After a winter of lavish spending on homegrown, ascending talents, the Atlanta Braves have locked up their young core—Freddie Freeman, Andrelton Simmons, Craig Kimbrel and Julio Teheran—for years, ensuring the quartet will help guide the franchise into a new stadium in 2017.
Technically, 24-year-old Jason Heyward belongs in that group. Amid the wave of lucrative, long-term pacts handed out by Braves general manager Frank Wren, Heyward's name popped up on the transaction log on the same day news broke about Freeman's franchise-changing deal.
Yet Heyward, potentially the most talented player on the roster, wasn't guaranteed anything beyond the 2015 season. Atlanta was wise to buy out his remaining arbitration years, but the talented right fielder is careening toward an inevitable date with free agency.
Clearly, Atlanta altered its business model this winter. After years of sporting payroll figures less than $100 million, the Braves locked up the core of a team that will soon become expensive. Despite that spending, Heyward wasn't showered with the riches of his teammates.
It depends what answer is more suitable to your opinion of Heyward as a player, both in the present and future.
The easy answer: Heyward, despite the highest pedigree of any former top prospect on the roster, hasn't yet proven to be worthy of a major commitment.
The harder and more likely answer: Heyward's price tag, based on talent and production thus far in the majors, is too much for Atlanta's ownership to handle.
Let's start with the easy explanation for Heyward's unimpressive two-year, $13.3 million deal.
Despite immense talent, Heyward hasn't yet become a dominant, game-changing force for the Braves or anything close to a perennial NL MVP candidate. That sentiment is backed up by counting stats.
Since 2010, Heyward has played in 100-plus big league games in each season. His big frame and natural swing seem custom built for power. Yet Heyward has only one campaign of 20-plus home runs thus far for Atlanta's lineup.
Last year, Heyward drove in just 38 runs. That figure, while surprising on the surface, is an even more head-scratching statistic when looking at names above him on the RBI leader list: Jeff Keppinger, Darwin Barney and Daniel Descalso.
Atlanta's right fielder isn't just producing less RBI than middle-of-the-order sluggers—he's driving in less runs than replacement-level hitters.
When Heyward emerged on the scene in 2010—launching a home run in his first major league at-bat—the sky seemed limitless for Atlanta's new star. During that rookie season, he backed it up with a .393 on-base percentage and 131 OPS+, good enough to garner a second-place finish in the NL Rookie of the Year vote.
Coupled with consecutive top-five prospect rankings by Baseball America, Heyward was expected to become an instant star. Since the 2010 season ended, Braves fans and Atlanta's front office have been caught holding their collective breath for that star to arrive.
Although he hasn't blossomed into baseball's best player, the reason for Heyward's uncertain future has little to do with what he hasn't done. Instead, it's about the rare company he's in among on-base machines and young, productive outfielders throughout baseball history.
Over the last few years, executives have spent lavishly on top-of-the-order hitters.
Prior to the 2011 season, Carl Crawford signed a seven-year, $142 million contract with the Boston Red Sox. At the time, his career OBP was .337.
Before the 2012 season, Jose Reyes bolted New York for a six-year, $106 million deal with the Miami Marlins. Upon his arrival, Reyes' career OBP stood at .341.
This winter, the New York Yankees awarded Jacoby Ellsbury a seven-year, $152 million pact to ignite the lineup. Since debuting in 2007, the former Red Sox outfielder has posted a .350 OBP.
Heyward enters 2014 with a career on-base percentage of .352, better than Crawford, Reyes or Ellsbury at the time of their contracts.
Last season, Atlanta moved Heyward into the leadoff spot for 30 games. During that time, the then 23-year-old reached base over 40 percent of the time. Heading into 2014, Fredi Gonzalez envisions Heyward reprising that role, per David O'Brien of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
“If you had to start the season tomorrow, I think you would run him out there,” Gonzalez said.
If he does, his career OBP could soon dwarf the outputs of Crawford, Reyes and Ellsbury.
Of course, Heyward's excellence isn't just rooted in one statistic or contained to a specific skill set. When his age-22 season yielded 27 home runs, the young left-handed hitter placed himself in rare company among young outfield stars.
Over the course of baseball history, only 12 outfielders have reached the following criteria through their respective age-23 seasons: 2,000 plate appearances, 70 home runs and a .350 OBP. As the following chart illustrates, baseball's best outfielders began their careers looking very similar to Heyward.
|Most Productive Young OFs in History|
If this information is available to us, it's certainly available to Atlanta's front office and Heyward's representation.
When Heyward's name comes up, uncertainty and unfulfilled promise are often cited. When the Braves chose to leave their right fielder out of their long-term planning this winter, those narratives were at the forefront.
Sometimes, the easy answer isn't the right answer.
It's fair to say that Heyward hasn't reached his potential. But it's also eye-opening to consider what he's done before that day arrives.
When the Braves chose to re-sign the bulk of their core, Heyward wasn't left out on purpose. Instead, it was an admission that this player may cost too much to retain.
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Statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs, unless otherwise noted. All contract figures courtesy of Cot's Baseball Contracts. Arbitration numbers and projections courtesy of MLB Trade Rumors. Roster projections courtesy of MLB Depth Charts.