Wearing a red, V-neck Air Jordan brand tee shirt and Nikes highlighted by the same color red, the outfielder the Cardinals hope becomes a fixture split the curtains Saturday and stepped up to the table from where he would meet his new fanbase.
A roar of welcome from the crowd, several fans deep, greeted Jason Heyward.
Let the recruitment begin.
Heyward, the prize acquisition of the Cardinals’ offseason, made his first Winter Warm-Up appearance Saturday at the Hyatt Regency St. Louis at The Arch. It is the only appearance at a Cardinals fanfest he is guaranteed to make. The 25-year-old right fielder can become a free agent at the end of the coming season, and this weekend begins what the team hopes is a yearlong sales pitch to stick around and make right field at Busch Stadium his home. Heyward expressed an openness to an extension at any time, without a deadline for those discussions or any preconceived parameters.
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“At this point, I don’t,” Heyward said. “They asked me to be here, and I was traded into this situation. It’s a good situation. For me, I just feel like I need to show up and do my job, kind of follow their lead with certain things. After that, we’ll see what happens. It’s kind of a unique situation because this is my last year before free agency. …
“For me, I hope I love it so much I won’t have to leave.”
General manager John Mozeliak joked Saturday that he has yet to meet Heyward face to face. They have only spoken over the phone since the four-player trade brought the former All-Star from Atlanta. There have been no discussions of an extension, and the Cardinals believe it’s just as important for them to get to know Heyward as he gets to know them. Mozeliak said there is no doubt the club “would be interested in pursuing something” that keeps Heyward a Cardinal. That something portends to be a record contract for the club, surpassing the seven-year, $120 million deal signed by Matt Holliday. But because of Heyward’s age, such a deal would also include what are usually regarded as a players’ peak years.
With the contracts for core players Holliday, Adam Wainwright, and Yadier Molina set to expire after 2018 — or earlier — the Cardinals’ three-year outlook includes something it hasn’t in recent years.
They will be in need of a signature player soon.
“Yes. That’s as plain as I can say that,” Mozeliak said. “When you look at our model, it is making sure that you always have that core player or two that you’re building around. As our current core grows older, someone else has to step up. That may look like Matt Carpenter. It may look like Kolten Wong. It may look like Heyward. Who knows? That certainly has been one of the reasons we’re successful because we’ve had those middle-of-the-order-type hitters that we’ve been able to build around. And we augment that with our minor leagues.”
Heyward hints at the profile of a core player. Still in his youth, Heyward has won two Gold Glove Awards for exceptional play in right field. He was an All-Star and Rookie of the Year runner-up in 2010. He hit 27 homers in 2012 and saw his strikeouts drop significantly in 2014. So, too, did his slugging percentage. Heyward has attributed that to the Braves moving him to leadoff, a spot where he changed his approach to be more conscious of putting the ball in play even at the expense of power.
That is not a tradeoff the Cardinals will ask him to make.
“Batting leadoff is just different,” Heyward said. “You’ve got the pitcher hitting in front of you every other inning except for the first at-bat and the game is sort of dictated for you. That is the mindset every time: ‘Let me get on base. Let me get on base.’ That’s a lot different from maybe hitting second, third, fourth, fifth, where you’re saying, ‘Let me get a pitch to drive somewhere or maybe move a runner over.’”
This is the kind of preference and personality that the Cardinals want a chance to learn, too. After all, the courtship of Heyward is following a familiar formula.
The Cardinals prefer to bring a player in, wrap him in red and then do what’s possible to keep him. Cardinals officials have said that they have been willing to offer beyond their raw valuations at times because they know an internal player so well. Chairman Bill DeWitt Jr. recently mentioned a willingness to commit years to Wainwright because his leadership, let alone his pitching, shaped the personality of the clubhouse. The Cardinals acquired Scott Rolen, sparked the recruiting and signed him longterm. Same with Jim Edmonds. Core players, both. The Cardinals acquired Holliday, the next-generation core, via trade, had three months to recruit him and brought him back as a free agent.
“I think there is an advantage to doing this for both sides,” Holliday said Saturday. “Looking at it from the financial commitment the team makes and the year commitment the player is going to make, the better you know each other the easier it is to enter into that relationship. Jason is going to get a sense of what he can expect for seven, eight years. I think that’s important for him to see for himself, and not just hear about it. And the Cardinals can know who they’re getting — the leader, the person, the fit in the clubhouse, the worker, the presence in the clubhouse.”
Heyward said he’s open to sticking around, just as he was in Atlanta.
He described how the Braves just didn’t ask.
“For me, I’m from Georgia (and) I grew up playing baseball in that state,” Heyward said. “I grew up watching the great teams of the 1990s and got to play for a Hall of Fame manager (Bobby Cox) who helped build that organization. For me, I was never opposed to (staying). There wasn’t a lot of time put in on their part, I feel like, getting to know me as a person and getting to know my mindset on it. Here I am in a good situation, and I’m definitely not complaining.”
That mindset is exactly what Mozeliak said he wanted to understand.
The general manager suggested that at some point he’ll not only meet Heyward face to face, but also chat with him about what his expectations are, how he sees a longterm contract developing and what he needs to see from the Cardinals. They’ve got a whole season to talk about it. Saturday was just the introduction. Heyward signed autographs for two hours, gave high fives to young fans and fielded his first questions in person from the media.
Asked if he chose an outfit rich with red on purpose, he grinned.
“Let’s say,” Heyward answered, “I was aware.”