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Jason Heyward and Deja Vu

Remember that time the St. Louis Cardinals handed out one of the richest contracts in baseball for a player who was just OK offensively but was an elite defender at his position? No, this is not breaking news about the signing of Jason Heyward. This is a statement that signing him for $20 million or more per year for a period of eight or more years isn’t really a bad idea.

…unless you also would have passed on the signing of Ozzie Smith in 1985.

I can hear the laughter…I can feel the eyes rolling…and I can sense the windows about to be clicked close, so first let me get the caveats out there:

  • Jason Heyward is not Ozzie Smith, and I don’t mean to imply that he is or ever will be.
  • Ozzie Smith signed his contract before his age-30 season as a seven-year veteran; Heyward will sign his next contract before his age-26 season as a six-year veteran.
  • Being an elite outfielder and being the best defensive shortstop (player?) the game has ever seen are not even close to the same thing, and I know that.
  • The game–and the player traits/talents valued within it–are vastly different today than they were 30 years ago.

With all that out of the way, here’s what I am saying: there is precedent for the Cardinals handing out what is an outlandish (for the era) contract to an elite defender with a questionable bat. And they really ought to go back to that well one more time.

I’m not what they call “smart” when it comes to advanced math, but I do understand its place in the game. For a deeper dive on the statistics side, take a look at this article from the SABR site about Ozzie being worth his “outlandish” contract–all $2.2 million per year of it–and then take a look at this article on Fangraphs about Jason Heyward’s contract outlook in free agency. Both are telling with regard to just how much player salaries have spiked over the years, but they also indicate the value those salaries covered or will cover.

And I know that’s pretty heady stuff. I also know there is value, both real and perceived, in the counting stats like batting average, home runs, RBI, etc. So age differences aside, here’s a quick comparison of “baseball card stats” for The Wizard and J-Hey through the first six seasons of their respective careers:

Smith – 3,729 PA: .235/.306/.293, 6 HR, 222 RBI, 206 SB, 959 TB

Heyward – 3,429 PA: .268/.353/.431, 97 HR, 352 RBI, 86 SB, 1,295 TB

It’s not close: Jason Heyward is a superior hitter to Ozzie Smith. And frankly, so were most hitters throughout history, as well as nearly every Hall of Famer before him or since. It’s no secret Smith’s value was almost exclusively about his defense. I mean, aside from the iconic 1985 NLCS home run, pretty good (for the era) stolen base totals, and the outstanding MVP runner-up campaign he put together in 1987–the only season in which his batting average topped .300, but also in which he hit zero (!) home runs–Ozzie Smith was a pretty pedestrian hitter. And yet he made more money per year on this deal than contemporary and fellow Hall of Famer Eddie Murray, who was a perennial Top-10 in homers, RBI, batting average, OPS, etc.

This was not some crazy oversight at the time, either. Check out this article from the LA Times about Ozzie’s contract extension, and this article from the NY Times during the stretch run of that season. It’s hard to imagine now with the advantage of hindsight, but giving him that contract was a pretty big deal and not everyone was on board.

The reason, of course, is that at the time Ozzie Smith was recognized as an all-world defender but, offensively, not worth the dollars he was commanding. Sound familiar?

There are a dozen MLB players who have signed contracts of $200 million or more, and more than 40 who have earned $20 million per year or more. Now we can debate the theory of whether those dollar amounts are outlandish or a 10 year contract is absurd. I’m not saying anyone is crazy if they are against 10-year, $200+ million contracts as a matter of principle. But this is the current climate in which MLB operates. And with these new billion dollar TV deals kicking in all around the league, it’s not like these numbers will regress going forward. The Cardinals already have such a deal in place, so money really is no object here. And with Heyward being only 26, years really shouldn’t be either.

Comparing Jason Heyward and Ozzie Smith as players may approach comparing apples and oranges, but let’s not pretend giving Heyward a huge contract would be franchise-crippling or somehow stupid because he won’t ever lead the league in homers and RBI. Run prevention can lead to success, too; just ask the 100-win, 3.99-runs-per-game 2015 Cardinals. There are other options on the free agent market, and the Cards certainly could find ways to win with other guys. But they can also find exceptional, possibly franchise-altering value in a guy that doesn’t yank one over the wall 30 times every year. They’ve done it before.