By Sam Belden
The experts have spoken: this year’s free agent class is one of Major League Baseball’s best in recent memory. Several big names are looking like good bets to net deals upwards of $100 million. One of these is right fielder Jason Heyward, who will hit the open market as a much different player from the one he was projected to become.
Heyward, formerly of the St. Louis Cardinals, proved himself to be a valuable asset over the past few years, but was expected to be even more than that. As a former can’t-miss prospect, he made his MLB debut with a significant amount of fanfare and was billed as once-in-a-generation talent (never mind the fact that players like Justin Upton, Giancarlo Stanton and Bryce Harper all got the call within the same five-year window). Now a seasoned vet at the ripe old age of 26, Heyward has arrived at a career crossroads, so let’s examine how he’s performed in light of these astronomical expectations.
Heyward’s rookie campaign in 2010 was a definitive success. Playing for his hometown Atlanta Braves, he got on base at a .393 clip and hit 18 home runs — good, but not good enough to edge out Buster Posey for the NL Rookie of the Year. Still, that kind of initial performance seemed to be a harbinger of better things to come. Thanks to his slick glove work and disciplined approach at the plate, Heyward was often compared to the great Willie Mays, from whom he took the nickname “The J-Hey Kid.”
Braves fans were overjoyed with their budding superstar, but things didn’t go as planned. Heyward never improved his hitting skills. He hit 27 home runs once, in 2012, but that’s looking more and more like an anomaly by the day. By the end of last year, Braves GM John Hart had enough and flipped him to St. Louis, where he had his best season at the plate in years.
Five years down the line, Heyward has never come close to replicating his rookie stat line. For that reason, many who predicted offensive superstardom for the right fielder have labeled him a mild disappointment. Those critics are wrong; Heyward hasn’t turned into a masher, but he’s still extremely valuable.
Always one of the better fielders in the league, Heyward generates a ton of value with his glove. By most measures, he was more productive in the field than at the plate during the 2014 season. Additionally, his base-running is plainly excellent. Over the past two years, Heyward has stolen 43 bases and been caught just seven times. Even with the stolen base falling out of fashion among sabermetric circles, that kind of success adds a ton of value. All told, Heyward has topped six WAR in each of the past two seasons and racked up 31.1 in his career.
So no, Heyward hasn’t developed into a consistent 40-home run threat like Willie Mays, but in this day and age, he’ll still be paid handsomely. Once undervalued by the baseball economy, skills like fielding and base-running are more quantifiable than ever, making it easy to see just how much Heyward can bring to a team. Don’t be surprised if his deal passes the $200 million mark.