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Cardinals' last chance to sign Jason Heyward before free agency

The Cardinals traded for Jason Heyward with an eye on extending him and hoping he would be an impact player for the Cardinals. Heyward has delivered on his end and the two parties are left with little time to reach an extension before he hits the open market this winter.

Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

A little over eight months ago, the Cardinals made the somewhat drastic, somewhat risky decision to move Shelby Miller and Tyrell Jenkins to obtain a potential franchise player in Jason Heyward. A month into the season, Heyward had yet to make an impact, and in the weeks and months following, all mentions of Heyward's stat lines were generally prefaced  with "since April 23" or "since the beginning of May". Heading into August, we have moved past ignoring Heyward's first few weeks of the season. On the season, Heyward is hitting .289/.344/.439 with a wRC+ of 117, excelling with the bat, the glove, and on the bases. He currently sits at 3.2 WAR per FanGraphs and 3.8 per Baseball-Reference. He is well on his way to another five-win season, and I am now renewing my request that Cardinals sign Jason Heyward to a contract extension.

The chance to sign Heyward to an extension in-season might have already passed, or it is possible that an extension before free agency was never a very realistic possibility to begin with as one or both sides wanted to see what the market will bear for a valuable 25-year-old outfielder lacking in gaudy home run totals. In past seasons, the Cardinals have signed Jake Westbrook and Kyle Lohse to free agent deals as the summer wore on, but those deals were not near the magnitude of a potential Heyward extension.

In recent history, there have been very few major extensions during the second half of the season. Dustin Pedroia signed his 8-year, $110 million extension after the All-Star Break in 2013, but he still had two years left on his contract. The only player comparable to Heyward who signed an extension this close to free agency was a player who recently found himself in the news at the trade deadline. In 2012, Cole Hamels signed a six-year, $144 million contract extension with the Philadelphia Phillies just a few months prior to free agency. That deal was signed at the end of July, and we are a week or so past that point in the season, but given the amount of work needed near the trade deadline, coming to an agreement with the franchise's best current player to an enormous extension likely was not a viable option.

With the trade deadline past, if the Cardinals are going to reach an agreement with Heyward, the best time to do so would be right now. The closer the team gets to the end of the season, the more likely that both sides will want to see how the market will shape up this winter. As for that market, Heyward will not be the only corner outfielder on the market. Justin Upton, Yoenis Cespedes, and Alex Gordon will also hit free agency. Here are their numbers over the last four years from FanGraphs with 2015 fWAR as well.

Name Age AVG OBP SLG wRC+ Def WAR 2015 WAR
Alex Gordon 31 0.276 0.355 0.439 120 30.3 18.6 2.9
Jason Heyward 25 0.270 0.345 0.432 116 48.2 18.3 3.2
Yoenis Cespedes 29 0.269 0.317 0.471 117 -3.9 12.7 4.1
Justin Upton 27 0.267 0.345 0.456 122 -37.8 11.1 2.1

We have four somewhat similar players. They are all fairly close in offense, but Gordon and Heyward separate themselves with excellent defense. Sometimes people ask how much we should believe in the defensive metrics when a decent amount of Heyward's value is tied to defense. Well, when UZR sees Heyward as great, when DRS see him as great, and when I see him as great...

I think it's safe to believe.

All of the players in the chart above are likely to get $100 million deals, but Heyward could get double that or more. Paying some fraction of Heyward's deal for another of these outfielders might appear to make a lot of sense, but Heyward's age is a huge differentiating factor. Heyward is just 25 years old. I discussed the importance of Heyward's age last winter after the trade:

All contracts have risks for the teams that give them out, but Heyward is rare because he entered the majors so young and most teams give players with established production like Heyward a new contract buying out the free agent years in their prime. There is the potential for the market to undervalue Heyward right now because he receives a lot of value from defense and teams almost never have the opportunity to pay for years 26-29.

In trying to come up with Heyward's worth previously, I estimated Heyward would be worth 4.5 wins above replacement during his Age-25 to Age-29 seasons. Since that time, Heyward has only reinforced that estimate by putting up another season in that range. Heyward and Giancarlo Stanton came to the majors within a few months of each other in 2010, and Heyward has been just as valuable as Stanton has been during their careers.

Baseball-Reference actually has Heyward about three wins better than Stanton during their careers. While Trout, Machado, and Harper still have a few years to generate more production, that list should provide a better understanding of Heyward's worth among those close to him in age. Heyward is a rare player, and he has the potential to be the Cardinals' best player for the next half-decade. As for the money, I said anything under $200 million last winter, and although Heyward's proximity to free agency might have increased that price, I maintain that anything resembling a $200 million contract would be a good deal for both player and team.

The Cardinals have acknowledged that payroll will increase over the next few years. The team drew more than 3.5 million fans last season and they are drawing just as well this season. The Cardinals' new television deal that kicks in after the 2017 season will add at least $20 million more in new money once the deal begins with the potential to earn significantly more. Like they did with Jhonny Peralta early in free agency, the Cardinals should not wait for the market to establish itself. If Heyward gets to free agency, the Cardinals gamble with an unknown market. The money is there now, Heyward is the right player to give it to, and if there is a deal to be had, both parties need to get together to get something done.

As for when they should announce it, Heyward turns 26 on Sunday. How does Sunday sound?