Guerry Clegg

Guerry Clegg: Braves make right move by trading Jason Heyward

He laid out for balls in the gap, crashed into outfield walls, took out middle infielders with the determination of Ty Cobb and ran out every grounder.

He threw missiles to home plate but not at the expense of neglecting the cut-off man. He could steal a base and hit frozen ropes. He played hard and played hurt.

To top it off, he's smart and of good character, inside the Atlanta Braves clubhouse and away from baseball.

Fans have loved Jason Heyward since he was 20 years young and launching home run balls into the parking lot in spring training, prompting Chipper Jones to insist that he make the Opening Day roster.

What's there not to love about Heyward?

The answer: Nothing at all.

But here's the reality facing John Hart, the astute veteran baseball executive hired by the Braves to clean up the meth lab left by Frank Wren.

A year from now, the Braves would not have been able to afford Heyward's probable salary demand as a free agent.

Heyward's production the past two seasons didn't justify the Braves investing in him long term.

"It was very difficult to trade Jason Heyward, but this deal was made to help us not only in the short term, but also in the long term as we move forward," Hart said. "I certainly recognize what an outstanding player Jason is. We would have loved to retain him, but my sense was Jason was going to be out on the free-agent market next year."

Heyward said the Braves never approached him about a long-term deal. Sorry, but that's a little hard to buy. He's already making nearly $8 million, and that's without the leverage of free agency. Say he would have settled for a hometown "discount" of $15 million a year. That's still too much given his production.

Heyward is a right fielder, and the best defensive right fielder in baseball. But right field is a run-producing position, and Heyward simply hasn't progressed as he should for someone who is 6-foot-5, 245 pounds and has nearly 2,500 at-bats. He's a .262 career hitter and hit more than 18 home runs only once, when he had 27 in 2012. His home run total dropped to 14 in 2013 to 11 this year, including just three after the All-Star break.

Heyward has never been a big run producer. His career high for RBIs is 82, set in 2012. Granted, he spent much of the past two seasons batting leadoff (124 games) or second (62 games). But if he had been indispensable as a middle of the order hitter, the Braves would have found someone else to bat leadoff.

Again, everyone loves Heyward's hustle and his heart and his attitude. But the Braves are already hindered by two bad contracts -- $56 million still owed to Dan Uggla and BJ Upton. Chris Johnson's deal -- $23.5 million over the next three seasons -- is no bargain either. Perhaps if they weren't saddled with so much dead money then they might have been able to keep Heyward. But that's the reality, and it wasn't created by Hart.

Many fans fear the worst: Two years from now, Miller will be an average starting pitcher, and Heyward will be the All-Star he was projected to be. That may be true, but that doesn't mean he would have stayed with the Braves. Here's the flip side: Two years from now, Miller could be one of the top 15 starting pitchers in baseball, while Heyward is still hitting .265 with 10 home runs. Meanwhile, the overlooked player in this deal, minor league pitcher Tyrell Jenkins, could be as good as Miller, or maybe even better. And the money they saved on Heyward could be spent on a front line starting pitcher or a productive right fielder.

However it turns out, no one should blame Hart. This had to be done.

-- Guerry Clegg is an independent correspondent. You can write to him at sports@ledger-enquirer.com

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