ST. LOUIS -- Needing to fill an unexpected hole in right field for 2015, the Cardinals went for a big splash, acquiring outfielder Jason Heyward from the Braves along with right-handed reliever Jordan Walden. The cost was heavy, however, as the Cardinals sent a pair of former first-round Draft picks -- right-handers Shelby Miller and Tyrell Jenkins -- to Atlanta to complete the four-player trade on Monday.
The trade comes three weeks after the death of 22-year-old outfielder Oscar Taveras, who, along with Randal Grichuk and Stephen Piscotty, was expected to cover the right-field position in 2015. Uncertain if Grichuk and Piscotty alone could provide the Cardinals with the offensive upgrade they sought, general manager John Mozeliak had to quickly alter his offseason checklist. Finding an established right fielder landed on top of it.
"It's never easy to think about change when it's that dramatic, but we felt like we needed to do something, and momentum just happened to carry this deal quickly," Mozeliak said. "It wouldn't have surprised me if we had gone even into the Winter Meetings or past that before we may have addressed it. I do feel like this happened quick, but we were all in agreement that we needed to address something."
With the free-agent market thin on outfielders, Mozeliak realized early in the process that a trade might be necessary to sufficiently fill the outfield void. He explored several trade possibilities during the General Managers Meetings last week before zeroing in on a match with the Braves, who were starved for starting pitching.
The two sides gained traction over the weekend, with Mozeliak going to bed on Sunday feeling that a deal was likely. It was then finalized on Monday morning.
In the end, he was able to deal from an area of surplus, as the Cardinals clearly believe they have enough starting pitching depth to weather the departure of Miller, who had been a member of the rotation for the last two seasons.
"These decisions that you come to are never easy -- especially for an organization that, for the last several years, we've always talked about development, [and] we've talked about controlling our own players and having that cost certainty moving forward," Mozeliak said. "We did feel after the events of this offseason that we had to do something different, that we had to look at a way to add an impact player to our club."
In Heyward, the Cardinals get an elite defender with a career slash line of .262/.351/.429 in five seasons with the Braves. Heyward is due $8.3 million in 2015 as part of the second installment of a two-year, $13.3 million contract that he signed to cover his final two seasons of arbitration.
Heyward will be a free agent at the end of the season. Walden, a second-time arbitration-eligible player, will enter free agency after the 2016 season. That means the Cardinals procured two players with a combined three years of team control in exchange for the 10 years of control Atlanta gets with Miller and Jenkins.
The Cardinals aren't resigned to seeing Heyward as a one-and-done player, however. Mozeliak expressed some optimism that Heyward, after getting the chance to play in St. Louis for a season, may look to try and sign long term. It was Atlanta's expectation that Heyward wanted to test free agency that bumped him from a core piece to trade asset this offseason.
"Right now, the fact that I was just traded to a team, I'm going to let things play out, take things one step at a time," Heyward said, when asked of his openness to remaining in St. Louis beyond 2015.
Heyward added that he hadn't engaged in extension talks with the Braves since the 2012 season.
"I don't think I'll be able to emphasize it enough the fact that the St. Louis Cardinals had interest in me and would like me to come be a part of their organization and come play for that great fan base," Heyward said. "It's something that I'm happy to hear, and it's a good opportunity to go play some baseball for a winning team that is consistent with that mindset. I definitely appreciate them showing interest in me."
Even if Heyward leaves after one season, a short-term fit in right field isn't necessarily a terrible thing for the Cardinals. They could secure a compensation Draft pick upon Heyward's departure and still have Piscotty and Grichuk as blossoming future Major League outfielders.
Heyward, 25, is coming off his second Gold Glove season, one in which he led all Major League players with 32 Defensive Runs Saved. His Ultimate Zone Rating (24.1) ranked second in baseball behind Kansas City's Alex Gordon.
In the lineup, Heyward could fit in any number of spots. He opened his career hitting predominantly out of the two-hole before then moving lower in the order for some time. Most recently, he served as a leadoff hitter. The Cardinals have discussed possibly moving Matt Carpenter out of that leadoff spot and into a more run-producing place in the batting order.
Heyward said that, with Atlanta, he tailored his approach to the role he served in the lineup. He blasted 27 homers in 158 games in 2012, but also struck out 152 times. In an effort to cut down on those strikeouts as a leadoff hitter, Heyward's power numbers reduced. He connected for 11 homers in 149 games last season with 98 strikeouts. He also posted his best on-base percentage (.351) since his rookie season.
"I'm always an open person to hitting wherever in a lineup," Heyward said. "I know I can do a lot of things at any point in the game to help my ballclub win, and that's what I'm looking forward to doing. Again, I didn't say I had a problem hitting leadoff. I just had never done that. Whatever they need me here to do is what I'm looking forward to giving."
Packaging Walden in this deal helps the Cardinals address another offseason item on their checklist, which was to fortify their bullpen. The 27-year-old debuted with the Angels in 2010 and has a career 3.10 ERA in 231 appearances.
In 2014, Walden posted a 2.88 ERA and 1.20 WHIP in 58 games. He pitched primarily as a setup man to closer Craig Kimbrel and could fill the same role in St. Louis since Pat Neshek is not expected to re-sign with the team. His arrival also frees up projected setup man Carlos Martinez to compete for a starting job.
This marks the second time that Walden has been part of a November trade, as he was swapped for Tommy Hanson in a 2012 deal between the Braves and Angels.
"I would think that Walden would be a natural fit for late in terms of how we think about our bullpen moving forward," Mozeliak said.
In exchange for the two experienced players, the Braves landed two young starting pitchers. Miller, the No. 19 overall pick in the 2009 First-Year Player Draft, went 26-18 with a 3.33 ERA in 69 games (63 starts) for the Cardinals. He was projected to be a member of the 2015 rotation, though the Cardinals have several other starting candidates to fill that void.
Jenkins, 22, just wrapped up a successful Arizona Fall League stint to close a season in which he returned from shoulder surgery. The 50th overall pick in the 2010 Draft, Jenkins had stalled at the Class A Advanced level due to injuries but had enjoyed a breakthrough of sorts late this summer and into the fall. He was expected to be added to the 40-man roster later this week in advance of the Rule 5 Draft.
"Overall, this deal is definitely focused on the short term in terms of 2015, but I do think as we go forward we'll try to find a way to make Heyward's experience here in St. Louis something that he wants to be a part of for a long period of time," Mozeliak said. "In the end, we're excited about where we are. We certainly feel like we improved our club for next year. That's what we continue to do the rest of the offseason."
With Heyward and Walden, the Cardinals now have 37 players on their 40-man roster.