Thanks to his youth, defensive skill and improving offensive abilities, Jason Heyward is arguably the free agent most deserving of a gigantic, historic contract this winter.
Over the past week, we’ve used our What’s He Really Worth framework—built in previous off-seasons by Jay Jaffe—to attempt to project the actual future value of this winter’s top free-agent pitchers. In general, our calculations have come in slightly below what the market is likely to bear, projecting David Price to be worth roughly $188 million over the next seven years, Zack Greinke to be worth just shy of $150 million over the same span, and Johnny Cueto to be worth roughly $92 million over the next five years. But shifting our attention today to the top free-agent position player on the market, 26-year-old rightfielder Jason Heyward, we get a very different result.
The biggest difference between Heyward and the three pitchers listed above (as well as Jordan Zimmermann, who signed with the Tigers on Sunday for $110 million over five years) is age. Price, Cueto and Zimmermann are all heading into their age-30 season; Greinke is 32. Heyward, meanwhile, just turned 26 in August, putting him a year shy of the typical peak age for a position player. Indeed, while our projections anticipated almost immediate declines from the pitchers in their 30s (in year two for the three 30-year-olds and in year one for Greinke, who is coming off a clear career season), Heyward can reasonably be expected to maintain his recent level of performance at least through his age-28 season before beginning a more gradual decline (estimated here by subtracting 0.5 Wins Above Replacement per season rather than the more aggressive 0.8 WAR used for the pitchers).
Even if we start Heyward’s decline in his age-29 season, the combination of his youth and his elite established value (he was worth more than six wins in each of the last two seasons, per baseball-reference.com’s version of WAR) results in Heyward’s potential value exceeding that of any contract every signed by a major league baseball player:
For those new to this series, here’s a quick rundown on how those calculations work. We start with the established market value of a marginal win (that is, a Win Above Replacement, or one point of WAR), which is estimated by ESPN’s Dan Szymborski at $6.5 million. We then factor in 5.4% annual inflation to give us the projected value of a marginal win for future seasons (starting at $6.851 million for 2016) and multiply the player’s projected WAR in each individual future season by the estimated value of a marginal win in that year to get his total dollar value. Add up those dollar values, and you get an estimate of his total value over a period of time. As for those WAR values, we derive the 2016 figure from a 5/4/3 weighting of his last three seasons (in Heyward’s case, five times his 6.5 bWAR from this past season, four times his 6.2 bWAR from '14 and three times his 3.7 bWAR from his injury-shortened age-23 season in '13).
Amazingly, there’s not much to quibble with in the above table, which tells us that Heyward is worth a 10-year, $361 million contract that would exceed the total value of Giancarlo Stanton’s record-breaking 13-year deal (which bought out his last two arbitration years and 11 free-agent seasons) by $36 million. The annual marginal win values are same as they were for the three pitchers already put through the system. I’ve started Heyward’s decline two years earlier than I did for any of those three pitchers, and the 5.7 bWAR used for his established level of performance is a number he has surpassed in four of his six major league seasons—which is to say, in every season in which he has appeared in more than 140 games.
All of that said, a great deal of Heyward’s value is derived from his play in the field, which is difficult to quantify accurately. What's more, baseball-reference.com’s WAR, which uses the Fielding Bible’s Defensive Runs Saved for its defensive component, consistently comes in higher than the corresponding WAR stats from FanGraphs and Baseball Prospectus. Using the 5/4/3 weighting, we find that both FanGraphs’ WAR and BP’s Wins Above Replacement Player put Heyward’s 2016 value at 5.1 marginal wins. Using that as our starting point brings down the overall dollar figures, but not by as much as some readers (and teams) may want:
To lower Heyward’s projected WAR figures for the next three seasons any further would be to misrepresent his value and ignore the fact that, as a 26-year-old, he still has the potential to improve at the plate. Indeed, from May 4 through the end of the postseason, he hit .310/.378/.465 in 529 plate appearances, a line which bests each of his last five full seasons.
Accelerating his decline would also be a mistake. Heyward is an athletic player with a broad skill base. He has stolen 43 bases at an 86% success rate over the last two seasons and is universally (by both objective metrics and subjective observation) regarded as one of the best fielders in the game at any position. At 6'5" and 245 pounds, he has size which could yet result in increased power at the plate, but he has also made a point of improving his plate discipline in recent seasons: His strikeout rate has decreased in each of the last three seasons, and his walk-to-strikeout ratio has topped 0.62 in each of the last three years. All of that paints the picture of a player who will age gracefully and make the necessary adjustments to retain as much of his value as possible as his physical skills begin to recede. The biggest concern about Heyward going forward is his health, but by appearing in 303 games over the last two seasons, he has put some of his early-career injury concerns behind him, as well.
However you slice it, Heyward seems likely to be worth $300 million over the next decade. That makes him both the most expensive player on this off-season’s free-agent market and one of its best bargains, given that most projections suggest he’ll sign for closer to $200 million.
Beyond what the above tables tell us about Heyward’s value, they are a reminder of why long-term extensions for arbitration-eligible players are almost always better investments than long-term contracts for free agents. Part of it is the added leverage a team has in extension negotiations thanks to the remnants of the reserve system, but most of it is age. There is a world of difference between signing a 26-year-old player and a 30-year-old player, mostly due to the location of the player’s peak seasons. For a 26-year-old, those years are typically ahead of him; for a 30-year-old, they are more often behind him. Those seasons are incredibly valuable. Consider the table above: Per those projections, the next five years of Heyward’s career (his age-26 through -30 seasons) are worth $182.1 million; the next five, his age-31 to -35 seasons, are likely to be worth “just” $126.4 million despite the fact that the value of a marginal win increases every year.
If Heyward hit free agency for the first time after his age-30 season, I would be writing about how a $150 million investment in him would be unwise. Instead, I’m recommending a $300 million investment. If that sounds crazy, just wait until Bryce Harper hits free agency after his age-25 season in 2018.