St. Louis Cardinals

Cardinals can afford to re-sign Jason Heyward, but can they afford to lose him?

At 26, Jason Heyward is the youngest major free agent on the market this winter.
At 26, Jason Heyward is the youngest major free agent on the market this winter. BND file photo

In a matter of days, or perhaps hours, Jason Heyward is going to be far richer.

Heyward is 26 and has been in the big leagues for six seasons, yet “potential” remains a word associated with the Gold Glove outfielder. He has yet to fulfill it.

Why are teams bidding for Heyward’s services? How is it possible that Heyward, who had just 13 home runs and 60 RBIs last season for the St. Louis Cardinals, could be about to land a $200 million contract? Have teams lost their minds?

Heyward continues to be viewed as a player who has so much more to give. The biggest thing in his corner is his age. Rarely do players hit the free-agent market at 26. Heyward moved ahead of the curve by breaking into the majors with Atlanta at age 20.

13, 60 Heyward’s homer and RBI totals last season with St. Louis

Few players have the physical tools of the 6-foot-5, 245-pound Heyward, who without question is one of the best defensive right fielders in the game.

From a makeup standpoint, Heyward is a perfect player for any clubhouse. He never turns down a chance to talk about his upbringing and the influence of his parents. He is genuine. He is real. He is approachable. Many other players, with far less ability, are not.

But there are many other questions about Heyward, legitimate questions that baseball executives had to be asking themselves this week at the Winter Meetings in Nashville, Tenn.

Is $200 million too much to spend for a superior defender whose average slash line over the six years of his career is .268/.353/.431?

Some teams may say, “Yes, that is too much.”

Others, namely the Cardinals, Chicago Cubs and maybe the Los Angeles Angels, disagree. All seem willing to make an extended commitment to Heyward. The Cardinals have a void in right field; the Cubs envision Heyward as their answer in center field, pending other moves that could be made. The Angels? Well, remember Albert Pujols?

Can the Cardinals afford to lose Heyward? More importantly, can they lose him to their longtime division rivals, the Cubs? Pitcher John Lackey already has gone down that road.

27 Heyward’s career high for home runs

Meanwhile, all the Cardinals have done is sign a backup catcher, Brayan Pena, trade for a reserve infielder, Jedd Gyorko, and re-signed reliever Jonathan Broxton.

Heyward doesn’t possess the power to be a middle-of-the-order hitter. He never has had more than 27 home runs in a season and frequently has hit first or second.

It’s not that Heyward is a poor offensive performer. It’s a question of whether his defensive prowess, and the hope that his hitting improves, justifies such a large contract.

The Cardinals’ in-house answer to losing Heyward is Stephen Piscotty, a promising player who hasn’t yet been tested in a full season. Piscotty is no Heyward, but he’s not a bad option, either. If the Cardinals believe in Piscotty, the money earmarked for Heyward could then be used on a starting pitcher.

Cardinals General Manager John Mozeliak made a run at David Price, but the cost of playing poker became too high and the left-hander signed with the Boston Red Sox.

Few players have the physical tools of the 6-foot-5, 245-pound Heyward, who without question is one of the best defensive right fielders in the game.

Mozeliak also talked business with right-hander Jeff Samardzija, who despite being 47-61 with a 4.09 ERA in his career, landed a lucrative contract with the San Francisco Giants.

Negotiations with another right-hander, Mike Leake, began with promise but quickly entered a realm of uneasiness for the Cardinals as other teams’ pursuit drove up Leake’s asking price.

Johnny Cueto? I’m not sure the Cardinals, or their fans, are in the mood to forgive and forget.

Mozeliak has expressed confidence that left-handers Tim Cooney, Marco Gonzales or Tyler Lyons could hold down the No. 5 spot in the rotation, behind Adam Wainwright, Michael Wacha, Carlos Martinez and Jaime Garcia, if another pitcher isn’t added.

But considering Lackey and Lance Lynn (Tommy John surgery) no longer are in the mix, that doesn’t sound like a plausible option. It’s a depth and health issue.

All four Cardinals starters have spent considerable time on the disabled list in recent years, particularly Garcia. The last thing the Cardinals need is to be scurrying about in search of an arm or two. Rushing top prospect Alex Reyes should not be on the 2016 agenda.

If Heyward leaves and Mozeliak’s self-assurance about the rotation is indeed heart-felt, the Cardinals could look outside the organization for a position player to offset Heyward.

Justin Upton, a more dangerous offensive contributor than Heyward, would be a welcome addition. Upton, 28, isn’t the same type of defender as Heyward, but his nine-year averages are a .271 batting mark with 26 home runs and 84 RBIs.

However, adding Upton would mean the Cardinals would have an all right-handed-hitting outfield of Upton, left fielder Matt Holliday and center fielder Randal Grichuk.

With Heyward and the Cardinals, the question doesn’t seem to be affordability. The Cardinals, who seldom engage in the business of megadeals, have the funds to sign Heyward.

Sure, the Cardinals might have to overpay. But would that alone not make it worthwhile to stem the Cubs’ momentum and prevent them from becoming stronger?

Welcome to the turning point of the Cardinals’ offeseason. The clock is ticking.

David Wilhelm: 618-239-2665, @DavidMWilhelm