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A Jason Heyward Contract Proposal

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A not-at-all-brief consideration of what a long-term contract extension for Jason Heyward would look like.

Straight-on photos always look weird, don't they?
Straight-on photos always look weird, don't they?
Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

So I've been noticing a couple things lately that seem really kind of dumb to me.

First, I was reading a piece by Bernie Miklasz over at the P-D website the other day about Carlos Martinez and what it means for him not to win a spot in the starting rotation. Again. Which, sadly, seems to be pretty much a fait accompli at this point as the Cardinals continue to try and mismanage their near-historic crop of arms from a few years ago as badly as possible, just to see if you can fuck up a windfall of that magnitude.. Sort of like playing Super Mario World with your eyes closed, I suppose, just because you're bored with simply enjoying brilliance and feel the need to handicap yourself.

Well, the article itself was quite good, I must say, but then I made the mistake that no one should ever, ever make, and I scrolled down, to the big VIEW COMMENTS button. And, knowing better, I clicked it. And read the moronic ramblings of that section of Redbird fandom we all generally prefer to pretend doesn't exist as the various and sundry commenters opined that, since Martinez has now failed to make the rotation two seasons in a row, it was really time to move on from him.

It was easy at the time to simply read over the stupidity and just tell myself no one with any kind of brain could possibly think that way. But then, I made the further mistake of checking out whatever terrible radio show it is Chris Duncan is currently polluting with his half-baked nonsense, and he and the host, Anthony I Don't Recall His Last Name At the Moment, were essentially parroting the same sort of material. At one point the question was asked, would you trade Carlos Martinez and Randal Grichuk for Cole Hamels? To which Duncan, predictably, I suppose, answered immediately that yes, yes he would. Four years of an ace pitcher for a really good outfield prospect and a disappointing reliever? Absolutely he would make that trade.

I suppose this is the sort of thing I should expect, and it's really my fault for paying attention to the dumb corners of baseball fandom, but I find it bothering me far more than it should to hear some of the real nonsensical shit that pours out of people in this case. A big part of it, probably, is that narrative that Carlos Martinez is a disappointment and washed up at 23 because he, quote, failed to win a starting job two years in a row. Never mind, of course, that he outpitched Joe Kelly in 2014 to an almost absurd degree but was nonetheless relegated to the bullpen because the manager of the club -- who seems like he would be one of these morons if not for being handed one of the best jobs in all of baseball based on...what, exactly? I still don't really know. His little league manifesto about parents, maybe? -- was so dead set on having Martinez in the 'pen. And never mind the further fact Carlos is basically only losing out on a spot this season because Jaime Garcia is currently doing his level best to convince everyone that this time it's going to be different, that he really is back to stay, and his arm absolutely, positively isn't going to burst into flames like a Ford Pinto the first time a teammate high fives him a bit too hard and the Cardinals owe him better than nine million dollars this season. And like any good deadbeat father, it's tough not to believe in him, if only because it seems like life would just be so perfect if he really has changed and it really is different this time.

And on Cole Hamels, just....no. Seriously. What the fuck is everyone's fascination with Cole Hamels? I get that he's a really good pitcher, but he's also on the wrong side of 30 and signed to a deal that pays him pretty much exactly what he's worth. Why would you give up all this talent for the right to pay him market value? Just wait and sign David Price next year if you're so desperate to have a left-handed ace type pitcher on the roster. (Seriously, sign David Price next year.) Fun fact: Cole Hamels is projected by ZiPS to have a 3.41 FIP in 2015. Carlos Martinez? A 3.35 FIP. Sure, that's all hypothetical, but doesn't it seem like a bad idea to trade away a pitcher who, at 23, is projected by a very, very smart system to be almost exactly as good as the eight-years-older guy you would be trading him for?

There was, however, one dude in the comments section who said he thought the Cardinals were ripe for a six man rotation. Which, as I believe I said quite loudly on the podcast, I am all in favour of. So there's that.

The other dumb thing I've noticed is in listening to Buster Olney's podcast over the past few weeks (which is kind of dumb, but it's good as far as a news-of-the-day sort of thing), is that virtually everyone he has on his show -- mostly ESPN guys -- is picking the Pirates to win the NL Central. That seems really strange to me, given that the Cardinals have been the better team over the last two years and added the largest single windfall of WAR in right field that any team in baseball likely added this season. Perhaps the point hasn't been pointed out enough, but the Cards' right field situation in 2014 was bad. No, really. I mean bad. Like two wins below replacement level bad. And that's with Randal Grichuk doing some overachieving out there as well, dragging the total up toward zero by about half a win. Meanwhile, Jason Heyward has been worth just over fifteen WAR over his last 1740 plate appearances. In other words, you give Heyward ~650 PAs and he's likely going to net you 5 wins of value. That's a fairly large swing.

Don't get me wrong; I think the Pirates are going to be a very good team this year, and the Central division race is going to be fairly brutal. But it seems very puzzling to me how unanimous the Bucco love (as opposed to Buck O' Love,  which is my new comic book series coming out this fall about a male prostitute down on his luck), has been when there is still a 600 pound bright red gorilla in the division. Oh, well. Perhaps it's simply that those covering the sport are hoping for something new and interesting this year, rather than trying to find yet another way to say the Cardinals are really good, and while the Cubs are the newest and shiniest possible bauble to play with, they don't seem quite ready for full fellatio just yet. So the Pirates come to front of the line.

Anyhow, now that I've wasted roughly 1100 words venting spleen about really stupid things, let's get to the topic I was planning on writing about today, shall we? Then again, considering that Jason Heyward plays a very central role in my topic, perhaps the fact i just talked about him a moment ago should be considered a segue, rather than a random point of contention at the beginning of the post. In which case I'm a genius writer, rather than a poorly-organised blogger with very little impulse control over the things he chooses to write. So let's go with that.

So Jason Heyward, yeah? He's a pretty good player. He's also a really young player, and a very exciting one due to that combination of youth and goodness. Gooditude. Goodosity. Hmm. Anyway, moving on.

When the Cardinals dealt for Heyward back in November, it was partially as a reaction to the sudden hole left in the roster by the tragic passing of Oscar Taveras. The 2015 Cardinals had a sudden, desperate need in right field, where their developmental plan had gone horribly awry. But even more than that, there was a much larger hole left in the franchise by Taveras's passing, as he was at least written in pencil as the likeliest long-term solution in right field as part of the core of the next set of Redbird contenders. It was not a given he would be the club's right fielder for the next decade, but that was, it seemed, the hope of most everyone involved.

Instead, though, the Cardinals went on to the trade market and secured a very expensive, but also very valuable, commodity in Jason Heyward. One of the most dynamic young players in the game, Heyward is exactly the sort of piece a franchise might build around for the long haul. And that's what I felt the Cardinals were, and are, hoping to do. Jason Heyward, along with the price the organisation paid to acquire him, is the first down payment on the 2018 world series championship club, if that makes sense.

As the spring has gone on, I think we've all heard the bits and pieces of comments from Heyward about his excitement at being a Cardinal, and his openness to a long-term arrangement. And so I've been thinking about the framework of a potential deal that would keep the J-Hey Kid here in St. Louis for years to come, and thought I might postulate a bit here to hopefully foster some discussion.

The elephant in the room, of course, is the truly enormous and seemingly insane contract the Miami Marlins gave to Giancarlo Stanton over the offseason. The two players, Heyward and Stanton, have more than a few similarities. They play the same position. They are only about three months apart in age. They each debuted in 2010 and have had somewhat checkered injury histories. Both have been hit in the face by pitches. (That's a weird similarity, by the way.) And, quite meaningfully, they have been worth nearly the same amount in WAR over their careers. Less than one win separates them, with Heyward actually having the edge, 21.7 fWAR to 21.0 for Stanton. They are also both giant human beings, for what it's worth.

Of course, there's an interesting caveat to those weirdly similar WAR values. Namely, the fact that their respective values, while remarkably similar, are achieved in extremely different ways. Giancarlo derives his value from an ability to hit baseballs very, very long distances, quite often, thus putting runs on the board in a very direct way. Heyward, on the other hand, contributes most of his value with the glove, preventing runs at an historic pace and forcing a whole lot of fairly irritating conversations about defensive metrics and a host of related topics.

And therein lies the most interesting dichotomy between these two players. In baseball, now as ever, power gets paid. Those of the female persuasion may or may not dig the long ball, but whoever is writing the checks certainly does. Defense, meanwhile, is becoming trendy in a very interesting way in the game right now, but it doesn't move the needle in the same way as home runs. Which is actually a very good thing, in certain ways.

In considering what a Jason Heyward contract might reasonably look like, it's important to note the length of the deals players of his caliber sign, and simply resign ourselves to the fact you aren't getting him locked up long term without going in for something close to a decade. That being said, I'll be setting the parameters for the contract at ten years or more. Ten years has been the standard length for mega-deals ever since the first Alex Rodriguez contract with the Texas Rangers close to fifteen years ago now, and while the Stanton deal sets a new outer limit for number of years, it's also such a weirdly structured deal (seriously, the amount of backloading in that contract is just absurd), that I don't feel we have to yet consider that a new paradigm rather than an outlier.

So ten years will be our contract length. Heyward will play the majority of this season at 25 years old, so we're talking about a contract that begins in his age 26 season. Immediately busting out my mad math skills, that means we're running the deal through his age 35 season. I have to say, given that ten years seems an incredibly long time to sign a baseball player for, the prospect of having the contract end at 35, rather than the 41 or 42 of players like Albert Pujols and the like, is kind of amazing. And so, I have absolutely no problem going ten years.

Now, for the money portion of the equation. The numbers on the Stanton extension are shockingly huge in aggregate, but the 13 years and $325 million really calculates out to $25 million a season, which, while still an enormous amount of money, is not really out of range with what we've seen other elite players receive. Still, there is an obvious premium to be paid for Stanton's production, given it comes in the form of the rarest commodity in the current reality of baseball, and so we should be able to secure Jason Heyward's production at a somewhat lower cost.

Keeping that in mind, I'm going to propose a deal in the 10 year, $210 million range. It would be the longest and largest contract the Cardinals have ever given out by a wide margin, but given the circumstances it doesn't seem to be that crazy. The opportunity to lock up a player of Heyward's level, at such a young age, is beyond rare. Bryce Harper, if allowed to reach free agency at the end of his initial six years, would qualify, but the idea that would actually happen is ludicrous. Players of this caliber simply do not reach the open market at the age very often.

Now, given the way contracts generally work, we're going to want to backload this deal some. Not a ridiculous amount as in the Stanton deal, which is essentially the Marlins hoping like hell he opts out early and they don't have to pay him the vast majority of his money and Stanton himself giving up way more than I personally think is wise, but a fair bit all the same. My personal preference for a breakdown would be roughly something like:

  • 2016 -- $15 million
  • 2017 -- $15
  • 2018 -- $17.5
  • 2019 -- $17.5
  • 2020 -- $22.5
  • 2021 -- $22.5
  • 2022-2025 -- $25 million per season
That's $110 million over the first six years of the contract, and $100 million over the last four. It's a fairly balanced breakdown, but certainly skewed toward the back end.

It's also, I have to admit, built in such a way that an opt-out clause, which virtually all of these mega-contracts include nowadays, could be placed after that 2021 season, giving Heyward the choice of opting out for another bite at the free agent apple after his age 32 season, when he would still be young enough to sign another long-term deal with a team of his choosing, or sticking around with the Cardinals to collect the remaining ~40% of his contract. The deal also wouldn't get really expensive until a point after the club's current commitments are off the books, which would be very helpful in preventing a sudden huge escalation in the next couple years while guys like Matt Holliday and Adam Wainwright are still earning big paychecks.

I would also, honestly, be willing to tack on an option year or two at the tail end of the deal in order to push the value closer to something like Stanton's contract if that was a sticking point. Something along the lines of two mutual options at the end of the deal, for 2026 and '27, for $30 million apiece would bring the total possible value of the contract to twelve years and $270 million. I'm not sure how important that enormous number would be to Heyward, but by the time we reach the middle of the next decade, that $30 million number will likely have been surpassed a time or two (or three), and won't be completely prohibitive. The problem, of course, is that you would be paying those $30 million options to a 36- and 37-year old Heyward, but that's why they're mutual options. I also wouldn't be averse to bumping the last two years of the regular contract from $25 million to $30 annually, to push the total value up to $220 million if that's what it takes to get the deal done.

Under the parameters of the deal I'm setting forth here, there would be two scenarios we could possibly see playing out. In scenario one, Heyward plays out his ten year contract, collects his $210 million, and hopefully provides something along the order of 40-50 wins worth of value over the life of the deal. At a per-win valuation that's currently in the $6+ million range and rising, the deal could end up very favourable for the Cardinals while still paying the player a huge sum of money. In the second scenario, Heyward explodes, puts up, say, ~40 wins over the first six years of the contract, and then opts out after his sixth season. At that point, he would likely sign somewhere else for another ten years, pushing him into his early 40s, and the Cardinals would have paid him $110 million for those 35-40 wins, which would be an even bigger bargain and might actually be preferable, though selfishly I would prefer to see Heyward in a Cardinal uniform for the next decade. Still, the prospect of paying Heyward for the production of the age 26-32 seasons of what would likely at that point be a Hall of Fame career certainly has its charms.

The downside, of course, is potentially that he just isn't all that good. The defense levels off and starts to decline, the offense never really rebounds to those early-career peaks, and Heyward settles in as something closer to a 2.5-3.0 win player instead of a ~5.0 win guy. In that case, over a decade of the contract, you might expect something in the range of 22-25 wins. If we value those wins at $6 million a year,  that's roughly $150 million of value; if we build in some inflation we're probably moving closer to ~$165-170 million. So, an overpay, but likely not a crippling one.

And so the question is this: what are the chances Heyward would see his value fall off that much? In 2014, while having what is justifiably seen as a down year offensively, his combination of defense and baserunning value still made him a 5+ win player. Honestly, outside of injury, it's fairly difficult to see a scenario that would push Heyward's value down into the three win range in the near- to medium-term. And, again, for a player who would be just 26 when his big contract started, it's the kind of risk I would be absolutely willing to take.

Now, perhaps I'm undervaluing Heyward here, and he'll be shooting for closer to 10 and $250+. Or perhaps you think I'm badly overvaluing a player who gets by on walking a lot and playing outstanding defense but doesn't hit enough to be worth that kind of investment. That's why we have a comments section.