media types often bring to specific teams. Had Heyman paid cursory attention to the post mortem press conference that Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak and manager Mike Matheny held after the club's NLDS loss to the Chicago Cubs, he would know and could have written that St. Louis will try to sign Heyward this offseason. Or he could follow the official Cardinals Twitter account:

Moreover, Mozeliak has likely already contacted Heyward's representation, during their exclusive bargaining window between the team's final out and the official start of free agency.

Moving on to the idea that St. Louis's pursuit of Heyward as a free agent is "a worthwhile endeavor since it gave up Shelby Miller and Tyrell Jenkins to get him." I won't belabor the point, since I've long stressed it, but the Heyward trade should not be judged by whether the Cards sign him as a free agent. Mozeliak gave up Miller and Jenkins in return for one year of Heyward. That was the deal. There are many reasons the Cards' decision to attempt to sign him for 2016 and beyond is worthwhile. Here are a few:

  1. Heyward is one of the 15 best position players in MLB.
  2. Heyward is entering his age-26 season and ought to have a fair number of seasons in his prime remaining.
  3. Heyward is by all accounts a great person and teammate.

I could go on, but you get the idea.

The Cardinals should never attempt to sign a free agent who they previously acquired in a trade because of what they dealt away to get him. What's done is done. The club's analysis should be (1) what that player will bring to the club in the future, and (2) whether the price to sign him is appropriate for that contribution. The players they gave up to get one year of that player should be irrelevant.

Now for the juicier of Heyman's sentences on Heyward's forthcoming free agency:

While the Cardinals could go a bit beyond the team record $120-million deal that Matt Holliday got, Heyward is certainly going to insist on beating Jacoby Ellsbury's $153-million deal and getting as close to $200 million as possible.

Yes, "the Cardinals could go a bit beyond the team record $120-million deal that Holliday got." In fact, Mozeliak indicated as much over the weekend on KMOX:

Heyman's bracketing of Heyward's likely contract between Ellsbury's deal and $200 million reads like an echo of Heyman's preseason post that included an informal poll of anonymous general managers and assistant general managers. In March, Heyman wrote:

All things considered, the $200 million figure seemed a bit high, and upon checking, six of seven other GMs said they couldn't see it. Though one other GM, stipulating that he'd need a nice season in his first year in St. Louis, opined that he wouldn't rule out $200 million for Heyward.

"It only takes one," that GM pointed out.

****

The great majority of GMs and assistant GMs consulted regarding Heyward said they see Shin-Soo Choo and Jacoby Ellsbury, who surprised folks by signing for as high as $130 million and $153 million, as fair comps -- and one pointed out Ellsbury is more accomplished, a center fielder and a terrific leadoff hitter.

I found this fascinating. Heyman talked to high-ranking front office types and they attempted to tie Heyward's potential free-agent contract to the Yankees-Ellsbury and Rangers-Choo contracts. To Heyman's credit, he mentions Heyward's age in the post. But he also failed to contrast it with Ellsbury and Choo's at the time they inked their respective deals.

Ellsbury was entering his age-30 season when he signed with New York for $153 million over seven years. Choo was 31 in the first year of his seven-year, $130-million Texas contract. Heyward will play four years under his new contract before he is as old as Ellsbury was in the first year of his Yankees contract and five before he is the same age as Choo was for his first season in Texas. The Yankees and Rangers paid Ellsbury and Choo for their decline years; Heyward still has multiple peak years ahead of him. As RB pointed out on the most-recent VEB podcast, if Heyward signs a ten-year contract, he'll be the same age for its final year as Matt Holliday was for the 2015 season.

Age is what makes Heyman's speculation—which is really just a regurgitation of what front-office types speculated to him back in the spring—feel off base. While Heyward doesn't have the power numbers to his name that so many high-dollar free-agent corner outfielders have to theirs, he has something else that is perhaps more important: youth. Heyward is squarely in the prime years of his career. Making his MLB debut as a teenager means that Heyward is entering free agency at a comparatively young age. Year 1 of his new deal will cover his age-26 season. That means he'll have multiple years that will play at an age that typically falls within the timeframe that covers a ballplayer's peak production.

Heyward is one of the best all-around players in MLB today. He would fit in well with the Whiteyball Cardinals of the 1980s, with his excellent baserunning and elite defense. What's more, he's no slouch with a bat. In 2015, his batting line was 21% better than the major-league average after adjusting for home park effects, which is roughly in line with his career production at the plate. If Heyman's preseason survey of MLB front office is to be believed, Heyward's underwhelming power numbers and all-around value might very well make him an undervalued free agent. The Cardinals would do well to sign Heyward to a deal worth between $153 million and $200 million.