I always thought it was Chicken Little that cried “The Sky Is Falling” but after today it seems the phrase should be attributed instead to St. Louis Cardinal fans. Jason Heyward signed with the Chicago Cubs!?! Oh no the sky is falling!!
Yes indeed Jason Heyward “spurned” Cardinal Nation. He left the Best Fans in Baseball for those loveable losers on the north side of Chicago. How could he do such a thing?! Well let’s first address the outcry of fans that are ridiculously calling Heyward a traitor. Heyward was not drafted by the team, he did not come up through the organization (like Albert Pujols), he was here for ONE YEAR. Heyward did not lead the Cardinals to a memorable postseason run, say like Will Clark did in 2000. Heyward did not even have memorable performances such as say David Freese. Jason Heyward owed the Cardinals nothing so let’s please not act like imbecile fans wishing injury on a player.
Now back to the real issue at hand, is Jason Heyward worth the contract he signed with the Cubs? He may be, he may not be. According to the Cubs he is an elite player, as determined by his new contract. However the Cardinals felt that Heyward’s worth did not reach the same elite level. Jason Heyward is really the first test as to how teams value the analytic rankings such as WAR. WAR is a ranking that attempts to determine a players worth, measuring his value among various aspects of the game and not just the typical “baseball card” numbers. Heyward has long been a favorite of analytical types, ranking in the top ten in each of the last two years.
However as with any value based system, there are issues. Many (I myself included) feel that WAR factors in too much on the defensive side and in fact with defensive rankings often times being skewed, that means WAR numbers can be over or under where they should be. But I think the biggest issue with WAR is that there is no standard WAR number. WAR compares that player against a replacement level player, yes. But how about consistency within WAR; a batting average is easy to figure out (hits divided by at-bats). But according to WAR it depends on what site you go to, Fan Graphs may have a player at 4.8 and Baseball Reference has the same player a 6.2. It is not an exact reference point.
Now whether you strongly support WAR or just think WAR is another tool to use, there is no doubt that as stated earlier Heyward is a favorite of the analytical types. The Cubs obviously have gone all in with their belief in the WAR ratings; signing not just Heyward but another longtime favorite in Ben Zobrist. Both players are well-rounded players but neither has ever been a MVP type, aka elite player. In fact both have combined for just three All-Star games with Heyward’s lone appearance coming as a rookie in 2010. So is a one time All-Star, someone who is well-rounded but does not excel in anything except possibly defense, worth 8-years and $184 million?
The Cardinals and John Mozeliak obviously felt no. Despite Heyward being a well-rounded player and a favorite of analytics, the Cardinals felt the cost outweighed the benefit. Heyward hit .293 with 13 home runs, 60 runs batted in and 23 stolen bases last year while playing outstanding defense. But is that worth $180 million? Heyward’s offensive WAR numbers actually ranked him 36th in baseball last season, 20 spots BELOW teammate Matt Carpenter. Is Heyward worth more than three times more money than Matt Carpenter? Heyward’s defensive WAR was not even in the top ten, ranking 13th. He had a .990 fielding percentage, I know not the ideal statistical category to rank but who is to say its value isn’t the same as defensive WAR (I already explained the issues in determining defensive ratings for WAR earlier). Anyways, Heyward had a .990 fielding percentage last season, do you know what the fielding percentage for right fielders for the Cardinals in 2014 was? A .993, yes it was actually better overall. His high demand comes from being a good, but not great, player in all aspects of the game and his relative young age.
Yes his defense was good but was that the reason the Cardinals had a 100 win season? The Cardinals accomplished no more with Heyward on the team. Even if I grant you his defensive abilities were improved over the previous players, was lack of defense the reason the Cardinals fluttered out in the postseason? No that was lack of offense. So why would you pay elite money to a player who does not excel in an aspect that you need (offense) just because his lone standout trait (defense) is something that is hard to quantify and has minimal impact?
Mozeliak weighed just that question and felt that Heyward was not worth that type of money. Now he may be wrong, but that was his decision and he has made tough decisions before and typically the Cardinals have benefited. I know fans are hanging on his quote about having “payroll muscle” and yes the Cardinals are not short on money. But just because you have money does not mean you should spend it with abandon. That is how teams get in trouble.
Now I am not saying the Cardinals are a better team without Heyward than they would be with him. But there comes a point when you can’t just aimlessly through money around. And this is not revisionist history, I did not like the trade last fall for Heyward in which the Cardinals dealt two young players under their control for years for a player who had not lived up to his potential. But Mozeliak and the Cardinals had a point in which they felt the cost was too much and the Cubs went above that to sign Heyward.
Still the Cardinals have not done enough this off-season and I would be shocked if they remain silent. They chased hard after David Price, they offered Heyward a deal that they felt he was worth. They lost out on both players. There are still some quality players out there whether it is in free-agency or through a trade.
For me I would like them to sign Justin Upton, a player who brings some pop and a better bat to right field. As well as Mike Leake, who they felt was overpriced while chasing Heyward but may look better now. Leake’s number may not impress at first but they are quietly good and always consistent. Yes Cardinal fans dreamed of having Price in the rotation and signing Heyward to a long-term deal, fans always want the biggest and shiniest toys. But sometimes it’s not what we want but what we need. The Cardinals did not get the players fans wanted but now is the time to get what the team needs. Now is not the time to give up and just fall apart as if the sky is falling, now is the time to keep calm and Cardinal on.