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Cardinals, Braves betting on potential with Heyward-Miller trade

The St. Louis Cardinals made a big move on Monday to fill the right field position vacated by the untimely death of top prospect Oscar Taveras, trading pitchers Shelby Miller and Tyler Jenkins to the Braves for right fielder Jason Heyward and reliever Jordan Walden. It is the second time in as many days that Atlanta dealt a member of its projected starting lineup for pitching. On Sunday, the Braves sent second baseman Tommy La Stella to the Cubs for reliever Arodys Vizcaino.

St. Louis, meanwhile, is giving up a significant number of team-controlled seasons mostly in exchange for Heyward, an elite talent heading into his age-25 season. It likely could have filled right field in 2015 with some combination of Randal Grichuk, who started at the position in all nine of the team's games this postseason, and prospect Stephen Piscotty, who hit .288/.355/.406 in Triple A in 2014, as well as letting the slick-fielding Peter Bourjos make the occasional start in center and moving Jon Jay to right. In Heyward, however, the Cardinals have acquired a player who is considered not just the best defensive right fielder in the game, but one of the best fielders, period, and someone was once as highly regarded a hitting prospect, if not moreso, than Taveras.

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With just three Triple A games under his belt, Heyward burst upon the major league scene at age 20 in 2010, crushing a three-run homer in his first at-bat on Opening Day and hitting .301/.421/.596 through Atlanta’s first 50 games. However, a thumb injury sustained on a slide that May began a frustrating pattern of injuries and underwhelming performances. Heyward hit just .266/.381/.396 over the remainder of that season, was diagnosed with a degenerative condition in his back the following spring, and then was plagued by rotator cuff issues in his right shoulder in 2011 that led to bad habits at the plate and a career-low 93 OPS+. Ostensibly healthy in 2012, he hit .269/.335/.479 with 27 home runs and 21 steals at the still-tender age of 22, but in '13 he lost three weeks to appendicitis and nearly had his season ended by a pitch to the face in late August.

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Heyward managed to stay healthy again in 2014, posting his best batting average (.271) and on-base percentage (.351) since his rookie season while stealing 20 bases at an 83 percent success rate and winning his second Gold Glove. That performance was somewhat undermined by career-low power numbers, though, as he hit just 11 home runs (one more than he hit in his first 45 major league games) to go with a .384 slugging percentage and a .113 isolated power, down 60 points from the year before and 97 points from '12.

That drop in power doesn’t make a lot of sense given the 6-foot-5, 245-pound Heyward’s lean, muscular frame and apparent health this past season. However, his shrinking strikeout rate, which was a career low 15.1 percent of his plate appearances this past season, could be an indication that he has been taking more of a contact-oriented approach at the plate. Indeed, Heyward’s contact rate has increased over the last three seasons from a career-low of 73 percent in 2012. It will be interesting to see if he continues that  approach in St. Louis or if Cardinals hitting coach John Mabry will try to help him rediscover his power potential.

Whatever the shape of Heyward’s offensive production, the combination of his solid on-base percentages (.351 career), elite fielding, well-above-average baserunning (he has taken the extra base in 52 percent of his opportunities) and overall on-field intelligence makes him a tremendously valuable player. Also, given that he just turned 25 in August, he still has untapped potential. However, he is also a player with just one team-controlled year left on his current contract. Heyward will be a free agent next fall, and St. Louis will have to pay $8.3 million for that single year per the arbitration-avoiding two-year deal he signed with Atlanta in February.

That contract along with longer deals for closer Craig Kimbrel (four years, $42 million) and first baseman Freddie Freeman (eight years, $135 million) seemed to signal the Braves’ lack of interest of retaining Heyward into his free agency years. Given that, they’ve done well to turn one year of Heyward into four team-controlled seasons of Shelby Miller, who won’t be arbitration eligible until next winter.

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Miller, himself a former top prospect, regressed in 2014. His strikeout rate dropped from 23.4 percent of batters faced in 2013 to just 16.6, well below the league average of 20.5 percent, and his walk rate swelled to 9.6 percent, well above the league average of 7.6 percent. As a result, Miller’s ERA increased by 68 points despite favorable results on balls in play (.259 BABIP), and his Fielding Independent Pitching mark was an ugly 4.54.

None of that is encouraging, but Miller is still a 24-year-old with a mid-90s fastball, and his development of a sinker during the course of the 2014 season could bode well for a rebound in 2015. A fly ball pitcher, Miller started tinkering with the sinker earlier in the season but credits Justin Masterson, acquired from Cleveland at the trade deadline, with helping him improve his grip. Miller started throwing the pitch with regularity in August, with nearly 10 percent of his offerings that month being sinkers, per, compared to fewer than two percent in July.

Still, Miller's 2.08 ERA over his final seven starts of the season, six of them quality, may have been as much a luck-based coincidence as anything else. There was no meaningful change in his ground ball rate in those seven starts, but he did have a .207 BABIP before failing to turn in a quality start in either of postseason outings. Still, after seeing what the development of a two-seamer did for Cleveland's Corey Kluber, Atlanta is clearly optimistic about having four years to try to extract Miller’s full potential.

Miller will join Julio Teheran, Alex Wood and Mike Minor in a Braves rotation that has seen Ervin Santana, Aaron Harang and Gavin Floyd hit free agency and will have to take a wait-and-see approach with returning two-time Tommy John patients Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy. As for the Cardinals' staff, the emergence of top 2013 pick Marco Gonzales, as well as still-impressive organizational pitching depth, helped make Miller expendable in a rotation that hopes to have a healthy Michael Wacha in addition to Adam Wainwright, Lance Lynn and John Lackey.

As for the other two players in the trade, Walden is a known quantity as a set-up righty with his triple-digit heat, airborne delivery and inflated walk rates (a career-high 4.9 K/BB in 2014). He has struck out 10.6 men per nine innings in his career and will likely be part of St. Louis’ end-game in 2015 and possibly even a replacement for Trevor Rosenthal as closer in the case of an injury or poor performance. Walden, who made $1.49 million in 2014, has two arbitration years left before hitting free agency.

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Jenkins is a 22-year-old, 6-foot-4 righty who was drafted out of a Texas high school with final pick of the 2010 supplemental round (50th overall) and given a $1.3 million signing bonus to turn down a scholarship to play quarterback for Baylor. Considered a top-100 prospect at one point, Jenkins was plagued by shoulder issues in 2012 and early '13, leading to surgery to repair the latissimus muscle behind his right shoulder, which kept him out of action until late June of this year. Jenkins throws in the mid-90s with four- and two-seam fastballs, a curve and change, but he’s still very raw, having yet to crack Double A. Further, he put up unimpressive peripheral stats in both High A and the Arizona Fall League after his return this past season. It remains to be seen exactly what the Braves have in Jenkins, but they'll get all six team-controlled years of whatever it is.

The biggest question for Atlanta is how it will flesh out a lineup that was the second-worst in baseball in 2014 in runs scored per game and is now without Heyward, who was second on the team in on-base percentage. Certainly if forced to go with its current roster, things would get ugly. Justin Upton would likely move to right field, forcing Evan Gattis to left field and thereby gutting the quality of the team's outfield defense. Meanwhile, catching prospect Christian Bethancourt takes over behind the plate, and some combination of Ramiro Peña and Philip Gosselin replaces La Stella, who was himself not much more than a replacement-level player as a rookie this year, at second base.

More likely, the two trades are merely the opening salvo from the new front-office duo of president of baseball operations John Hart and assistant general manager John Coppolella. They may have just crossed “starting pitcher” off their shopping list, but there is still more work to be done. In fact, if this trade tells us anything about the 2015 Braves, it may be that their biggest gain here is team-controlled seasons. That suggests that Hart and Coppolella are taking a longer view than expected following Atlanta's first losing season since 2008.