It usually takes me a few days to really process trades and major organizational moves. With the requisite waiting period over, I think I’m finally ready to talk about the Jason Heyward trade. The team acquired Shelby Miller and Tyrell Jenkins and gave up Jordan Walden in addition to Heyward. I’ll take a look at it all, but let’s be honest – this entire trade was all about Jason Heyward. And let me start by saying this: saying goodbye to Jason Heyward sucks.
A Requiem for Jason Heyward
Where to begin? From the moment he was drafted, Jason Heyward was seen, fairly or not, as the franchise’s next big thing – the home-grown successor to Chipper Jones‘ legacy. Scouts salivated over his prodigious power potential. I always remember one scouting report describing his future as Frank Thomas with speed – which is about as close to an MVP offensive juggernaut prototype as one can build. Flashes of the power showed in the minors. In 2009, at A+ Myrtle Beach, one of the most punishing offensive environments in all of professional baseball, Heyward batted .296/.369/.519. He was on the fast track by that point, and there really wasn’t much good that minor league seasoning could do him.
Everyone remembers the debut, and Heyward was pretty fantastic as a rookie, amassing 4.6 fWAR thanks to a .393 OBP. The Heyward of 2010 might be unrecognizable to current Braves fans. He chased just 23.4% of pitches outside the strike zone – he hasn’t chased fewer than 28.1% since. His 55% groundball rate was the highest of his career as well, a rate that eventually fell into the mid 40’s. Heyward used his speed and patience to his advantage that year, with 2 groundballs per flyball, and he displayed that ballyhooed power on the flyballs he did hit – nearly 17% left the ballpark.
In the 2010-11 offseason, the Braves hired a new batting coach, Larry Parrish. While hitting instructors probably don’t have a huge effect on players, it stands to reason they could have more influence over younger ones. Parrish came in preaching aggressiveness, and many Braves fans considered that the answer to Heyward’s problems. The fault with that thinking, however, is that Heyward had problems to begin with. A player with a .393 OBP and .179 ISO doesn’t have problems. It seems Heyward bought into the aggressive theory, and it has stuck. He’s chased 28-32% of pitches outside the zone since, the groundballs started turning into flyballs and pop outs, and the power never really came around.
Of course, Heyward’s changed approach at the plate wasn’t solely to blame. He also suffered a litany of minor injuries. Going back to 2009, when he was in Myrtle Beach, Baseball Prospectus lists a whopping 27 different injuries. Some of those are re-aggravations and recurring issues, and many times he played through them, but needless to say, an average of 4.5 injuries a year is going to be prohibitive at best when it comes to offensive development, if not downright crippling.
While Heyward’s offensive profile certainly disappointed after the promises of 2010 and what could have been, it didn’t exactly turn into a bad one. Heyward remained a very helpful hitter. wRC+, a good measure of production relative to league average, shows Heyward as better than league-average in every season but 2011, when he had a miserable BABIP working against him along with his aggressiveness. He managed to progressively cut his K rate, from 23% in 2012 to 16.6% in 2013 to 15.1% in 2014. His baserunning became a real asset. Heyward became a good offensive player. It just didn’t seem the same because he didn’t become Frank Thomas with speed. He didn’t even keep being Jason Heyward the prospect & rookie. The offense, however, was there in part and it was really nice to have.
And then there was the defense. It’s what I’ll miss the most. My god, the defense. It’s a little depressing to know we won’t see this again in a Braves uniform, especially now that the technological advances are here that allow us to really marvel at it:
The defense is what made a merely above-average hitter into an extremely valuable player, one of the best in the league. Here’s a list of outfielders with a higher fWAR since the start of the 2010 season: Andrew McCutchen, Mike Trout, Jose Bautista, Ben Zobrist, Matt Holliday, and Alex Gordon. The defense was and is special.
Saying Goodbye: A Necessary Evil
So, I suppose it’s finally time to actually address the trade. Before we can do so, we have to talk about the circumstances that led to the deal. This deal was clearly not one that makes the Braves better in a vacuum, which means the swap is predicated on circumstances. The circumstances are: Jason Heyward is a free agent at the end of the year and almost certainly was going to test free agency unless Atlanta handed him a monster contract. This is safe to assume. Despite Heyward’s recent carefully crafted comments about the Braves never coming to him, he’s obviously an asset worth having on the roster, so it’s unfeasible to think Atlanta simply didn’t care for his presence on the field and off anymore. 30 teams in baseball would love to have his presence.
What would an extension cost? A recent Fangraphs post from Dave Cameron estimates $200M would be a starting point in the negotiations, and he makes a compelling argument. MLB teams, whether you agree with it or not, do pay for WAR, and WAR is a fan of Jason Heyward. I think it’s reasonable to think Heyward at least gave the Braves a figure somewhere in this ballpark, or gave them reason to believe that’s where the figure lied. So, let’s answer two questions from this point.
Could the Braves have re-signed Heyward given those estimates?
Probably not. I’m sure it’s possible – after all, given Giancarlo Stanton‘s new contract, we can assume it’s possible for every team to afford every player with certain contextual assumptions. However, with unknown budgets going forward and a still relatively weak TV deal (the restructuring took it from crippling to just kind of bad), I don’t think giving Heyward a monster deal was realistic if the goal was to remain in competition. That money has already been promised to Freddie Freeman, for better or worse. Giving Heyward a $200M extension wasn’t exactly a realistic one for the Braves. With that said, it’s safe to assume Heyward would depart at the end of the year as a free agent.
Is Heyward more valuable to Atlanta as: A – the best player on a contending team in 2015, B – a trade chip to re-shuffle the deck for both immediate and long-term contention, or C – a trade chip to ensure long-term contention?
This is really the crux of the trade decision, and it’s clear Atlanta thinks the answer is either B or C. Which one they decide can’t be known by this deal as much as subsequent ones, but it’s clear they thought Heyward held more value as a trade chip than as a one-and-done, give us our draft pick and best of luck to ya type player. My guess is C, as I don’t see how trading a defensively versatile, $8M all-star type player really sends the message that the window is open in 2015. Steamer, Fangraphs’ projection system, projects Heyward as a 4.4 WAR player in 2015, which is close to his 3-year average. That’s a short-term asset that’s hard to beat. It’s precisely why St. Louis wanted him – he’s the type of player you want when your window is open, not when you’re trying to define your window.
And that’s really what the Braves are doing, and it’s the toughest part of John Hart‘s transition to
General Manager boss and decision maker. Is the window open now for a team with some pitching talent and a great core of young MLB players, but clear holes in offensive design and a system bereft of impact players? It seems Hart thinks the window will open later, and it’s hard not to agree. The core will be around in 2016 and 2017, and because of that core, a full rebuild isn’t needed. Hart can trade a few assets now, inject life back into a system that lacks it while also adding talent. So the decision to trade Heyward was made, and it’s a decision that’s hard to argue with.
The Braves parted ways with Jason Heyward and Jordan Walden. I know I haven’t given Walden much digital ink here, but what is there to really say? He’s a good reliever with a power arm and three really strong pitches. He’s capable of closing, and he’s trustworthy with high-leverage innings. He’s also growing more expensive, and such a reliever is acceptable if you’re making a playoff push or refining an already nearly complete roster, but he becomes something of an unnecessary luxury if you’re attempting a quick rebuild. Also, it’s best to never put too much into middle relievers at the expense of other areas on the roster.
The Braves gave up 3 years of team control (1 for Heyward, 2 for Walden). By my best estimates, I’d guess the Braves surrendered around 4.5 WAR on Heyward’s end and 1.0 WAR on Walden’s, for 5.5 total, with a total cost of around $17M or so. Using $7M/WAR as the going market value, the Braves gave up about $38.5M in total value with this deal, meaning after you subtract the projected cost, the trade package has a net value of $21.5M. Given the fact I was using estimates all around, let’s just round that to around $20M of surplus value in production relative to cost for the two players headed to the Cardinals.
Now let’s look at the return. Shelby Miller has been a surprisingly critiqued pitcher given his pedigree. The highly drafted hard-throwing righty from Texas has a 3.33 ERA over his first two years as a big league starter, with a 26-18 record to boot if you’re into that sort of thing. I’m not, as record is team-based and ERA is not really predictive of future success, and as a result I prefer FIP, which has proven to be better at predicting future ERA than ERA. Miller’s FIP so far is 4.03, which is significantly worse. However, much of that stems from a poor start to the 2014 season. Eno Sarris took an excellent look at Miller in October – I highly recommend checking it out – and he noticed that Miller, who had a second half resurgence, was attacking the upper levels of the strike zone with his heater in the second half. Miller is a rarity – a two pitch starter – but for 2013 and in late 2014, he made it work. I’m sure we’ll take a closer look at Shelby Miller later, but for now, if he can repeat the success of 2013, and I believe he can, he is a 2.5 WAR pitcher – above average without being a star. Given his age and the fact that the Braves obtained 4 years of control over Miller, I think 10 or so WAR is a fair estimate. I imagine that will cost the Braves around $25M total in arbitration, while providing a value of around $70M. With Miller, as with any young pitcher that contributes, the value is there. I don’t think Miller would get $70M on the open market, but I think he’d get around $50M over 4 years. Have you seen what pitching goes for these days? With that in mind, I think the Miller gives the Braves at least $25M in net value. With Miller alone, the trade, from a value perspective, is a win.
But then there’s Tyrell Jenkins, who Baseball Prospectus rated as one of the 100 best prospects in the game in the preseason. He’s still a couple of years away, and he hasn’t progressed quickly due to injuries, but the raw talent is there. Jenkins has a fastball and slider combo that look like future plus pitches, and is a changeup away from deciding his future as a #3 starter or as a late inning reliever. Either way, he’s a valuable asset for a system lacking in them. After Jenkins’ dominance of the Arizona Fall League this year. I’d expect him to be ranked as the #1 or #2 pitcher in the system (before or after Lucas Sims). The Braves just acquired 6 years of Jenkins, whatever he winds up being.
We can’t know now if the decision to trade Heyward & Walden was the right one. If the team is surprisingly competitive in 2015 and misses the playoffs by a game or two due to RF and/or relief issues, it’s probably the wrong one. What we do know is that, given what we know about the players involved, the Braves got an excellent return for one year of Heyward and 2 of Walden, getting 10 years of team control over highly talented young pitchers.
Still, it sucks. It sucks that the Braves can’t just pony up and give Heyward what he wants and probably deserves. It sucks that the window isn’t open right now. It just sucks.
Credit the Braves for not doing what plenty of mistake-prone front offices do when they get into situations that suck. They acknowledged that things suck, and they made them suck less in the big picture. Hard decisions were made and a fan favorite was let go, and in the process the longterm outlook for the organization got a little rosier. The 2015 Braves didn’t get better, but the Braves in general did.
My conclusion: The Braves won the trade. Even if it sucks.