I don't think its a stretch to say one of the Orioles' biggest weaknesses this past season was the combined play of all the corner outfielders. It was tough to watch both offensively and defensively and definitely contributed to the disappointing year. You could make the same argument for the rotation, but upgrading your starters can be tough. It's true, Dan Duquette has said its a top priority:
"There is some correlation between the size of your payroll and the competitiveness of your team. But I will say this again - we have plenty of resources here to be competitive. How we go about improving our pitching, that is our No. 1 priority in the offseason."
...but just because its your top priority, it doesn't mean that's where you need to spend the most money. In fact, after the way the Ubaldo Jimenez signing is likely on its way to becoming a bad decision, it doesn't seem to me the team is going to go after a big money pitcher for a lot of money. If anything, they'll look to some fringe-type guys on one or two year deals. I'm thinking guys like Doug Fister, Scott Kazmir, Mike Leake. Improvements? Probably. But they aren't huge signings, or frankly very expensive ones. So that brings us back to Heyward.
The basis of my argument goes like this - Jason Heyward is young, experienced, and there's more than enough data to rely on him being one of the best all-around players in the game for years to come. He has a lot of skills the Orioles have been lacking and he plays a position the Orioles have no answer for right now. Signing him now to a long-term deal will provide a solid piece the team can build around, much like they've done with Adam Jones. Guys like this don't come around often and you need to get him while you can. Not to mention, such a huge free agent signing will send a clear message to your fanbase that you're dedicated to remaining a competitive team. Now here's why I think that...
Because Heyward came into the league so early, he's only 26 now but has six full seasons of experience under his belt. His performance has remained very consistent over that time too. His wRC+ for the last six years: 134, 96, 121, 120, 110, 121. That 96 he put up in his sophomore year was his bad year. Even that would've been a huge improvement for the Orioles last season. And the biggest reason he dropped off from that first year was because he seemed to lose power and hit less home runs. But you know which park happens to have a nice, short right field for left-handed hitters? Yep.
But his offense isn't the only thing - he's a great defender as well. His UZR/150 the last four years come in at 21.6, 20, 20.5, and 24. You've probably heard of a guy named Alex Gordon (and remember his spectacular plays from the 2014 ALCS), but compare Heyward's numbers to Gordon's: 12.1, 7.3, 22.6, 10.5. And again, Heyward is much younger and going to be able to continue making those plays. But I'll get back to Gordon in a minute...
You can go read the entire free agent profile on Heyward at MLBTraderumors, but here are some highlights I especially like:
- "He's a fairly consistent source of twenty stolen bases"...remember how cool it was watching Manny steal all those bases in 2015?
- "He's reached base at a solid .353 clip and walked at a strong 10.8% rate for his career"...sounds like something this team needs
- "...he's significantly cut back on the strikeouts since and now sits at about a 15% K rate, well below the league average."...losing Davis will probably leave this team's K-rate lower than 2015, but he wasn't the only problem.
- "His chase rate and overall swing percentage have dropped every year since 2012, and his contact numbers have risen: in his most recent campaign, he posted a 93.8% in-zone contact rate."
- "Heyward has averaged 139 games and 572 plate appearances per year — good, but not great — but has mostly missed time due to bad luck (e.g., appendectomy, broken jaw)."
I know what you're saying now..."That all sounds great, but isn't he going to cost a lot of money?" The answer is yes, he will. But does that really matter if he's worth it? Over the last four years, he's averaged 5.28 fWAR per year. Fangraphs is already listing his Steamer projection for next year at 4.7 fWAR. Let's split the difference and say next year he'll be worth 5 WAR. Over the last couple years the estimate in the free agent market a win above replacement has been worth about $6M (a conservative estimate for this offseason).
So, if Heyward is worth 5 WAR next year, anything less than a $30M is a steal. Currently, MLBTraderumors is projecting him to go to the Yankees for 10 years/$200M. Jon Shepard over at Camden Depot is projecting something more modest: 7 years/$154M. That gives you an average annual salary of $20-$22M, which would make it a bargain. Usually though that is the case - you get a bargain in the first few years and end up over-paying in the second half of the contract. But again - Heyward is only 26. It's likely that 5 WAR next year won't be his ceiling...it's likely going to be his floor until he hits age 30. Then he may start to decline, but you're still getting a 3+ WAR player for another four years after that. You won't be "overpaying" him until the last one or two years of the deal, even if you went ten years.
So let's compare this to Alex Gordon, who the Orioles were recently linked to. MLBTraderumors is projecting him to get 5 years/$105M...almost exactly half of Heyward's projection. But Gordon is five years older than Heyward. Why pay the same annual salary to a guy five years older? True, you're not on the hook for second five years, but you are back in the same spot five years from now. Why not lock up the young guy now? This is about as sure a bet as there is. And it's not like the Orioles farm system is thriving with young outfielder talent to fill in when Gordon leaves.
It's hard to imagine the Orioles making this move. But even if this was the only free agent they signed this year, wouldn't that be better than getting Scott Kazmir, John Jaso, and Justin Morneau? This team has done a lot over the last four years with guys who beat expectations, but I think 2015 showed how that philosophy has its limits. And while Manny Machado, Jonathan Schoop, and Kevin Gausman make-up a great, young core of players it isn't enough to compete in a league where everyone is going to think they have a shot next year. Adding Heyward to that group (and locking up those other guys) should be the focus of the 2016 off-season.