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Trade Retrospective: Braves trade Jason Heyward to the Cardinals

The trade made sense for both sides, but the Braves were able to turn Shelby Miller into a king’s ransom a year later.

Washington Nationals v Atlanta Braves Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

For the fifth straight offseason, BtBS is looking back on some of the biggest trades from years past. Check out all the entries here.

Not long after the end of the 2014 season, the Braves realized it was time to restock their farm system. They decided to trade Jason Heyward and Jordan Walden to the Cardinals in exchange for Shelby Miller and prospect Tyrell Jenkins.

In this trade retrospective series, trades will be evaluated based on what was known at the time. That is the only fair, logical way to evaluate trades and strip luck out of the equation: process over results. Having said that, we will still take a look at how the trade worked out for both parties.

The Deal

The Braves were coming off a 79-win season with little chance of doing much better in 2015. Their farm system was not in great shape either, generally ranking in the bottom third in the league according to prospect analysts. It is one thing when your farm system is not doing great because you traded from it to improve your major league team, which the Braves did and there is nothing wrong with that, but the team was guilty of years of poor drafting. The combination of these two things finally caught up with them. It was time to rebuild.

Jason Heyward was coming off yet another season where his bat disappointed but his elite defense more than made up for it. He slugged only .384, though he did achieve a .351 OBP thanks to good plate discipline and high contact rates. Thanks to his plus baserunning skills and elite defense, he was worth around 5 WAR that year, depending on whether you go by Baseball Reference or FanGraphs. He was only 24 years old, too, and at the time there was every reason to believe he could still achieve his 134 wRC+ from his rookie year. Despite having only one year left on his rookie contract, he had a fair amount of trade value.

The Cardinals were coming off their second straight division crown, though unfortunately they were eliminated in five games in the NLCS by the eventual champion Giants. Right field was a dumpster fire for the team in 2014, with players combining for a shocking 72 wRC+ and -1.8 WAR, per FanGraphs. They were in desperate need of a right fielder, especially after the tragic death of Oscar Taveras.

It is always great to have pitching depth, of course, but the Cardinals needed to trade more than just a prospect to get a player of Heyward’s caliber. Miller had pitched more or less the equivalent of two full seasons, and had shown himself to be a solid mid-rotation starter with some upside. He had a career 3.53 RA9 with solid peripherals, though he was coming off a season where he struck out only 16.6 percent of batters faced. It is tough to trade a young pitcher like Miller who still had four years left on his rookie contract, but the Cardinals had the depth to withstand parting with him, especially if they got a full season from Michael Wacha.

It was nice to get Walden as part of the trade. who was coming off a two-season stretch where he had a 3.34 RA9 while striking out almost 30 percent of batters faced. He had control issues, though, and while he was not suited for high leverage work, he would be a nice addition to the bullpen.

Jenkins was a former top-100 prospect whose stock fell as a result of missing much of the 2012 and 2013 seasons due to shoulder injuries. He bounced back in 2014 and had a strong performance in the Arizona Fall League, so his stock was rising back up, making him the likely best pitching prospect in the Braves’ system.

Even if Heyward continued to disappoint at the plate, his defense and baserunning would make him conservatively a three-win upgrade, and possibly as high as six wins. Trading Shelby Miller and Tyrell Jenkins for even just one year of him was an easy decision.

As for the Braves, they turned a player they did not need or were going to bring back into a boost to their farm system and a major league proven pitcher. A good season from Miller could be flipped to boost their farm system even further, which did happen in one of the most infamous trades of my lifetime.

The Results

The Cardinals got what might be the best season of Heyward’s career. He hit .293/.359/.439 for a 121 wRC+, and he combined that with excellent baserunning and his usual elite defense. Baseball Reference and FanGraphs valued his season at 6.6 WAR and 5.6 WAR, respectively. The team’s 100 wins was the best in the majors, but as is always the case, none of that matters come the playoffs. They were eliminated in four games in the NLDS by the rival Cubs.

Speaking of the Cubs, Heyward joined them in free agency on an eight-year deal worth $184 million. Unfortunately, his offense struggled more than ever, as he hit only .230/.306/.325 in his first year with the Cubs. You need to be truly elite defensively to rescue a 72 wRC+ from replacement level. He has improved since then, hitting at roughly a league average level over the past two seasons, but his defense is slipping. The back half of his contract is going to look pretty ugly, but the Ricketts are worth billions of dollars, so I don’t think that anybody should lose any sleep over it.

Jordan Walden made 12 appearances for the Cardinals in 2015 and was lights out, giving up a total of only one run. That was all in April, and was the last time he ever pitched professionally, sadly. He missed the rest of the season due to shoulder problems, and then missed all of 2016 because of a muscle strain in his back. It appears that he retired in early 2017.

Tyrell Jenkins made his major league debut in 2016, and it did not go well. He appeared in 14 games, eight of them starts, and had a 6.06 RA9. To make matters worse, he had poor control and could barely strike anybody out. The Braves traded him to the Rangers at the end of the year, who then designated him for assignment.

Jenkins spent 2017 in the Padres’ system playing for their Triple A team, and it was a disaster. Even with the understanding that the Pacific Coast League is a hitter’s paradise, Jenkins had an 8.20 RA9! When you are allowing that many runs, peripherals really don’t matter, but they were still pretty bad. His career, unfortunately, was over.

Coincidentally like Heyward, Shelby Miller also had the best year of his career in 2015. He had a 3.59 RA9 and was worth 3.9 WAR in 205 13 IP, though his strikeout rates were still on the low side. The Braves smartly flipped him after the season in one of the most lopsided trades I can remember both on paper and in the results. They got Dansby Swanson and Ender Inciarte in exchange for three years of a solid but unremarkable pitcher. That is going to be a fun Trade Retrospective to do next year!

After the trade, Miller’s career went into the toilet. Over the past four seasons, he has pitched a total of only 183 innings at the major league level, and very poorly at that with a 7.33 RA9 over that span. Injuries were a major issue, including Tommy John surgery. He is currently with the Brewers on a minor league deal.

Cardinals Results

Remaining Control WAR
Remaining Control WAR
Jason Heyward 1 6.6
Jordan Walden 2 0.6
Total 3 7.2
Baseball Reference

That’s pretty awesome. It’s sad to see Walden’s career end, but the Cardinals got great production from Heyward for what they paid in talent.

Braves Results

Remaining Control WAR
Remaining Control WAR
Shelby Miller 4 3.9
Tyrell Jenkins 6 -0.3
Total 10 3.6
Baseball Reference

Unfortunately, Jenkins was a bust, but the real value of the trade came the Braves being able to flip Miller’s very good 2015 season into a ton of surplus value. All in all, this was good work done by both sides.

. . .

Luis Torres is a Featured Writer at Beyond the Box Score. He is a medicinal chemist by day, baseball analyst by night. You can follow him on Twitter at @Chemtorres21.