The question has loomed since the second his acquisition was announced last November that Jason Heyward had been acquired from the Atlanta Braves: will he resign? The outfielder’s pending free agency has been as popular of a topic as his oft-jaw dropping catches and timely presence at the plate has been. And now with the Cardinals’ season officially in the books, the rumbling about the future of Heyward in St. Louis is increasing in intensity daily it seems.
There has been a publicly stated interest from John Mozeliak and Heyward himself about continuing the relationship between player and team into the future. But neither side is naïve enough to believe there will be a quick resolution to reaching that outcome.
This is in part because there is a wide open, yet uncertain market, for Heyward looming. Age is his ally, but uncertain offensive return looms as well. However his status an elite defender, versatile bat and still having the golden ticket of perceived ‘unfulfilled potential’ are all working in his favor.
Yet regardless of anything else, upside is his greatest asset. Heyward is in the unique position of having full, unrestricted free agent status at the young age of 26 years old, a rarity that was afforded to him due to the early starting point of his career after being promoted to Atlanta shortly after his 20th birthday. Now six years later, he stands on the brink of being the next in the recent line of precocious talents to receive very mature and life changing money at such an early age. And with that brings the understandable concern about the degree of difficulty in the Cardinals retaining his services.
These are not unknown waters for the Cardinals to navigate during this part of the year. In 2009, after adding Matt Holliday at the trade deadline, the club saw him leave the regular season with free agency lying ahead. In the end, the team inked him to then largest contract in team history, which carried over a guaranteed seven years at a total value of $120 million.
Fast forward to today and a similar situation is afoot with Heyward, whom if he was to return to St. Louis would certainly gain the largest contract in club history (surpassing the five year, $97.5 million extension Adam Wainwright inked prior to the 2014 season).
The easy question is how high that new standard would reach? The intermediate question in the equation is how high is too high before it is not worth it to the Cardinals to commit to one player? However, the inquiry into the entire situation that is being looked past, yet deserves its share of the spotlight as well is: with the current makeup and challenges on the Cardinal roster, is Heyward – carrying his predicted price range — the right player for this team to make this type of investment into?
This probably seems like an asinine thought from the very beginning, but please give the idea it’s just due in consideration. Heyward is an unquestionably brilliant player, an elite defender capable of changing the game in a regular fashion with the glove, as well as a diverse presence at the dish as well. He is also young and is on the right side of his prime. But given the situation that the Cardinals find themselves in, perhaps their biggest gain headed into the 2015 season simply is not enough to put the team over.
The Cardinals are a power defunct team. If not for Matt Carpenter’s career year breakout of 28 home runs, it would be close to the same embarrassingly feeble power collective that finished at the bottom of the National League in home runs a year ago. And the club’s lack of being able to create quick offense was at a stunningly disproportionate level when they were drilled out of the postseason by the powerfully built Cubs team during the NL Division Series.
That Cubs team is not going anywhere, anytime soon. And in order to keep pace in the ever-evolving NL Central (which also houses the 5th, 6th, 7th and 10th best NL home run hitting clubs, respectively), they have to make a concentrated effort to add more pop in multiple places.
Yet, a specific challenge lies in exactly how and where they can pull this maneuver off at. First base has a clear void of muscle-based production, but the corner outfield positions do as well. The opening day trio of Heyward, Holliday and Matt Adams combined for a paltry 22 home runs, which would qualify (in total) as the 25th best individual total in the NL, and one less than Pittsburgh’s Andrew McCutchen hit by himself. While this number is complicated by lengthy injuries to both Holliday and Adams, their primary replacements –Randall Grichuk and Mark Reynolds— managed only 17 home runs combined playing first base and left field, respectively.
What this equates to is that there is still no guaranteed internal options to pick up this pace. Reynolds is preparing to enter free agency as well himself, which essentially creates an even further deficiency in the power capabilities of the team. All things considered, the team is desperately in need of raw power at the positions that are tasked with providing it.
However, a massive commitment to Heyward virtually guarantees that one of the open positions capable of allowing an outside addition capable of bringing that needed regular uptick in power is blocked off. So the challenge in St. Louis becomes two pronged: aggressively pursue the top talent in Heyward, or break it apart into resources allocating effort where internal options are spread around and consider other outside factors towards adding the missing elements of the lineup.
In regards to internal options, an everyday presence of Grichuk forecasts as potentially a 25 home run plus type of impact. Likewise, Piscotty’s offensive impact profiles better as an outfielder than at first base. This would leave open the option of addressing the insertion of offensive impact at first base, where free agent market is led heavily by Chris Davis, whom has led the MLB in home runs in two of the past three seasons.
There could even be the idea of not going away from the outfield, but rather putting forth the investment into another top free agent that can be plugged into the right field spot, such as Justin Upton or Yoenis Cespedes, whom would garner similar sizable contracts, but would add an instant cleanup hitter capable of changing the Cardinals’ potential as well.
It comes down to a question of what is more important, as well as a simple question of fit. Is there a place for Heyward in St. Louis and would he not continue to be one of the most vital parts of the team’s success if he does agree to terms to stay in town? Sure.
The Cardinals are also dedicated to being a team that is going to expand payroll. For teams that choose to live life among the upper payrolls in the game, there are almost always supporting players that are paid in the fashion that belies the fact that they truly are not the centerpieces that their compensation indicates they would be. It happens; it is part of the game.
But could the team be better served by addressing its most gaping hole by going away from its premier free agent-to-be? Well, there is a lot of truth to that as well. And a truth that is worth considering in the Cardinal front office.