When it comes to big ticket free agents, the St. Louis Cardinals have mostly preferred to build their roster with homegrown options or players acquired through trade. One of those trade acquisitions, Jason Heyward, is prepared to enter free agency at the age of 26. Because of his young age, the All-Star and three-time Gold Glover is going to fetch a king’s ransom on the open market. A contract worth upwards of $200 million over nine years is not out of the question for Heyward. Can the Cardinals view a nine-year deal for a player who has dealt with injury concerns in two out of six seasons as a safe investment?
There may actually be a better question to ask regarding Heyward. Is he even worth $200 million? Depends on how you want to value a solid all-around player who might one day hit 30 home runs. Heyward plays solid defense, steals bases, and strikes out infrequently, but has yet to repeat the .849 OPS of his rookie season. Heyward fits the type of team the Cardinals are trying to build to a tee, but his value seems to be driven up primarily by his age. Alex Gordon is a similar player to Heyward, and the pair of Gold Glove outfielders have essentially the same OPS for their careers, Heyward at .784 and Gordon at .783. Gordon has four Gold Gloves since converting to outfield full time in 2011.
Gordon will be 32 next year, and will be lucky to land a deal worth more than $20 million per year. A deal worth $90 million over five years may be enough to land the All-Star outfielder. Gordon is a Midwest native, and has spent his entire career with the Kansas City Royals. At this point, it is difficult to envision him leaving for a big market like Los Angeles or New York. If the Royals are unable to find the cash necessary to re-sign their homegrown product, the Cardinals should heavily consider Gordon.
Which player would come with a greater risk?
Gordon does also have some injury risk, as he managed only 104 games this year due to a freak leg injury. A nine-year deal for Heyward will run through his age-34 season. A five-year deal for Gordon will get him through age-36. Both players will be entering the downward arc of their career by the end of the deal, but Heyward will cost the Cardinals much more, likely over $100 million more.
With Gordon, the Cardinals would be getting a proven commodity. There is limited upside with the three-time All-Star and World Series champ. Heyward has unlimited upside packed into his 6’5″ frame. Scouts look at Heyward and picture him hitting 30 home runs every year, but the unavoidable truth is that he hit only 11 balls out of the park in 149 games in 2014 and saw that number rise only modestly to 13 in 2015. Did Heyward alter his swing and sacrifice contact for power to fit into the Cardinals lineup, or is the power outage a troubling sign? The Braves were not expecting Heyward to cut down on his swing to hit singles. Heyward’s .439 slugging percentage in 2015 was not much higher than his career average of .431. After six years, it may be time to accept that Jason Heyward is simply a very good player who is just not going to hit for power.
For the Cardinals, aggressively pursuing Jason Heyward could be a watershed moment for the franchise that typically behaves conservatively. Nine years is a long time to be locked into a single player, and the Cardinals may benefit more from a shorter deal with a player who is close to the same level as Heyward.
Alex Gordon should hardly be viewed as a downgrade for the Cardinals. In some regards, he is a safer option for St. Louis. While he is not outright the best player on the market, if Heyward walks, the Cardinals should be prepared to make Gordon their best offer.