Jason Heyward is going to make a lot of money.
Well, he will make a lot of money as long as he doesn't suffer a massive injury or fall off a production cliff. Neither of those are particularly likely, and for this exercise, we'll assume he doesn't. After the several other extensions were signed, I wondered aloud on Twitter whether or not one would give Heyward the same contract the Seattle Mariners gave to Robinson Cano - 10 years and $240 million. It's a lot of money, and the sticker shock is enough to have most people respond with a quick no - most people did.
But it's really not that ridiculous. Heyward has a lot going for him in terms of leverage. He's obviously talented, having posted 5 win seasons in two seasons and being on pace for a third if not for a couple freak injuries. He's also very young and will turn 25 later this mean - meaning he'll be just 26 when he enters free-agency - and when it comes to getting the length of contract we're discussing, his age is crucial. He's also well-rounded and offers value in all facets of the game. And when it's all said and done, people still believe there's a higher ceiling in there and think Heyward could be an MVP one day.
Let's first discuss his age. When we look at the biggest contracts in baseball history, we have Alex Rodriguez (25 when he signed his first major contract, 32 the next), Robinson Cano (31), Albert Pujols (32), Joey Votto (30), Derek Jeter (26), Prince Fielder (27), and Mark Teixeira (28). Heyward will be 26 when he signs his first free-agent contract (if he gets there), so he would certainly rank among the younger players to sign huge deals.
Next comes his talent, and this is where Heyward loses a little bit of steam. Alex Rodriguez was one of, if not, the best players in the game and had finished in the top-10 in MVP voting four times, though he had never won one. Cano is considered one of the best players in the game and has finished in the top-5(ish) of the MVP race each of the last four seasons. Albert Pujols had won two MVPs and finished second four other times. Joey Votto has an MVP and a couple other top-10 finishes. We can keep going, but I think you get the picture. Heyward has never finished higher than 20th in the MVP voting (his rookie season), and while MVP votes don't really matter, perception plays a role.
Despite the lack of hardware on his mantelpiece, Heyward remains one of the league's better players. Since his rookie season in 2010, Heyward has provided the 23rd most wins among position players according to FanGraphs, and even if he never gets better, he's already a 5-win player. Shin-Soo Choo is about that caliber of a player, but he's also five years older than Heyward will be when he signed his contract. Choo hadn't been very good the two previous seasons before 2013, but Heyward has a few pre-prime years headed his way. Doing well in those seasons would put to rest concerns about his "consistency."
But the question really comes down to "Should anyone give Heyward this contract?", and that's a more difficult question. The first part of the answer is looking at win values, and for this, we'll use several scenarios.
Heyward and the Braves reverse course now, and Heyward signs a Cano deal in the next few weeks. Here, we see 5 wins being Heyward's ceiling, and he begins tailing off at 30. The value of a win stays at $6 million - it won't, but let's look at what he does at that price.
The answer here gets us to $270 million. There's obviously a ton of risk here of injuries and the like, but especially given the talent Heyward has and could have, they would get decent value. 10 years, however, is a long time to commit to someone, and there are plenty of good reasons not to.
Heyward decides to play out the rest of his arbitration seasons, and he becomes a free agent at 26. We keep the same win values, but trading out his pre-prime years for later decline years severely hurts his overall value. Again, we act as though inflation won't happen - stop hyperventilating, we'll get there.
As expected, Heyward's value drops. Now his value is right at his contract. Given the usual idea that free-agent contracts are terrible, breaking even isn't all that bad.
Now, we're back to Scenario 1, but we've added in a 5% inflation on win values for each season. You'll notice that wins get close to $10 million a pop by the end of the next 10 seasons.
$333 million. Despite simply being an All-Star talent - as if that's a bad thing - having Heyward for his pre-prime and prime years makes him an extremely valuable commodity. $240 million is a lot to commit to someone, but even thinking Heyward won't get any better, he's immensely valuable for the next 10 years ... theoretically.
Now, we're back to Scenario 2, but we've added in the same inflation values. You'll notice that values have topped $10 million a win.
And that $10 million a win keeps Heyward nearly as valuable as Scenario 3. While we're still trading out good years for declining ones, the increasing win values keep Heyward very valuable, and he tops $300 million again.
This time, we're being a little less rosy. Heyward is now a 4-win player, and while he had been worth about 40-45 wins in prior scenarios, he's down to 30 now. We're still keeping inflation, and he signs after the next two seasons. I consider this the most likely scenario.
And we're back to breaking evenish. This time we're at $233 million, but again, teams don't usually break even on free-agent contracts. Heyward's relative youth entering into a free-agent deal makes him very valuable yet again.
Win values are, of course, limited. They are league-wide values that don't pertain to certain contexts. Given that the Braves will likely be near or in the bottom third of payrolls during the next decade, they probably can't or shouldn't spend that kind of money on one player, but as we discussed last week, they do still have room in future budgets for another large contract. That being said, the team will likely look to spend less than the league average value per win. Doing so probably won't net them Heyward, however.
I think the main point of this exercise is to demonstrate the value of talented youth to a team. Controlling these years of a player's career is extremely valuable to a franchise, and while Heyward may never be one of the top 10 players in the game, his age puts him in the situation to gain one of the biggest contracts in free-agent history. This is likely the reason he hasn't signed one of the mega-extensions the Braves have handed out for the past month. He and his agent likely understand the payday he is headed for. And Robinson Cano's deal may just be the beginning.
Understanding the Risk In a Cano-like Deal for Jason Heyward
Above, Mark makes a compelling case that Jason Heyward deserves something like the deal Robinson Cano recently got. If Jason can consistently be a 5-win player, with his age, he could certainly put up numbers that project him to be worth that much or even more. However, I have a few serious issues with the Braves paying such numbers to Heyward.
First, Mark gave lip service to injury risk, but he didn't really take it into account. While the huge debilitating injury might be the most obvious concern, various nagging injuries may even be more problematic. If Jason were to (God forbid) blow out his elbow and miss an entire season, a portion (though not all, as some fans believe) of his salary would be covered by insurance, somewhat mitigating the blow. However, if he were to have, say, a nagging oblique injury that just required intermittent days off while dragging down performance, that could be a huge blow to his value. This isn't to say that Heyward is injury prone, I think the jury is still out on that question, but simply that this is a worry with all massively-long contracts. Part of the reason Robinson Cano got the deal he did was because he has played in 159 or more games every year since becoming a MLB regular, at a position where such durability is somewhat rare. Regardless of your opinion on Heyward's durability, in his four full seasons in the majors, he's missed 116 games. In seven full seasons, Robinson Cano has missed 14 games.
The teams that win the bidding wars on massively-long, massively-expensive contracts are typically teams that can afford to take on the risk of one contract going south. Are the Braves such a team, given the expected increased revenues from the new stadium? Probably not. Even Freddie Freeman's contract "merely" bought out five years of free agency. It seems the Braves can now afford to take risks, but really only minor ones. I think a Cano like contract for Jason Heyward, or really any player, would be a bit more than a minor risk for the Braves.
Next let's look at projections for Heyward. I recently asked Dan Szymborski, creator of ZiPS, what Heyward's projections for the next ten years might look like, and he gave me the run around, probably because he's gearing up for such an article himself. However, when I told him why I wanted them, to gauge whether the Braves should give Heyward a Cano-like contract, he stated simply "no." This isn't a casual fan gawking at the numbers of a massive contract with a knee jerk reaction, this is a guy whose claim to fame is evaluating future performance of baseball players in dollar values. His simple "no" probably shouldn't be taken lightly. We do have Oliver projections for Heyward that run to the 2018 season, and I think they're interesting.
First, let's be clear that with the "Cano-like" deal Mark is proposing, we're talking about buying out ten of Jason's free agency years, which means to fully evaluate, we'd need twelve years worth of projections. We only have five here. But I think we can see something interesting emerge.
Over the next five years, Oliver projects Jason as being worth 4.5, 4.6, 4.7, 4.6 and 4.5 WAR. It's difficult to say that's a predicted downward trend after the third year (which would be Heyward's first season), but it is interesting nonetheless. If that .1 WAR downward tick kept up, by his 10th year of free agency, we'd be looking at a 3.8 WAR player. I'd like to believe this won't happen, that Heyward will be a 5-8 win player for the next 10 years, but when evaluating how to allocate the team's money, you at the very least have to take this possibility very seriously.
Why might Heyward's value drop a bit earlier than we maybe expected? Well, let's look at how Jason gets his value. Jason derives a ton of his value from freakish athletic ability: speed on the bases and speed in the outfield. Let's harken back to another Atlanta Brave, who derived a ton of his value defensively, Andruw Jones. Andruw was a defensive behemoth, as we all know, perhaps the outfield equivalent to what we just saw Andrelton Simmons do in the infield.
Can you even imagine what our staff's ERA would look like if they had Simba and Andruw up the middle? Andruw complied a massive amount of defensive value between the ages of 20 and 31. And then he became a replacement level player on defense at age 32. You can also make the argument that Andruw relied even less on pure athleticism than Heyward, and thus Heyward may be even in for an earlier decline. If Jason was deriving most of his value from power, contact and OBP, and was just reasonably athletic, this would be less worrisome, as those attributes tend to hold until much later in a player's career. But Jason likely only has so many years of elite speed in his body. If his defense and base running go from otherworldly to just average, he quickly goes from a 4.5 win player to a 3 win (or less) player. And again, even if these things are far from a sure bet, they're something the team must take very seriously as very real possibilities and evaluate the risk level they're willing to take accordingly.
Ultimately, for a team like the Braves, I think a Cano-like contract for Jason Heyward is far too big of a risk. And that sucks to say, because Heyward is probably my second favorite player on the team after Andrelton Simmons. Honestly, I'd probably be happy if the Braves gave him that contract, even if I knew intellectually that it was probably a bad idea for the team.
Why do teams overpay in free agency? Because some teams aren't actually overpaying. For some teams, like the Yankees, an extra win is worth more than it is to a team like the Braves. That extra win brings in more revenue for the Yankees, because of market size, television deal, and a whole host of other issues.
So while the Yankees, the Angels, the Red Sox, etc. of the world can afford to "overpay" for free agents, the Braves cannot. The Braves have to take their strategic shots on young players when they can early on, and hope to get values. It's clear that, at best, a Cano-like deal would be even value and that there's substantial risk that it could go south towards the last five years of the deal. I think it's a risk that the Braves simply can't afford to take.