At 26 years old, Jason Heyward is a rarity. He’s the young All-Star whose team actually let him reach free agency without signing a long-term extension. Heyward hits the open market still in the prime of his youth, and will use that fact, and the dearth of under-30 talent hitting the free-agent market to his advantage. By the time all is said and done this offseason, Heyward will likely be cashing in to the tune of at least eight years and $200 million. It would not be a surprise to see him land a nine-year deal.
A deal as long as the one Heyward will get is not something that can be ironed out overnight, no matter how good or how young Heyward is. Having seen the initial returns on Robinson Cano‘s ten-year deal or Albert Pujols‘ ten-year deal, teams may be hesitant to lock Heyward up for nearly a decade. It’s not a direct comparison, as Heyward is much younger than Cano and Pujols were when they tested free agency for the first time, but the Gold Glove right fielder does come with plenty of his own concerns.
Heyward has dealt with injuries in his young career, and has still not quite lived up to the lofty expectations that were placed upon his broad shoulders after hitting 18 home runs and recording an .849 OPS as a 20-year-old rookie. The 6’5″ outfielder has recorded only one season with an OPS over .800 in the five years that followed his rookie campaign, and has not hit more than 20 home runs in a season or slugged over .450 since 2012. For $200 million, a team needs a player who is absolutely going to change the face of the franchise. Heyward may have the potential to do just that, but so far, he appears to be more of a complimentary-type player. A championship team needs players like Heyward, but he is not necessarily the piece that will put a team over the top.
So far this offseason, there has been very little activity on the free-agent market’s top names. On the position player side of things, Heyward likely has played a big role in slowing things down. Four of the best players in the class — Justin Upton, Yoenis Cespedes, Chris Davis, and Alex Gordon — have the ability to play outfield. These four need to see Heyward set the market, because all four have put up better offensive numbers than Heyward throughout their career. Regardless of age, the remainder of the outfield class need to see what type of annual value Heyward commands to support their own cases.
Because so many of the best free agents this winter play outfield (Davis has shown the ability to play a decent right field), many of the same teams will be chasing their services. Both New York teams could be seen as a fit for Upton or Heyward. The St. Louis Cardinals are working hard to re-sign Heyward, but could turn to Davis or Gordon if Heyward bolts. The Chicago Cubs have been linked to Heyward and Gordon, and definitely need to add at least one outfielder. The San Francisco Giants will also be in the mix for an outfielder, and the Los Angeles Dodgers can never really be counted out of any big free-agent bidding war.
Jason Heyward is the big domino that needs to fall before the rest of this year’s free agent class starts signing. It makes sense for most players to wait until after he signs so as to get an idea of where they stand in terms of perceived value, but also to keep whatever teams miss out on Heyward in the bidding for their own services. Signing before Heyward does could cause a player to leave a few dollars on the table or come to the negotiating table with reduced leverage. This Hot Stove season has been slow to warm up, and it should be expected to stay that way until after Jason Heyward signs his blockbuster deal.