With the aces of the pitching market just about off the board and the Cubs focusing more attention on the second tier of free agent pitching and trade market, there has been a fair amount of buzz that the Cubs could be players in the Jason Heyward market. Like we explored in our Alex Gordon profile, it can be risky business to sign a player to a multi-year deal in their early 30’s. At 26, Heyward is just entering his prime and while he won’t come cheap, is exactly the kind of free agent you spend the big bucks for. Let’s take a look at what it may take to sign him.
At his end of the season press conference, Theo Epstein’s wish list included adding more hitters who work counts, improving outfield defense, a leadoff hitter and center fielder. Heyward is the total package. Last year, he batted .293/.359/.439 with 33 doubles, four triples, 13 home runs, 60 RBI and 23 stolen bases while batting in every position in the order for the St Louis Cardinals. In his six-year career, the 6-foot-5, 245-pound left-hander has a line of .268/.353/.431 with 97 home runs, 352 RBI and 86 stolen bases. He’s really refined his plate discipline over the last three years with 171 walks to 261 strikeouts and could make a nice leadoff hitter. In 126 games in the top spot, Heyward is a career .280/.354/.427 hitter with 25 doubles, 16 home runs, 55 RBI and 14 stolen bases.
In addition to his improved hitting, Heyward has been an outstanding defensive outfielder. He’s won three Gold Gloves as a right fielder and has an 18.4 UZR/150 rating, well into Gold Glove territory. Heyward also has limited experience in center field playing 31 total games at the position. In that time, he’s ranked at an 11.1 rating, which is slightly above great. If the Cubs managed to keep their current crop of outfielders, it’s likely that Heyward could fill in at center until a more permanent solution is made.
Obviously, there’s a lot to like about Heyward’s game, but his downside mostly extends to his overall cost. Many projections have Heyward in the 10-year, $200 million range, plus he is tied to a compensation draft pick, a big number for an outfielder who has topped 20 home runs or more just once. Heyward smacked 27 homers during the 2012 season. Heyward also has struggled on and off with lefties batting just .230 against them in his career.
At 26, it’s possible he can improve in both areas, but as he ages and his speed goes, he becomes a less impressive player. Although, because of his young age, an opt-out would probably be a must after three to four years of his deal and give Heyward a chance to earn even more money, similar to what Zack Greinke did in his extension with the Dodgers.
It’s hard to compare a player like Heyward to similar deals signed because it’s rare that a young player with less than seven years of service time reaches free agency. The closest contract would be Carl Crawford’s seven-year, $142 million deal with Boston in 2011. Crawford was a little older signing at 28 years old, but had already played eight full seasons with the Rays. His game relied mostly on speed and defense with a sprinkling of double digit home run power. However, Crawford has failed to stay healthy topping 100 games in just three of the first five seasons of his deal, with the most games played at 130. He still has shown he can hit, but his speed is dwindling and he’s just not an everyday player anymore.
With the opt-out, it’s possible that signing Heyward would limit a deal to about four to five years depending on if he can continue to stay as healthy as he has. If the team decides to trade Jorge Soler for pitching, he would be a major upgrade on defense and if he keeps improving and getting better as a hitter, even at $20 million plus, Jason Heyward could be a major steal.
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