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Cardinals should say no to opt-out deal for Heyward

Some predictions about the free agent market floated out over the weekend. They include speculation about the future of St. Louis Cardinals right fielder Jason Heyward.

There is a great deal of sentiment from national writers that the Redbirds will buck up and keep Heyward in St. Louis. But the numbers are staggering and I wonder if the St. Louis front office is really prepared to go that high in the bidding when the franchise is so deep in outfielders.

Yahoo Sports writer Jeff Passan said one baseball “personnel man” believes Heyward will never hit the open market, signing a seven-year contract for $140 million. A competing general manager also thinks Heyward will stay in St. Louis -- but for eight years and $175 million with an opt out after four seasons that would allow Heyward to test the market again when he is 30.

I suppose anything is possible with the Cardinals soon to cash in on a new local television deal and the mega contracts of Matt Holliday and Jhonny Peralta set to come off the books in a couple of years.

But the idea of a $175 million contract for player who isn’t an established superstar is breathtaking. And I am completely opposed in principle to an opt-out contract which guarantees a player huge dollars if he fails without giving the team a guarantee of his services long-term if he plays well.

Heyward is a very solid player who can do a lot of things. I love his enthusiasm and fire. He’s got great speed, a doubles bat and is best known as an excellent defender. But, usually, guys who command top free agent contracts are big-name guys. The reason the name is as important as potential, at least in some ways, is that name guys sell tickets and that pays the freight of their big contracts.

Signing Albert Pujols to a $200 million dollar contract, even if it doesn’t make the Anaheim Angels a playoff team, puts behinds in the seats. Does signing Heyward put people in the seats at Busch Stadium? I’m not sure at this point.

Winning baseball puts tickets in the hands of fans. But if you’re counting on winning to draw a crowd, general managers have to be careful not to tie up too much of their budget in one player. Especially if that player isn’t the sort of guy who is capable of carrying his team on his shoulders.

An opt out deal would surely end poorly for the relationship between Heyward and the Cardinals at some point.

Just like giving Pujols a nine or 10-year contract would have yielded diminishing returns, the Heywood deal would be destined to either cause a player who finally reached his massive potential to part in his prime -- or else it would stick the Cardinals with a player who performs less productively than they hoped into his mid 30s.

Assuming that Heyward contract is equally divided, the player would have about $65 million left on the deal when he potentially opted out at 30. What are the odds the Cardinals would be in on a more lucrative extension for a guys age 31 and beyond seasons? It’s doubtful that they’d add many more years at that rate.

So Heyward’s contract would essentially be a four-year, $87.5-million contract with a $65-million insurance premium for the rest of his career to be paid by the Cardinals.

I’d rather see the Cardinals pay Heyward $100 million for four years and then offer him a one-year tender. When Heyward rejects the extra year, St. Louis would collect a draft pick in exchange for him signing elsewhere.

The Cardinals would get five years of Heyward in excange for Shelby Miller while avoiding three years of being on the hook if he performs poorly or gets hurt.

The only thing that would make an opt-out deal palatable is if it was significantly back-loaded.

Then the Birds could potentially get Heyward’s services for a steal for the first four years and then he could opt out and sign elsewhere.

But that’s not going to happen because it won’t stand up to the free agent market. Besides, why would a player who is an unrestricted free agent choose to opt for less financial security?

The bottom line is that Heyward is going to have to be motivated to stay in St. Louis to sign a less than top dollar deal if he wants to stay with the Cardinals. As is always the case, there will be an owner with more money than brains who decides he needs to wow his fan base by writing a ridiculous check. While I really like Heyward’s play and I hope he sticks around, spending Pujols money for a player who doesn’t have the resume Pujols had when he hit the market in 2011 isn’t an option.

The speculated $140-million deal seems like the farthest the Cardinals can extend themselves. I’d be more comfortable with a series of vesting options as opposed to an opt out.

The fans, Heyward -- and Stephen Piscotty -- will watch with great interest to see how this plays out. I’m just glad I don’t have to be the person making the decision of whether to pay Heyward an insane amount of money or let him go.

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