This is the second in my series on possible extensions for the Braves' young core players. In the first post, I projected that Martin Prado should get a bit more than Dan Uggla got for his extension, or around $12.5 million per year (the TC readers' consensus: about $12M/year, give or take a million).
Chipper Jones has played his last game in a Braves uniform (*sob*). Which means that, for the first time in almost 20 years, there's an opening for the Face of the Franchise. With uncertainty surrounding Brian McCann's future with the franchise, the most obvious candidate is Jason Heyward.
Despite a down year in 2011, Heyward's production through his age-22 season (he turned 23 in August) places him among some elite company. He's just entering his first arbitration season, so he's under the Braves' control through 2015, but now is the right time for the team to extend Heyward beyond that year. Heyward's 2012 rebound should give the team confidence in his long-term future, while the recency of his 2011 slump-year could keep his price at reasonable levels.
In this post, I'll use the same three criteria from the Prado post to project a "fair" value for a six-year contract, including three free-agent years (through 2018, Heyward's age-28 season).
Let's start with the simplest of these questions:
It is difficult to predict a market-value for a player who hasn't yet had a salary determined through the arbitration system. Barring an extension, Heyward will get his first arbitration salary soon, though. MLB Trade Rumors projects that he'll get around $3.5 million for 2013, but there's a lot of uncertainty in that figure (I think that's quite low, personally).
That leaves us with on-field statistics. Here is what Heyward has averaged over his first three MLB seasons:
Those are obviously excellent numbers, but they seem even more impressive in context. For a player who is a great baserunner and perhaps the best defensive right-fielder in baseball, that level of offense indicates tremendous value. His Wins Above Replacement (WAR) totals so far back this up: 14.2 by Baseball-Reference's reckoning, and 13.7 by FanGraphs'. That works out to around 4.7 WAR per year, which is All-Star-level production.
Using $4.5M per win as a baseline for a player's free-agent value, Heyward's 4.7 WAR/year average is worth an average annual salary of around $21M. Obviously, Heyward won't get an extension with that kind of yearly salary at this point; he's still 3 years from free agency and extensions typically represent a discount over free-agent deals anyway. But we can use that $21M figure to get a sense of what that six-year deal might look like.
First off, let's apply a 20-30% extension discount. (This is more than the 10-20% I used for Prado because Heyward has two extra years of team control.) That brings the value of Heyward's free-agent years down to $15-17M each. Using the 40/60/80 arbitration rule*, Heyward should be worth around $6M in 2013, $10M in 2014, and $13M in 2015.
* This rule of thumb states that a player gets around 40% of his free-agent worth in his 1st arbitration year. This goes up to 60% in the 2nd year and 80% in the third year. I applied the "extension discount" before the arbitration discount because otherwise it'd project a 2013 salary of $8M+, which is quite unlikely.
Combining all those numbers, we get a six-year contract in the $75-80 million range based on present value. However, Heyward's youth gives us reason to be believe that he has not yet hit his peak. If we expect him to improve in the coming years, he should be worth even more.
Like I did in the Prado analysis, I looked for comparable players to find a baseline for our future expectations. This was quite difficult, however, for the simple reason that very few players have ever been this good at this young of an age.
Consider this: by Baseball-Reference's value measurements, Heyward has been worth 42 runs above average with his bat and 50 runs above average with his glove in his career. In baseball's integration era (since 1947), just 5 players have been worth even 25 runs above average in both categories through their age 22 seasons:
That's the whole list. Three inner-circle Hall of Fame outfielders, Heyward, and Giancarlo Stanton. (Throw in Bryce Harper and Mike Trout and you can see that baseball fans--especially those in the NL East--are enjoying a remarkable golden age of potentially historic young outfielders.)
Granted, that's not really a suitable group for comparison, as it's too small and too weighted toward players who are better hitters than Heyward. So I broadened the net a little bit to include all players with at least 5 runs above average in both batting and fielding through age 22 (min. 1200 PAs). I stopped at 2007 so that I could have at least 5 later seasons to evaluate (this eliminates Stanton as well as Justin Upton from the conversation; more on Upton later).
The result is a list of 21 players ranging from Hank Aaron to Claudell Washington (full list here). The 21 players include 9 Hall of Famers, two players (Alex Rodriguez and Ken Griffey, Jr.) who are certainly worthy of induction, and several more with good cases. In other words, it's an impressive list.
Here are the average totals that the 21 players complied through their age-22 seasons. I've added Heyward's numbers for comparison. The 3 right columns pro-rate the WAR and run totals to 600 PAs (roughly a season's worth).
Overall, the comp group was almost exactly identical in terms of batting value. Heyward did add about an extra 10 runs (1 win) per year in fielding value, although some of that was offset by Heyward's relatively easy-to-play position. In all, this seems like a very comparable group of phenoms.
So how did the comparison group fare in their age-23 through age-28 seasons? Here are the same stats for those six-year periods:
The comparison group did quite well, improving by around 0.5 WAR per season on average. They increased their OBP and SLG by small but significant amounts, which more than offset a couple-run decline in fielding. You can see each player's numbers here.
Below, I've divided the players into 5 groups based on their average yearly (per 600 PAs) WAR in each period. The "Broke out" group is for players who improved by at least 1.5 WAR/600, while the "Cratered" group is for a decline of at least that amount. The "Maintained" group is for players who stayed within 0.5 WAR of their previous levels.
So 10 of the 21 players improved by at least 0.5 WAR per season, while another 7 more or less maintained their previous (excellent) performance. Only 4 players declined by much, but even those players weren't bad. In fact, two of them (Andruw Jones and Vada Pinson) were still very much above average despite their dropoffs. The only truly catastrophic fall was that of Claudell Washington, who was barely above replacement level (0.3 WAR/year) thanks to horrible defensive numbers.
This tells us that there's a ~20% chance that Heyward will break out to become a perennial MVP candidate (like Hank Aaron or Alex Rodriguez) and a ~25% chance that he improves by a smaller amount. There's about a 35% chance that he stays at his current levels, and about a 20% chance that he declines somewhat--though even if he declines, he should still be a useful player.
In other words, there is every reason to believe that Heyward will at least maintain his current performance going forward, or perhaps increase it slightly. The only worry--though it is a big one--is the impact of injuries. Heyward can have a year like 2011 every few years and still provide good value, but he could also fall into the Rocco Baldelli abyss.
If we assume that Heyward will improve by 0.5 WAR/year going forward, he'd be worth around $23M per season in free agency. That bumps his total projected contract up to around $82-86M. How would that compare to some recent contract extensions?
As far as comparable players who signed extensions with at least 3 years of team control remaining, I see five possibilities: Justin Upton, Andrew McCutchen, Carlos Gonzalez, Jay Bruce, and Nick Markakis. All got six- or seven-year deals with 3 or 4 years of team control remaining. All but Upton gave up at least three years of free agency in their deals (Upton gave up 2). Let's compare the deals and the players' stats at the time of the signings (WAR, again, is the B-Ref version):
^ This is the player's age during the last season before the deal.
* Plus a team option for the next season; Markakis can void the Orioles' option if he forfeits the $2M buyout.
As you can see, Heyward has accomplished more at this point than any of the other players had accomplished when they were signed. In addition, he's younger than all but Upton were. That tells us that it's likely going to cost much more than $60M to sign him long-term. (One caveat is that a good bit of Heyward's value comes from his defense, a skill that is often undervalued.)
You may have noticed that Gonzalez cost a lot more than the other players--much more so than would be warranted by his performance. The key is that Gonzalez put up a huge year just before signing his extension, driving his price up. Now, the Rockies are paying him for his 2010 production when it's quite likely he'll never be that good again.
By signing McCutchen before the 2012 season, the Pirates locked him in for a much cheaper price than they'd have paid if they'd signed him a year later. The result is around $30M in savings. That's what the Braves should hope to accomplish by signing Heyward now. If they wait another year, they may end up paying for an MVP-level player rather than just an All-Star level player.
Based on the above comps, you'd have to think that any Heyward extension would have to cost more than all of the above deals except maybe Gonzalez's. Heyward has a good case that he's better than all of those players and, thanks to his age, less likely to decline over the course of the deal.
I think the $80M that Gonzalez got is a good goal for Heyward to shoot for. He may not get it, but he should be able to get close. As I discussed above, he's already proven that he can be worth that much, and there's a good chance that he'll be even better than he's shown so far.
Putting it all together, I'd project something like this:
That works out to a total of $81M over 6 years. If I were Frank Wren, I'd do that deal in a second, though any deal of that size is obviously a big risk. About half of Heyward's past comparables are Hall of Famers; when you have a chance to lock up a player with that kind of potential, you do it.
Jason Heyward is the type of player that you build a franchise around, and a fitting heir to Chipper Jones. Keeping him in Atlanta is worth the risk.