Jason Heyward, The Next Great Free Agent

We’ve been spoiled by Bryce HarperManny Machado and Mike Trout. To have a single top prospect reach the big leagues and prove himself to be a star before he’s of legal drinking age is rare, and the few who have been able to do it in the past 25 years have often proved to be among the all-time greats — names such as Ken Griffey Jr. and Alex Rodriguez among them.

To have three of them doing it simultaneously, well, that’s nearly unheard of. We are almost unquestionably living in something of a golden age of elite young offensive talent.

The flip side of that is that they take up so much of the air in the room that it’s easy to forget those who came before them, players who have been very good but not quite on that historic level. It means the hot young names of just a few years ago now seem like old news, even if “old” is absolutely not the correct way to refer to them.

It means we’ve forgotten about Jason Heyward to some extent, because he was the Trout of just a few years ago, when he made it to the big leagues at age 20 in 2010. But, although Heyward might be somewhat under the radar right now, the confluence of forces at play involving the economics of baseball, his own age and the actions taken by his team mean he’s set up to be in high demand very soon.

Timing is everything

If we’ve learned nothing else about the current state of free agency, it’s this: youth gets paid. It’s not the only reason 25-year-old Masahiro Tanaka was worth $175 million to the Yankees while 33-year-old Nelson Cruz collected a disappointing $8 million from Baltimore — obviously, draft-pick compensation, skill level and PED history all played into that — but it was a huge component.

It’s why recent deals that buy up a player’s decline years or even into his 40s — say, those given to A-Rod and Albert Pujols — look like such catastrophes. It’s why giving $30.7 million annually to one of the best pitchers we’ve ever seen (Clayton Kershaw) through his age-32 season looked a whole lot better than giving $24 million annually to one of the best second basemen we’ve ever seen (Robinson Cano) through his age-40 season.

But that’s also why free agency gets less and less interesting each year, because teams largely recognize the value of extending their own players. This winter alone, stars such as Ryan BraunJustin UptonDavid Wright and Joey Votto could have been free agents had they not signed long-term deals in recent years before ever hitting the market. Next winter, we could have seen a frenzy over the historic pitching trio of Felix Hernandez, Kershaw and Justin Verlander, along with Evan Longoria and Elvis Andrus. Teams are left with fewer places to spend their money, and that’s partially why some of this winter’s deals seemed so expensive.

Heyward still has two more years left before he reaches free agency, so it’s not impossible that Atlanta will extend him first, but it’s difficult not to notice what the club has done. Rather than importing anyone to replace departed Brian McCann or disappointing Dan Uggla, the Braves instead spent $267.4 million this winter to extend Freddie Freeman ($135M), Craig Kimbrel($42M), Andrelton Simmons ($58M) and Julio Teheran ($32.4M) in anticipation of moving into a new stadium in 2017. (Notably, a majority of those payments, approximately 70 percent, don’t come due until after the team moves.) Kimbrel is the oldest of that group, and he doesn’t even turn 26 until May.

Heyward received two years and $13.3 million, but only to avoid his remaining arbitration years — not to purchase free-agent years. Unless the Braves, hamstrung by a notoriously inadequate television contract, can find a way to hand out another contract that easily might reach into nine figures, Heyward would find himself in a most envious position: entering the free-agent market after the 2015 season at just 26 years of age.

Head of the class

Looking ahead to a potential 2015-16 free-agent class, we see the majority of the best talent has been locked up or will be moving into its 30s. The great Miguel Cabrera will be 33 in 2016;Yoenis CespedesChris Davis and Matt Wieters will be 30. Although there’s some potentially interesting pitching talent available — assuming David Price hasn’t signed with whatever team Tampa Bay eventually trades him to — the only notable pre-age-30 hitters are Heyward, Upton and Detroit’s Austin Jackson.

Heyward, who turns 25 in August, will be a full two years younger than Upton and Jackson, and that sets him up to be the big get of the winter, assuming he can stay healthy and productive until then. His smashing age-20 rookie debut, in which he hit .277/.393/.456 with 18 homers and nearly 5 WAR — value bettered by only Trout, Rodriguez, Machado and Griffey at the same age in the past 50 years — meant a 2011 sophomore slump as he battled through a shoulder injury seemed like a huge disappointment.

But Heyward rebounded in 2012, putting up a 20/20 season along with plus defense to give Atlanta more than 6 WAR, and he would have done the same last year (3.4 WAR in 104 games) had he managed to stay on the field. Even then, the major injuries that took him out were an emergency appendectomy and a broken jaw when Jon Niese hit him in the face with a pitch — hardly chronic or recurring issues.

Although much was made of his disappointing RBI total (38) as some indication that he’s not a “run producer,” that’s more than a little unfair to Heyward. He spent the majority of his time hitting second, behind the on-base challenged group of Simmons (.296 OBP), B.J. Upton (.268 OBP) and Jordan Schafer (.331 OBP), before moving into the leadoff spot late in the year. Heyward had just 203 available runners to drive home — compare that to Freeman, who had 396 — and his 12.3 percent success rate is comparable to someone such as Longoria, who brought home 13 percent and 88 RBIs.

Heyward isn’t Trout, but no one is. Through his age-23 season, Heyward has collected the 10th-most value of any player in the past five decades. With two more good seasons — and note that 2013 featured a career-low strikeout percentage (16.6, under 20 for the first time) and a career-high line-drive rate (21.4, topping 20 for the first time) — Heyward will reach a likely barren market at a younger-than-usual age with a solid track record. It sets him up for a huge payday.

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Mike Petriello lives in New York and writes about the Dodgers daily at Dodgers Digest, as well as contributing to ESPN Insider. He wrote two chapters in the 2014 Hardball Times Annual as well as building The Hardball Times and TechGraphs, and was an editorial producer at Sports on Earth. Find him at @mike_petriello.

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