On November 17, 2014, the St. Louis Cardinals acquired Jason Heyward from the Atlanta Braves. It was the biggest name acquired by the Cardinals in the John Mozeliak era and it still is—Heyward went from much-hyped prospect to bona fide MLB star, ranking 11th in baseball in Wins Above Replacement (the Baseball Reference version) among position players from 2010, his rookie season, through 2014, his final season in Atlanta.
And for the price of Shelby Miller, not far removed from being a top pitching prospect but coming off a disappointing sophomore season at the MLB level, and Tyrell Jenkins, a secondary prospect who struck out fewer than five batters per nine innings at high-A, the Cardinals acquired Heyward and Jordan Walden, who never really materialized in St. Louis due to injury but was at the time expected to be a major contributor to the bullpen.
From a 2015 standpoint, the trade was a no-brainer: the 2014 deadline trade of Allen Craig had cleared the way in right field for Oscar Taveras, but Taveras’s passing, beyond its emotional toll on the franchise, left an enormous hole in the lineup which Heyward filled. But the trade was largely influenced by club control of players—Shelby Miller had another year at league minimum and three years of arbitration remaining, Tyrell Jenkins was still in the minors and thus had six years of club control, and Jason Heyward had one year remaining on his contract before he would hit free agency.
Present-day Manny Machado, the Baltimore Orioles third baseman being currently floated in trade rumors to essentially every team in Major League Baseball and also the Chicago White Sox, is a similar player to 2014 Jason Heyward in a few notable ways.
- Both players had been full-time players in Major League Baseball for five seasons (though Machado played enough in 2012 to lose his rookie status), and each was a very productive player—Heyward was worth 24.6 WAR from 2010-2014, good for 11th among position players, and Machado was worth 26.3 WAR from 2013-2017, good for 9th among position players.
- Both players have one remaining year under club control, at a price well below market value. Jason Heyward was owed $7.8 million in 2015, and by FanGraphs’s measure, he was worth $48.8 million during that season. Manny Machado is entering his final year of salary arbitration. MLB Trade Rumors estimates Machado will make $17.3 million for 2018, which sounds like a lot, but even in his relatively underwhelming 2017, Machado was worth $22.1 million. In 2015, he was worth $55 million.
- Both players reached or will reach free agency at relatively young ages. While most players reach free agency in their late twenties or thirties, Heyward reached it a few months after turning 26. Machado will be about a month older than Heyward once he hits free agency.
- Both players are good but not great offensive players whose primary appeal is premium defense at a non-premium defensive position. Machado puts up better back-of-the-baseball-card numbers, hitting more home runs and driving in more runs, but Heyward walked more and, as strange as it sounds to era-adjust stretches separated by just three years, played in a less offensive-friendly environment. Each posted a 117 wRC+ over his respective five-year stretch, which is good but not elite—this matches the career marks of Pat Burrell and Dave Magadan, who were...fine.
But fielding is where Heyward and Machado stand out—Heyward saved 74.1 runs above average by Ultimate Zone Rating from 2010 through 2014 (only Josh Reddick was worth more than half that many in right field) and was the most valuable fielder in baseball (UZR doesn’t measure catchers, in case you were looking at making a Yadier Molina-centered objection). From 2013 through 2017, Machado was worth 61.2 UZR runs above average, tops among third basemen and third in all of baseball, behind Andrelton Simmons and Heyward. Both have played some at more impactful defensive positions—Heyward in center field, Machado at shortstop—and each demonstrated signs of competence at them, but their teams seemingly believe they are more useful in right field or at third base. It wasn’t like B.J. Upton (now Melvin Upton Jr.) or mid-thirties J.J. Hardy were such premium fielders as to be unmovable.
From the moment that Jason Heyward arrived in St. Louis, that he would sign an extension with the Cardinals was treated, if not as a formality, at least as part of the calculus in acquiring him. The Cardinals would not only receive Jason Heyward for 2015 but would have nearly a year of exclusive negotiating rights with him. And in that time, Heyward would fall in love with St. Louis and the Cardinals and sign a reasonably club-friendly extension because why would anybody not want to play in St. Louis for as long as possible? Well, Jason Heyward signed with the Chicago Cubs, for some reason he was vilified for it, and in retrospect, the move should have always been viewed as a one-year rental.
But as a one-year rental, the trade worked spectacularly well. As it turns out, the man who would have likely been the 2015 starting right fielder had the position not specifically been addressed following Taveras’s death, Randal Grichuk, was quite good that year, but his ability to play in center field meant that Cardinals fans were spared from further exposure to a disappointing Peter Bourjos and a disastrous Jon Jay. Shelby Miller had a nice bounce-back season in Atlanta, but was more or less equally productive to Carlos Martinez, who took Miller’s spot in the rotation. The Heyward Cardinals won 100 games; given how stacked the top of the NL Central was in 2015, they may have easily finished in third place without him.
Retrospect helps, but it was always bizarre to view Heyward’s prospective long-term extension as part of the equation in acquiring him. Baseball players almost never sign “club friendly” deals for purely charitable reasons (side note: professional baseball teams are very much not charities)—even if players have strong geographic preferences, players will generally leverage other offers to get more money from the team they prefer (this is just good financial sense).
The same is true for Machado—the Cardinals might be able to build some goodwill towards him and position themselves as legitimate contenders to extend him, but if a player of Machado’s caliber has yet to sign an extension to this point, it is unlikely he would sign an extension before reaching free agency (this isn’t a uniquely Cardinals thing—it applies to any team in baseball) unless the contract was too lucrative to ignore.
Do the Cardinals have the ability to overpay for Machado? Considering they were willing to acquire Giancarlo Stanton as of a couple weeks ago, and with Adam Wainwright’s $19.5 million salary coming off the books after 2018, the Cardinals could, but is this in their best interest? The offer the Cardinals made for Heyward may have been less desirable to Heyward (periodic reminder that “Heyward took less money to play for the Cubs” is a gross oversimplification) but had Heyward accepted it, the Cardinals would be regretting it—over the last two seasons, Jason Heyward has remained a strong defensive right fielder, but his offensive decline puts him tied for 181st among position players in FanGraphs WAR—among the 131 players with 1000 or more plate appearances since 2016, Heyward ranks tied for 105th.
Machado’s (admittedly superficial) resemblance to Heyward doesn’t mean he’s going to decline like Heyward. But after 2018, Machado is going to be paid like the superstar he projects to be, if not by his 2018 team then by somebody. He may live up to his contract, but probability suggests that he will not be a bargain, because one would not expect any free agent to be a bargain, as this would essentially require all thirty teams in baseball to underestimate his value.
But in 2018, Manny Machado will probably be a bargain, since pre-free agency player salaries are artificially suppressed, and for what he is—a one-year rental in the vein of Jason Heyward, he is a valuable player. He is worth risking potentially valuable prospects because of this. But he is not worth risking Luke Weaver, who already figures to have a role in the Cardinals’ rotation and will not reach free agency until after 2023. He is not worth risking Alex Reyes, who looked unhittable in 2016 and even coming off Tommy John surgery projects to have an ERA in the threes in this, his age-23 season.
Either of these players would be a bargain price for 2013 Manny Machado, with six years of club control still in hand. But while 2018 Manny Machado, no matter how good he turns out to be, could not possibly have that level of value to an organization, he is still worth considering for what he is.