Why the Angels need Heyward more than any other team
Halos' left fielders put up baseball's lowest OPS in 2015
Let's start by acknowledging the obvious truth that every team in the big leagues would benefit by adding Jason Heyward. We could probably write 30 articles, one per day for the next month, laying out reasons why every club should want a 26-year-old outfielder who is an above-average hitter, a very good baserunner and an elite defender.
With that caveat out of the way, we have to acknowledge that only one team can actually end up with Heyward, and while there's many places where he'd be a good fit, doesn't it seem more and more like the Angels are the absolute best fit?
The Angels aren't alone in wanting to put together a contender in 2016, and they're hardly the only team that could use another outfielder. If those were the only criteria, then we're back to two dozen teams that would be a reasonable landing place for Heyward. But the Halos have some pretty specific criteria that make them stand out above all others. Let's look at three.
1. The Angels really need an outfielder
Mike Trout, obviously, is on an all-time great career path in center. Kole Calhoun is probably still underrated, despite having just finished a second consecutive very good season on both sides of the ball in right. Josh Hamilton was supposed to be third part of that trio, but you already know that didn't work out. Instead, 12 Angels saw time in left field, as Matt Joyce and Collin Cowgill gave way to late-season veteran acquisitions David DeJesus, Shane Victorino and David Murphy.
It didn't work. Angels left fielders had baseball's second-worst OBP (.275), worst slugging percentage (.317) and worst OPS (.592). It was, by far, the worst offensive left-field season in franchise history, only two years after the 2013 team had the best. It doesn't look better for 2016, not when FanGraphs' projections show Los Angeles' left field (currently consisting mainly of Todd Cunningham, Rafael Ortega and Efren Navarro) as the worst group in the American League.
Regardless of whether Heyward or Calhoun would move to left field -- the guess is it would be Calhoun -- this is the opportunity to turn a huge negative into a tremendous positive. This is the opportunity to turn a huge negative into a tremendous positive. The Angels missed reaching the Wild Card Game by one game, and they missed winning the AL West by three. By WAR, their left fielders alone were nearly two wins below replacement. Heyward was six wins above replacement. It's true that any competent player would be an upgrade, but no one turns the table like Heyward would.
2. The Angels can't afford to wait
The Halos have had the best player in baseball for the past four seasons, and they have won zero playoff games. They have Albert Pujols, still productive but clearly slowing down (and recovering from foot surgery) as he enters his age-36 season. This isn't a team that can afford to wait for the future -- especially because what was a thin farm system before the Andrelton Simmons deal is almost certainly baseball's weakest now.
That's why while Heyward isn't the only outfield option, the fact that he's just entering his prime makes him the best one for a team that won't find young talent from within. They don't have the pieces to trade for a Yasiel Puig or Carlos Gonzalez. Alex Gordon (31) and Yoenis Cespedes (30) are possibilities, but they may not have much youthful time remaining. Justin Upton (28) is young, but despite 26 homers to Heyward's 13, his OPS was actually slightly worse, and he's not near Heyward's class on defense.
The Angels can't wait, and they can't trade. While Heyward's power numbers don't jump off the page, what they really need more than anything are his on-base skills; even with Trout, the team's .307 OBP was better than only four other teams. Heyward, it should be noted, shook off a rough first month in St. Louis to hit .306/.375/.455 from May 1 on, a line that would have been one of baseball's 30 best over a full season.
3. The Angels' pitching staff requires elite outfield defense
That the Angels have a fly-ball staff isn't really a surprise. Jered Weaver is regularly among the league leaders in flies, and overall, the team has had a top-five fly-ball percentage in each of the past four seasons. Four Halos -- Hector Santiago, Weaver, Matt Shoemaker and Andrew Heaney -- finished in the top 25 of fly-ball rate.
The fact that the Angels don't miss a ton of bats is part of why Simmons was added, and the fact that they put so many balls into the air is why their next outfielder needs to be a very good defensive one. Over the past three seasons, Heyward leads all outfielders in Defensive Runs Saved, and is second among all players. Since Simmons leads that list, it's easy to see how dominant this defense could be. (It helps that in addition to range, Heyward has a strong arm, even touching 98.5 mph, per Statcast™, in throwing out Andre Ethier in June.)
As for the money, well, Heyward won't come cheaply, with many estimates expecting he'll get $180 million or more. But after 2016, approximately $46 million worth of Weaver, C.J. Wilson and Joe Smith comes off the payroll. After 2017, they're free of the approximately $56 million they still owe Hamilton over the next two seasons. Only Trout, Pujols and Simmons are signed beyond that. The Angels have spent big before, except this time it would be on someone who still has four more seasons before he turns 30.
The Angels would still have to answer questions at second and third, but adding Heyward would lock down an entire outfield, plus shortstop, for the next four seasons. It might not even cost as much as it would seem if, as many contracts do these days, Heyward receives an opt-out clause that would let him depart after age 30. It's not ideal to have to spend so much on a single player. It's not as though there's a better fit, though. After all, even the great Trout can't do it alone.