Baseball’s quietest offseason in recent memory did feature one rumor that was intriguing if not likely.
Winter meetings began with speculation that the Chicago Cubs were shopping former Braves fan favorite Jason Heyward. The most logical destination seemed to be the San Francisco Giants in a mutual salary dump involving pitchers Jeff Samardzija and Mark Melancon.
But spring training began with Heyward still with the Cubs.
So it never happened, and Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer shot down the rumor as having “no truth whatsoever.” That doesn’t mean the Cubs had no interest.
Maybe the speculation just involved the wrong team.
What if the most logical trade partner for the Cubs was the club most familiar with Heyward? What if Heyward returned home to the Braves?
Crazy idea? Maybe so. But no crazier than paying Adrian Gonzalez $22 million this season to spend two days in the organization last December just so they could unload Matt Kemp. Crazy is the new normal when it comes to baseball economics.
One could cite a number of reasons why the Braves wouldn’t want Heyward back. They’re not trying to win this year. They don’t want veterans blocking the path for their boatload of prospects. They need more power. They need a right-handed bat in the cleanup spot to protect Freddie Freeman. Heyward has inexplicably transformed from a power hitter into singles hitter.
Then there’s the matter of Heyward’s no-trade clause in his contract.
All of that is understood. But here’s why it would make sense.
The Braves are paying $51.2 million this season to Gonzalez and pitchers Scott Kazmir and Brandon McCarthy. The Cubs likely would be willing to take on a chunk of that money -- at least the $28 million they owe Heyward this season -- to dump his contract so they can make a run at Bryce Harper next season.
The way Heyward’s contract is structured, he actually wouldn’t be a financial burden to the Braves. Let’s say the Cubs agree to take Kazmir and Gonzalez’s contract, plus maybe a marginal prospect for appearance sake. Maybe the Braves toss in some cash to balance it out.
The Cubs accomplish what they want.
The Braves basically get something from Heyward this season rather than getting nothing from Kazmir and Gonzalez.
Next year, Heyward’s salary actually goes down by about $7 million. By then, Nick Markakis ($11 million) will be off the payroll, as will all of those other contracts. They might even be able to find a taker for Markakis if a contender needs a veteran outfielder.
The Braves still would have plenty of payroll flexibility to go after a third baseman such as Josh Donaldson or a legitimate ace to anchor the young rotation or even both. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution just reported that the Braves’ revenue increased 47 percent last year, from $26.2 million to $38.6 million.
So affording Heyward isn’t the issue. The only question is whether Heyward is the best investment of that money. The answer is yes, which is ironically, given that they traded him three years ago because they thought he would price himself beyond their budget. They proved to be right — at that time.
But looking at the projected lineups for 2019 and beyond, there’s a glaring hole. They need another outfielder, even if Ronald Acuna turns out to be the real deal.
Next year’s free agent class has a shortage of quality outfielders. Forget signing Harper. Just not going to happen, not after all of the baseballs he’s taken to the ribs from Braves pitchers. Maybe Charlie Blackmon because he, like Heyward, played his high school ball in metro Atlanta. But if Blackmon has another huge year, his contract will make Heyward’s look like a bargain.
While Atlanta’s farm system is loaded with pitchers, there’s virtually no power behind Acuna. Dustin Peterson is a longshot at best. If Austin Riley asserts himself as the third baseman of the future, that frees up money they might have spent on a third baseman.
Heyward is worth the risk. At a minimum, you get an excellent leader who plays outstanding defense. I don’t pay much attention to WAR, Wins Above Replacement, not because it’s meaningless but because it’s a rather vague statistic. But Heyward’s WAR over the past three seasons ranks ninth among right fielders and 22nd among all outfielders with 1,500 or more plate appearances.
So at worst, his overall contribution exceeds his offensive numbers. Suppose he makes some swing adjustments and rediscovers his power. Then he’s one of the top 10 outfielders in baseball. His upside makes him worth the gamble. He’s still only 28 years old.
Will it happen? Probably not. But it’s worth considering.