Should Jason Heyward Have Been Kept In The Minors Longer?

Kevin C. Cox

At what point is a young, potential superstar's maximum value brought to the team?

Dave Cameron recently listed Jason Heyward as the 43rd most valuable contract in MLB, trade value wise. Now, before people freak out, let's read the pertinent part of what he had to say regarding Heyward:

Despite his youth, the Braves only control Heyward's rights for two more seasons after this one. He may very well bounce back and once again show that he can be a franchise building block, but by the time he put his inconsistency behind him, he'd be a free agent. Right now, Heyward finds himself in the slightly awkward position where both his present value and his future value have been diminished.

Cameron then softened his stance slightly with:

All that said, we're still talking about a 23-year-old who already has accumulated +15 WAR in his career, and projects as a +4 win player going forward. Guys who can hit Major League pitching their early twenties often go on to become superstars. Heyward's defense and baserunning give him a high floor even if the bat never does develop the way it looked like it might have earlier on, and if it does, then he's got a shot at being one of the most complete players in the sport. But there's just so many ifs here.

Regardless of how much merit we ascribe to the harsher parts of Cameron's evaluation, I don't think we can make the argument that it's totally unreasonable. Heyward may well be a generational talent, but by the time that he grows into that, he might not be a Brave any longer. While Heyward has already brought a lot of value to the team, is it possible that the Braves spent up (and are spending up) his team control years on seasons where he was just building to his ultimate potential?

Jason Heyward joined the Atlanta Braves as a precocious 20-year-old with mountains of talent. He immediately became a force in the Braves' lineup and put up one of the greatest seasons by a 20-year-old in MLB history. He was an incredible defensive outfielder, one of the best baserunners in the league, and hit for power and OBP. Then came a series of injuries, some bad luck, and some flat out under-appreciation of his talents. At one point Heyward found himself being platooned with Jose Constanza. Willie Mays was never platooned with Jose Constanza.

Be Heyward's slumps due to injury or inconsistentcy, or some of both, it might make some sense to wonder about his age and the role it might have played. Most 20-year-olds are still suckling the soft teat of low minors pitching, not playing nearly as many games, and not enduring nearly as grueling of a road schedule as their older, more mature MLB counterparts. And while by all accounts Heyward is as mentally mature as anybody, and his body sure looks physically mature, it might be reasonable to wonder if the increased workload, compared to his similarly aged peers, might have played a role in his injuries and inconsistencies.

Further, even if his age had nothing to do with those issues, let's just consider what we essentially traded off by having Heyward in MLB as a 20-year-old, instead of AAA. From all indications Jason Heyward is not going to take a discounted extension, and if the Braves do manage to extend him past 2015 (when his team control years run out), they'll be doing so at at least close to the market rate.

The primary key to winning with a budget south of the Yankees' budget is getting the most of your team controlled players. Free agents are generally worth the same amount they cost, so you don't really gain by buying free agents on the open market; you gain in benefit exactly what you gave up. If the Braves had waited a couple of years with Heyward, they would be getting his age 22-27 seasons under team control (and thus prior to free agency); instead they're getting his 20-25 year old seasons. In a manner of speaking, you can look at it as if the Braves traded a 20-year-old Jason Heyward with two years left on his contract for a 26-year-old Jason Heyward with two years left on his contract. Which Jason Heyward do you think would be better?

Now, ultimately, we don't get the chance to play out these alternate realities. We can't see how things might have worked out had the Braves kept Heyward down for a year or two longer. It may well have been the case that he would have grown frustrated with AAA, or developed bad habits while feasting on subpar pitching, or any number of scenarios. But I think the question is worth asking. When you have a superstar like Heyward, who isn't going to sign an Evan Longoria-like contract into the distant future for well below market rate, when is the best time to bring him up? As Dave Cameron notes, us bringing him up at such a young age may very well end up meaning that he will be just hitting his prime right as we lose him to free agency (or only slightly better, pay him a bank truck load of money to stay in Atlanta). With a budget like the Braves', these questions must be asked, even if they don't have easy answers.

The impatient part of me is glad I've gotten to witness his talent as soon as possible. The parts of me more prone to delay gratification wonder if we didn't give up more than we received in doing so. Ultimately it's difficult to question the Braves' decision too harshly. Heyward has been, after all, worth 15 WAR already and may well end up with 27-ish WAR by the time he finishes up his team controlled years and either starts his extension or free agency years. 27 wins under team control is in no way, shape, or form something to under-appreciate. But we may find ourselves left wondering what might have been, especially if 2016 finds Heyward donning the uniform of another franchise.

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