Oh boy, here we go. As a baseball fan, we can mark Monday, November 17th, 2014 as the start to the Major League Baseball offseason. Yeah, I realize the “offseason” starts after the World Series, but this is what there is to look forward to. The trades. The free agent signings. The rumor mill. Does it get any better?
Monday started with a splash. We started with Russell Martin signing a five-year, $82 million deal with the Toronto Blue Jays. Talk about shocker. I thought Martin was destined for the North Side, but the Jays swooped in for the kill with the first overpay of the offseason. That can be analyzed at another time. We also had the official confirmation of the mega, mega-deal between the Miami Marlins and Giancarlo Stanton. 13 years and $325 million; the largest deal for an athlete in North American sports history. Lastly, a pretty big deal was completed by the Atlanta Braves and St. Louis Cardinals. The Braves are sending OF Jason Heyward and P Jordan Walden to the Cardinals for pitchers Shelby Miller and Tyrell Jenkins.
Let’s begin with the name we all know; Jason Heyward. Heyward, who broke onto the scene in 2010, is known as one of the top defensive players in the game. Initially, many believed he could be a very fearsome hitter atop the lineup. In his rookie campaign, he hit .277 with 18 HR, 72 RBI, 29 doubles, five triples, 11 stolen bases, and a very strong .393 OBP. Heyward put together a very strong season, both offensively and defensively, in which many believed he would be a perennial All-Star. Unfortunately, Heyward could not repeat his offensive prowess in seasons to come. The following season, he hit only .227 with a .319 OBP, a total 180º from the previous year. In 2012, his power numbers came to life as he hit 27 HR with 82 RBI, but his OBP remained low at only .335. More issues in 2013 arose as he missed numerous games due to an appendectomy and gruesome broken jaw injury. On top of that, he only hit .254, but his OBP did come back to a respectable .349. After all of these up and down seasons, Heyward finally put together a strong campaign in 2014 as he hit .271 with 11 HR, 58 RBI, 26 doubles, three triples, 20 stolen bases, and a .351 OBP.
With all that being said, inconsistent is a great word to describe Heyward, at least at the plate. All of the talent in the world is there, he just hasn’t put it all together yet. The one part of his game that has always been consistent is his defense. In 2014, he ranked among the elite in almost all defensive categories. He was 1st in RngR (range runs; a statistic that measures range), 2nd in UZR (ultimate zone rating; arguably the most important defensive statistic) and 12th in DEF (defensive efficiency).1 He ranked 4th in baseball in defensive WAR (2.8) and ranked 17th in total WAR (6.35). That’s a higher WAR than Adam Wainwright, Max Scherzer, Jose Bautista, and Yasiel Puig. Not too shabby. While his bat may be tough to judge, his defense and on-base percentage are extremely valuable to any team.
The Cardinals also received RHP Jordan Walden. Walden, who turned 27 years old this past Sunday, has a career 3.10 ERA in 231 relief appearances. He has more strikeouts (254) than innings pitched (211.2) in his five year career and allows a ridiculously low amount of home runs (13 total; a HR allowed every 16+ IP). Back in 2011, he was the closer for the Angels and he converted 32 of 42 save chances. Obviously, closing wasn’t his strong suit, but he has been a very strong setup man the past two seasons for Craig Kimbrel in Atlanta. He will certainly be an upgrade for the Cardinals’ bullpen.
As for the Braves, the main piece they received was RHP Shelby Miller. Miller is still only 24 years old and was once regarded as the top prospect in the Cardinals’ organization. In 2013, Miller was ranked the 6th best prospect in baseball by Baseball America. He was drafted by the Cardinals in the 1st round (19th overall) in 2009 and had a fairly successful career in the minors, posting a 3.73 ERA in 78 starts. While he wasn’t blowing anyone away, he had a very strong K/9 (11.1). He had a solid rookie campaign in 2013 with the Cardinals, as he posted a 15-9 record with a 3.06 record in 173.1 IP. He also finished 3rd in the Rookie of the Year race.
With his high ceiling and strong year in 2013, many expected a breakout season in 2014. That wasn’t the case. This past season, Miller struggled with command and mechanical issues and could rarely go deep into ballgames. His FIP (fielding independent pitching), a statistic that measures a more raw conclusion on how a pitcher has performed, was very high.2 FIP is a lot like ERA, but a little more analyzed and detailed. When analyzing a player’s FIP, you would like to see it relatively close to his ERA. His FIP was 4.54, much higher than his 3.74 ERA. This tells us there was some luck and some plays that went his way that led to his 3.74 ERA. While it doesn’t tell the whole story, some may conclude that Miller will see his ERA rise in 2015 unless he corrects some of his pitching issues.
Also coming over from St. Louis is RHP Tyrell Jenkins, who was ranked the 94th best prospect in baseball before 2013 by Baseball America. He has been plagued by shoulder issues over his short career, but put on an impressive performance during the Arizona Fall League this past autumn, according to Keith Law.3. In five starts, he posted a 1.77 ERA and only allowed one home run. While Jenkins projects to be a starter down the road, he could possibly end up in the Braves’ bullpen in 2015.
On the surface, it looks like the Cardinals got away with highway robbery. It will be hard to argue that, but I do believe this trade will work out for both squads. St. Louis acquired one of the best defensive players in the game, as they needed to fill the hole for the late Oscar Taveras. Where he will bat in the lineup will be an interesting conversation to have. Since 2012, Heyward has been a much better hitter in the leadoff spot. In 500 AB, he has hit .282 with a .358 OBP, to go along with 16 HR and 14 stolen bases. When he bats third, he is only hitting .252 with a .319 OBP in 349 AB. It’s easy to see that Heyward is much more comfortable batting leadoff.
He will be facing stiff competition for that spot, as he will be battling Matt Carpenter, arguably the most underrated hitter in all of baseball. Reports are the Cardinals were already considering bumping Carpenter down in the lineup to give him some more RBI chances, so this could work out for everyone.
The Braves receive some much-need pitching. While they rank 5th in team ERA this past season, they could be losing Ervin Santana and Aaron Harang to free agency, still have Brandon Beachy and Kris Medlen recovering from Tommy John surgery, and have next to nothing in terms of pitching coming up through the system. They also traded two impending free agents for Miller, who is under team control for the next four years, and Jenkins, who is only 22 years old.
This trade saves them roughly $10 million this upcoming season as well. With a couple ugly contracts under Atlanta’s belt, who still owe B.J. Upton more than $46 million over the next three seasons and are still on the hook for $13 million owed to Dan Uggla, the Braves needed to save some money somewhere. Realistically, the Braves weren’t going to be able to sign Heyward to a long-term deal, so dealing him now for some valuable assets may be a good move for the long run.
I must say, the Cardinals are definitely the winners as of right now. As a team that made another deep playoff run this past season and with an absolutely loaded pitching staff, Miller was certainly expendable. Heyward now joins an already scary Cards’ lineup, where he will presumably be batting in front of Matt Carpenter, Matt Holliday, Yadier Molina, Matt Adams, and Jhonny Peralta. Not only will Heyward add to the lineup, he will be a major upgrade in the outfield. Once again, the Cardinals have made a brilliant move to improve their chances for another World Series run.