Jason Heyward is not a Brave today in large part because of a decision made by former general manager Frank Wren two winters ago, not John Hart and John Coppolella last November.
Heyward’s contract expired after the 2013 season and he was due to go to arbitration. But Wren signed him to only a two-year contract, effectively ensuring the player would become a free agent after the 2015 season, because he and the organization didn’t want to commit to Heyward long term.
Wren didn’t believe Heyward hit for enough power and/or drove in enough runs and the two sides couldn’t agree on what the player’s value of. Never mind all of the other ways Heyward could impact a game. When Hart and Coppolella, the general manager in waiting, also declined to commit to Heyward long term and traded him to St. Louis for pitcher Shelby Miller (just traded), it wasn’t a shock. I thought then, and I still believe, keeping Heyward should’ve been a higher priority.
Well, one of the most polarizing yet effective players the Braves ever had is now a very rich man. Heyward was central to a bidding war by three National League contenders — Chicago, St. Louis and Washington — and agreed to a reported eight-year, $184 million contract with the Cubs.
In other words, the player whom the Braves couldn’t decided what was really worth apparently was worth quite a bit. Theo Epstein, the Cubs’ president and overseer of successful rebuilding projects in Boston (two World Series titles) and Chicago (which reached the NLCS for the first time since 2003), clearly believes Heyward can impact games, even if he doesn’t hit homers. So what does that say about the Braves’ judgement?
When I spoke to Heyward in the spring training of 2014, he seemed to have a pretty clear understanding of where things were likely headed. Here’s a link that column. But he said he preferred not to focus on that, saying, “We’re all prepared to go year to year anyway until we get to free agency.”
Heyward was drafted in 2007 out of Henry County High School. Three years later, he crushed a three-run home run in his first major league at-bat in 2010 and made the All-Star team. Nobody had thoughts of his possible exit from his hometown of Atlanta. He and Freddie Freeman were viewed as the franchise centerpieces and appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated.
“But this is four or five years later,” Heyward said in February of 2014. “All the player can do is show up, give it his best and try to help his team win games. That’s all I can do. It’s not up to me to say who comes here and who gets how much.”
Heyward has had some stops and starts in his career, largely because of injuries. His batting average suffered. He has a funky hitch in his swing. But he hit a career high .293 last season, won his third Gold Glove, stole 23 bases and received MVP consideration (finishing 15th in voting). He was the Cardinals’ best player in his one year there. The stat his defenders use most comes from the world of analytics: WAR (Wins Above Replacement). Hewyard’s WAR of 6.5 ranked 15th in the majors and led the Cardinals last season, well above second-place Matt Carpenter (3.9).
So yeah, the guy can play and the guy can win games.
Is he really worth $184 million? That’s debatable but that’s the market. Some pretty good teams believed Heyward could help them win a World Series and were willing to commit to him long term. That’s what separates them from the Braves.
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