Cardinals Trump Braves in Heyward/Miller Swap

Finally.

Finally a trade with a little bit of substance and intrigue. In the first semi-major trade transaction of the 2014-’15 offseason, the Braves have traded right-fielder Jason Heyward, as well as RHP Jordan Walden, to the Cardinals for RHP Shelby Miller and minor league pitcher Tyrell Jenkins, St. Louis’s 1st round pick in the 2010 Rule-4 draft.

Trading Heyward — who has only one year remaining before becoming a free agent — makes sense for Atlanta, especially if they didn’t expect to re-sign him following the season. By acquiring Shelby Miller and a 22 year-old lottery ticket, clearly new GM John Hart valued getting something in return instead of waiting on a compensatory 1st round pick after the year.

Miller, another former 1st round pick of the Cardinals, started out like gangbusters in 2012, posting a 1.32 ERA in 13.2 innings mostly in relief. He followed that with a strong 2013 campaign, stretching a 3.06 ERA (3.73 xFIP) over 173.1 IP — including a solid 23.4 K% and decent 7.9% BB rate — before mysteriously vanishing during the postseason. Though he was carried on their 25-man roster through the World Series, Shelby Miller threw only 1.0 inning during the entirety of the playoffs, leaving many wondering if he merely had a dead arm, or if it was something more serious.

Then last year happened. In spite of increasing his workload to 183 innings, Miller’s peripherals dropped off significantly: His strikeout rate fell to a pedestrian 16.6% and walk rate jumped up to 9.6%, resulting in a still-okay 3.74 ERA that appears lucky given his xFIP was about three-fourths of a run higher (4.47).

So he’s not the same pitcher he once was, certainly not anywhere near the top-20-ish prospect he was when he came into the league. That the Cardinals were willing to trade four years of his club control for only one of Heyward’s should tell you something, even if they intend on extending Heyward well into his free agency years. We have to view this trade for what it is right now, rather than a future decision.

Due to the untimely, tragic death of top prospect Oscar Tavares, St. Louis were in the market for a right fielder. Through netting Jason Heyward, I’m not sure they could have done a lot better.

Heyward gets flack because his power tool has yet to translate at the major league level, but don’t let that fool you: He’s easily one of the elite outfielders in baseball. In nearly 3,000 big league plate appearances, Heyward has produced a respectable .262/.351/.429 (117 wRC+) slash line, which is made more impressive by the fact that he’s one of the game’s best defensive corner outfielders. He’s missed 129 games over five full years in the league, but it hasn’t stopped him from generating +21.4 Wins Above Replacement according to FanGraphs, which ranks 18th in MLB among position players since 2010, 6th among full-time outfielders.

Now, I think it would be inaccurate to say the Braves totally whiffed on this one. There’s a chance Shelby Miller recaptures his old form and becomes a mainstay in the front-half Atlanta’s rotation over the next four years; maybe Jason Heyward was destined for free agency all along and it didn’t matter whether he’s with the Braves or Cardinals.

Realistically, though, there’s a far better chance Atlanta just exhausted its best trade chip this offseason — an All Star-caliber outfielder with MVP potential — on a low-#3, high-#4 starter. It’s conceivable that Jason Heyward produces more value in 2015 than Shelby Miller will over the next four seasons, whether it’s due to a greater arm injury or mere ineffectiveness. Until Miller proves his arm still works, he is little more than a good name attached to former promise.

4-win outfielders don’t grow on trees, but by selling low on Heyward that’s exactly what the Braves are trying to convince the baseball world.

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