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What the Cardinals are expecting from Jason Heyward

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Jason Heyward wasn't the Hall of Famer that the Braves were hoping for, but now he can focus on being one of the best outfielders in baseball.

Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

If you haven't really taken the time to think about Jason Heyward's nickname, it might be a good time to do that now. His nickname, as listed on Baseball-Reference, is "The J-Hey Kid." It's probably more apt to call it his former nickname. No one calls him that anymore, really.

The nickname is a few things. It's one part clever wordplay, for sure. There's some poor soul whose brain is wired to A-Rod every player's name, and most of the time, he or she is stuck with duds. F-Gar. M-Cab. M-Scher. J-Lest. Then, every now and again, there's a nugget in the sad pan. J-Hey. The J-Hey Kid. Clever.

It's also 53 parts unfair association. It's a nod to Willie Mays. It's a way to think about Willie Mays every time you think about Heyward. Mays was raw tools ore, and he turned into tool's gold almost immediately. He was a near-instant marvel, save for a famous crying episode. That was supposed to be Heyward's career path, too, minus the crying.


It's hard to remember last week on the Internet, but for a while, Heyward was all people were talking about. He was just 20 years old. He was an instant marvel. The more he hit, the more people started working The J-Hey Kid into their lexicon. It was wildly inappropriate and unfair at the start ... but so danged fun to say. You already knew how Mays's career turned out; the future of Heyward was an empty book and a fancy-as-heck quill pen next to it. It was going to be fun. It was going to be so much fun.

Instead, the J-Hey Kids started to fade from the common vernacular. Heyward was a disappointment to some and a perennially underrated star to others, but everyone could agree that something was different. Various injuries sucked the power out of his bat, and the enormous superstar potential continued to remain potential, year after year, sitting atop a high shelf and getting dusty. There's still a way to list Heyward among the best players in baseball -- he was one of the five-best position players in the National League according to Baseball-Reference -- but it takes enormous faith in defensive metrics to get there.

Or, to put it another way, his list of 10 most comparable players now includes just one Hall of Famer -- Carl Yastrzemski, down at the bottom -- but it also includes Barry Bonds near the top. The first name on the list is Lloyd Moseby. The third is Jeff Francoeur, because math is a troll. So Heyward is either Lloyd Moseby unless he's Barry Bonds unless he's Jeff Francoeur. You can take that to the bank.

It's probably about time to stop thinking about Heyward in terms of "what if" and think about his "what now." The what-if will be a subject of next offseason, when Heyward is almost certainly a free agent and looking for a nine-figure deal before he's 26. If you're thinking the Cardinals are going to re-sign him before he gets to the open market, you're ignoring just how hard the Braves were working to do the same. The Braves committed an awful lot to Freddie Freeman and Andrelton Simmons, and by most accounts they wanted to do the same with Heyward. It's possible the Cardinals value the what-if more than the Braves, and a deal will get done soon. It's also possible that Heyward has far more confidence that the what-if will turn into MVP votes before next October, which would lead to an amazing feeding frenzy at the 2015 Winter Meetings.

The what-now is more important for the next season, though. Here's what the Cardinals are getting:

  • An elite defender in right field

  • A hitter with as much untapped potential as anyone in baseball

  • A player who has never failed to help his team win, according to WAR

  • A hitter who has produced more like Shane Victorino over the last few years instead of a perennial All-Star

  • A pending free agent

The last one is important. Shelby Miller, as inconsistent and enigmatic and befuddling as he is, is still a premium arm under contract through the 2018 season. If the Braves still have a pouch of Mazzone dust around the clubhouse, they'll do well to sprinkle some on Miller and watch him blossom. If the Braves are rebuilding -- and reports suggest they might be -- Miller helps them rebuiload. That's a hybrid of rebuild and reload, and you can't use it without credit.

the Cardinals would be happy with the same Heyward who has shown up in four of his first five seasons.

The Cardinals got better instantly. By just how much, well, that's the literal $100 million question for Heyward, but the Cardinals would be happy with the same Heyward who has shown up in four of his first five seasons. They don't have to think about the J-Hey Kid. They don't have to wonder when the Hall of Famer shows up. They just have to hope for an excellent outfielder to perform as well as expected. It wouldn't be a surprise to see the change-of-scenery fairy leave something under Heyward's pillow this offseason. The burden of unfair and unrealistic expectations has been lifted, if just a little bit.

Jason Heyward gets to be a baseball player instead of the world's longest trailer for what looks like the most amazing movie in history. The Cardinals get better. The Braves get worse, but they now have a chance to be better in 2016 than they would have been, assuming they were never going to sign Heyward. It's a trade that makes sense for all sides (although I'm a perennial Miller pessimist), but mostly I'm interested to watch Heyward's post-Braves career. He's not the J-Hey Kid anymore, but he's finally somewhere that would be happy to watch the Ray-Lank Kid, if only for a very important season.

The Cardinals would be ecstatic with that, even if the rest of us still remember what the future was supposed to hold after Heyward's major league debut. He's still just 25, you know. The future might still hold it.