ATLANTA -- As Braves president of baseball operations John Hart spent this past season as a senior advisor for the club, he gained a better understanding of why Jason Heyward was so beloved in Atlanta. But when given a chance to address the team's definite need to improve its starting pitching depth for years to come, he determined it would not be wise to bring Heyward back for what might have been just one more year.
Hart was looking toward the future Monday, when he completed a four-player trade that sent Heyward and right-handed reliever Jordan Walden to the Cardinals in exchange for Shelby Miller and Tyrell Jenkins, a pair of talented right-handers who have the potential to positively impact Atlanta's rotation for many years to come.
"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."
With the assumption that another club would be willing to provide the $100-million-plus deal Heyward hopes to gain as a free agent next year, the Braves opted to use the 26-year-old outfielder to address their scarcity of starting pitching depth at both the Major League and Minor League levels.
"It's not something you like to do," Hart said of trading Heyward. "But I think where the Braves are right now, this is a deal that really helps us short-term and long-term with players we can control in an area where we are woefully thin in our Minor League system."
Miller, who has been a key member of St. Louis' starting rotation the past two seasons and a postseason performer each of the past three years, will immediately join a rotation that possesses Julio Teheran, Mike Minor and Alex Wood. David Hale stands as the organization's only other Major League-ready option to fill the final rotation spot.
With Miller, the Braves immediately gain a middle-of-the-rotation piece who certainly has the potential to blossom into a legitimate No. 1 or No. 2 starter. The 24-year-old right-hander has produced a 3.36 ERA in 63 career starts for St. Louis. After posting a 3.06 ERA during his rookie campaign in 2013, he endured some growing pains en route to notching a 3.74 mark in 31 starts this year.
Making Miller even more attractive is the fact that he is still one year away from being arbitration-eligible, meaning he will likely make just north of $600,000 in 2015 and not be eligible for free agency until after the 2018 season. By including Heyward, who is set to make $8.3 million next year, and Walden, who will make approximately $3 million via arbitration, the Braves gain around $10 million in financial flexibility with this deal.
"[Miller] is a young man who has had a great pedigree," Hart said. "He's an outstanding baseball guy. He's a first-round pick who has always had a big arm. Over the past several years, his pitchability has been improving significantly."
Miller seemed to right himself down the stretch, producing a 1.65 ERA and limiting opponents to a .185 batting average in his final six regular season starts. The former first-rounder, who was taken with the 19th overall selection in the 2009 First-Year Player Draft, pitched effectively during his National League Division Series start against the Dodgers and then struggled against the Giants in the NL Championship Series.
"We weren't looking for a one-year sort of fix," Hart said. "Shelby Miller was one of the younger pitchers that we could identify that could step in and help us right now and then we'd be able to control for a number of years. … In looking at this deal, we had some other options. But we felt this one was the one that made the most sense."
Further enhancing this package was the inclusion of Jenkins, who appears to have great upside if he has the fortune to avoid the shoulder issues that have plagued him in the past. Jenkins has not yet lived up to the expectations that were set when he declined an opportunity to play quarterback at Baylor University. He instead opted to sign the $1.3 million signing bonus he received after the Cards took him with the 50th overall selection in the 2010 First-Year Player Draft.
Jenkins overcame his most recent shoulder issues this year and completed an impressive season debut June 18, throwing six no-hit innings in his first appearance in nearly 12 months. He made each of his scheduled starts the rest of the way and ended up producing a 3.28 ERA and 1.78 K/BB ratio for Class A Advanced Palm Beach.
Hart was among the Braves' contingent that saw Jenkins complete a successful Arizona Fall League stint last week. The young right-hander, who possesses a fastball that sits 92-96 mph and a plus changeup, posted a 2.22 ERA and recorded 28 strikeouts in 24 1/3 innings for Peoria.
Jenkins will begin the 2015 season with Double-A Mississippi. The Braves are hoping he could join Atlanta's rotation at some point during the 2016 campaign.
"This is another young pitcher who is going to have a chance to successfully pitch in a Major League rotation a year or two from now," Hart said.
With the oft-injured Walden set to earn a raise via arbitration this year, there was an assumption the Braves would move him. But while it made sense on some levels to move Heyward, Hart knew that some fans might react in an unfavorable manner toward this deal.
"I really do like Heyward," Hart said. "I feel he has done some tremendous things with the Braves. He is a homegrown player and he's young. He's in the prime of his career. But nonetheless, he was going out [as a free agent next year]. We didn't want to be left encumbered by all of this."
Heyward has stood as one of the Braves' most popular players dating back to when he was selected in the first round of the 2007 Draft. The talented outfielder showed great promise as he progressed through his rookie season in 2010 at just 20 years old and then endured a disappointing injury-marred 2011 season. Heyward seemed to find his groove when he hit 27 homers and stole 21 bases in 2012. But in the 253 games he has played over the past two seasons, he has totaled just 25 homers and 22 stolen bases.
With the defensive skills that have netted him two Gold Glove Awards and the offensive potential he has displayed, Heyward might be one of the most attractive players on the free-agent market next year. But his inconsistencies at the plate have prevented him from establishing a value that would allow for him and the Braves to agree to a multiyear deal at this time. The sides had not talked about a long-term contract since March 2013.
"I just don't know that Jason was going to stay here," Hart said. "I don't think we would have been where we wanted to be if we had played this out and not been able to solve our starting pitching [dilemma]."
Scouting report on Jenkins
Coming out of Henderson (Texas) High in 2010, Jenkins rated as the most athletic pitcher in the Draft. Besides his baseball prowess, he was also Baylor's top quarterback recruit, lettered in basketball and ran a 49-second quarter-mile in a relay without any track training. Signed for $1.3 million as the 50th overall pick (supplemental first round), he made slow progress before having shoulder surgery in August 2013. Jenkins rebounded strongly this season, reclaiming his 91-96 mph fastball and hard curveball. He's never missed as many bats as his stuff indicates he should, though he did a better job of throwing strikes in 2014. He went 6-5 with a 3.28 ERA in 13 starts for high Class A Palm Beach, posting a 41/23 K/BB ratio in 74 innings before pitching well in the Arizona Fall League.
-- Jim Callis
Top 20 Prospects: Braves | Cardinals