The Rockies would never do it—but they should. "It" is offering right fielder Jason Heyward, possibly this year’s top free agent, a contract that includes a lot of years and whole lot of money. The Rockies should do it because Heyward would be an excellent fit on the Rockies and because he would be an ideal building block as the Rockies enter a rebuilding phase.
Let’s start with Heyward’s age: He’s 26. It seems like he should be older because he’s already played through his arbitration years and is on the free agent market. To put that into context, Heyward is more than three years younger than Charlie Blackmon, almost two years younger than Ben Paulsen, a year younger than DJ LeMahieu, and about three months younger than Corey Dickerson.
Heyward’s age matters a lot. As opposed to almost every free agent every offseason, Heyward is in his prime. There is some legitimacy to the claim that the Rockies should not pay top dollar for a free agent given where the team is right now. That might apply for a 30-year-old pitcher who needs to be paid through his decline years and whose value will be highest in the first two years of the contract. That does not apply to Heyward. On the contrary, signing Heyward to a long-term contract can be an essential part of rebuilding. This is best illustrated not by pointing to players younger than Heyward, but to identify one he is older than: Heyward is just one year and eight months older than Nolan Arenado.
Heyward and Arenado are different types of players, but they do have a lot in common. For one, they are both excellent defenders. Since Arenado’s rookie season in 2013, he’s saved the Rockies 64 runs at third base, according to Defensive Runs Saved. In that same time-span, Heyward has saved a nifty 69 runs in right field.
Here, Heyward’s age comes into play again. Outfield defense and speed decline as a player’s age is on the incline. But that doesn’t tend to start happening until the player’s 30s. Jacoby Ellsbury, for instance, has seen his defense decline after signing his large free agent contract as a 30 year-old. Another gifted outfielder, Andruw Jones, didn’t break down until 31, and his decline was anomalously steep. Heyward probably won’t see age related performance declines on defense until about 2020, his age 30 season. Right now, Heyward’s the best defensive right fielder in baseball. While this is a simplified way of putting it, he can be thought of as the Arenado of right field.
Heyward’s offense needs a heavier case. A phrase that has been floating around regarding Heyward’s free agency is that "a lot of his value is tied to defense." This is probably true, but misleading. That’s because Heyward is an excellent defender and a very good hitter. Let’s take a look at the type of hitter he is. Heyward is a career .268/.353/.431 hitter. Adjusted for ballpark, that comes out to a line that is about 18 percent above league average in nearly 3500 career plate appearances. The mark against him is that he does not have a lot of power. Heyward did hit 27 dingers in 2012, but in the past three seasons he’s hit just 14, 11, and 13. Home runs are great, but they also tend to be overvalued. There are other ways to provide offensive value.
Here's one way to think about it: Heyward is as valuable on offense as Arenado, but they players build the value in different ways. We need look no further than Heyward’s on base percentage. In 2015, Heyward posted an OBP of .359. If he had done that for the Rockies, he would have led the team, barely besting DJ LeMahieu’s .358. That doesn’t mean LeMahieu was just as valuable as Heyward. While OBP has been shown to be more valuable than slugging percentage, Heyward’s .439 slugging put him far ahead of LeMahieu, due to the second baseman’s .388 mark. However, looking at the offensive seasons as complete bodies of work, Heyward was about as valuable on offense as Arenado. Whereas Arenado hit a lot more home runs and had a much better slugging percentage, Heyward had a much better on base percentage. They took different paths to similar value.
Heyward’s OBP was so good because he’s very good at something the Rockies, as a whole, have not been very good at. The man can take a walk. He also doesn’t strike out very much. Those two things combined make him an asset at the plate, despite a lack of power. Heyward’s 9.2 percent walk rate in 2015 was under his career 10.8 percent mark. Since Heyward’s debut in 2010, the Rockies have had ten players accrue more than 1000 plate appearances. Of those ten, just three posted walk rates of at least ten percent: Troy Tulowitzki, Todd Helton, and Dexter Fowler. Not only that, but Heyward doesn’t strike out very much. He has a better than average 18.5 percent strikeout rate, but a lot of that is due to his early career strikeouts. In the past three seasons, he’s posted strikeout rates of 16.6, 15.1, and 14.8 percent. In fact, in 2015, he walked almost twice as often as Arenado and struck out less.
This profile fits Coors Field. The ability to put the ball in play is more kindly rewarded at Coors Field than anywhere else. Coors Field isn’t just hitter friendly because of home runs. Discounting home runs, hitters have reached base as a result of putting the ball in play more frequently in Coors Field than anywhere else from 2013 to 2015, and second place Fenway Park isn’t all that close. The fact that he reaches base more frequently than anyone else currently on the Rockies means that he’d be creating traffic for other balls in play. That’s why he’s such a good run creator, and that's why he'd be an especially good one at Coors Field.
Heyward is an excellent defender and a very good hitter. He’s also a quality base runner. Heyward has swiped 21, 20, and 23 bags over the past three seasons, and FanGraphs’ total base running metric—which accounts for things like going first to third on singles—regularly has him adding runs with his legs. Heyward’s base running value in 2015 not only bettered any single player on the Rockies in 2015, but it was more than the Rockies’ top two contributors, Blackmon and LeMahieu, combined.
Given his defense, hitting, and base running, it is clear that Heyward is very well rounded. Or, as Dayn Perry recently put it, Heyward’s "a good hitter, but he’s a great baseball player." Wins Above Replacement metrics are so useful precisely to measure a player’s well roundedness. Rather than looking at this value in the past tense, let’s turn to what it might look like in the future. Right now, the only publicly available long-term forecasts are on Baseball Prospectus, and these projections don’t account for what happened in 2015. Still, they can work as a rough guide for our purposes here. According to BP, Heyward should be worth about 32.8 wins above replacement over the next nine seasons. That's about four wins short of what Troy Tulowitzki posted in his nine seasons with the Rockies. If we translate Hyeward's projected wins into dollars (about $8 million a win right now), it comes to about $260 million dollars of value.
Now that we’re on years and dollars, we’ll turn to what kind of contract the Rockies should offer Heyward. Heading into last offseason, I wrote an impassioned plea for the Rockies to sign Russell Martin. I undershot his value by a lot. I suggested that the Rockies offer a four year contract worth $44 million. Matt Gross pointed out that by showing how valuable of a catcher Martin is, I actually made a pretty compelling case about why, due to money, the Rockies wouldn't pursue him. The Blue Jays eventually signed him for five years and $82 million. I’m not going to make that mistake this time around.
The Rockies should offer Heyward 10 years and $220 million. Hear me out. A year ago, the resolute Paul Agnello identified Heyward one of the first pieces of the Rockies’ long-term contention puzzle. He proposed similar numbers. More recently, Dave Cameron at FanGraphs’ predicted that the Cardinals would re-sign Heyward for something like nine years and $195 million. Agnello and Cameron both included an important component in their proposed Heyward contracts: an opt-out clause after four years. It would mean that Heyward would be a free agent again after the 2019 season. At that point, he’d still be younger than Jacoby Ellsbury was when he signed his seven year $153 million contract with the Yankees.
Heyward taking a contract with an opt-out clause is not beyond the pale for a couple of reasons. First, these types of contracts favor the player because they provide for the possibility of another big payday. If injuries happen, then the player is secure in the long-term deal that pays handsomely anyhow. Second, Heyward is represented by Casey Close. Close also represents Zack Greinke and Clayton Kershaw. And Greinke and Kershaw are two of the most notable players on deals with opt-out clauses. Or, at least, Greinke was before he recently opted out of his last contract. In order for the Rockies to be persuasive, because they won’t be the only team thinking about opt-outs as a carrot, the contract couldn’t be completely backloaded. If the Rockies can guarantee between $65 and $75 million in the four years leading up to the opt-out, they might be able to persuade Heyward to come to Denver. If he continues to be productive, that would likely put him in line to make something closer to $275 million for the rest of his career, depending on the contours of the next CBA.
Financially, this contract would squeeze the Rockies through 2017. The Rockies can free up some space for their new right fielder by trading their current one, Carlos González. Indeed, the return the Rockies can get by trading CarGo is another way in which signing Heyward can help spur along the current rebuild. In order to get a better return, the Rockies might have to eat some of González's contract. Through 2017, the Rockies will also be paying José Reyes to either play elsewhere or not at all. The Rockies would likely be paying close to $50 million to Reyes and Heyward in 2017. If we add in Arenado in arbitration (assuming he isn’t extended), it’s probably closer to $65 million for just three players.
But the rest of the obligations are minimal, and the Rockies don’t have any other guaranteed contracts beyond 2017. It’s precisely after 2017 when the Rockies could use additional financial flexibility to fill in any other roster holes that are not being filled by the fruits of the deepest farm system the organization has ever had.
Jason Heyward is a 26-year-old free agent outfielder who is good at everything and great at some things. He has displayed skills at the plate the Rockies have lacked, and need. His defense will play nicely in Coors Field’s expansive outfield. And while he won’t come cheap, there are very good reasons to expect that he can be lured with a contract that favors him while simultaneously keeping the Rockies off the hook of a future albatross contract. He'd be paid a lot up front, but he'd also be worth every penny.
Heyward is the type of player that rarely hits free agency, and the team should take the opportunity to make a real effort at securing him. The Rockies would never do it, though.