In his start this past Sunday, Shelby Miller waited a full 8 2/3 innings before surrendering a hit to the Miami Marlins en route to his second shutout of the season. Miller’s most recent helping of excellence did nothing but quicken the velocity of the head-shaking so many Cardinal fans have been participating in throughout the first several weeks of the season. After all, a short-sighted glance would make it seem as though St. Louis GM/StanGraphs hero John Mozeliak jettisoned a budding ace for what is essentially a defensive replacement or pinch runner in Jason Heyward. We all know that isn’t the case (the “all” in this sentence is probably a bit optimistic), but early season results have a way of causing us to dust off our pitchforks and hit the streets with torches.
No matter what, it can’t be argued that Miller has been far better in his first eight starts of 2015 than anyone could have reasonably expected. The 24-year-old has managed to log 54 innings of 1.33 ERA baseball while adding a strikeout and killing a walk from his per-nine rates a year ago. That’s impressive stuff to be sure, and the Braves have a valuable commodity on their hands at a disgustingly affordable price. The thing is, though, it isn’t like the Cardinals didn’t think this was a possible outcome.
It’s only been half a year since the Heyward-Miller swap went down, and to pan the move based on early returns is rather foolish. Yes, the Cardinals were aware that Shelby Miller had it in him to excel and move toward the front of a big league rotation. Hell, no one would need to look further back in the rear view mirror than Miller’s 2013 early season surge for proof. Miller also finished 2014 on a relatively high note, earning a thumbs-up or two from around these parts thanks to a solid September and a nice showing against Clayton Kershaw in October’s NLDS match-up against the Dodgers. None of that could take away the palpable risk, though, as Miller had begun to rely almost exclusively on his fastball with little knowledge of how to place his once-great curve anywhere that wouldn’t incite a “ball four” call or a slow trot from a hitter who had recently drilled a seat in the stands with a bruised baseball.
All I’m saying is that Shelby Miller was far from a slam dunk at the stage in his career during which he was dealt to the Braves, and I’d hardly call him a lock to live up to his full potential now; we’re looking at eight starts, and while those eight starts are very encouraging, you surely don’t need anyone to ramble on and on about sample size. Add in an extremely lucky BABIP (.183!) and an uptick in swings and misses that is hardly earth-shattering, and it’s a lot more likely Miller is simply developing into a very good starter rather than an ace. There is still tons and tons of value in a player like that, especially when accompanied by Miller’s current price tag, but let’s not all brown our pants just yet.
There are precious few scenarios that involve Miller ever, ever reaching the state of value that Jason Heyward possesses even when he’s slumping at the plate. As I’ve already mentioned more times than Randy Choate has called one of his teammates “young man,” we’re very early on in this season, but it doesn’t look readily apparent that Heyward is going to up and revert to his 2010 form or turn over a new leaf. Plenty of pundits were ready for Heyward to break out once he left Atlanta, but his patience (6.6 BB%) and power (.129 ISO) are more scarce than ever through 38 games in 2015. Still, just as with Miller, there was and is always that chance that Heyward’s star would ascend.
Unlike Miller, however, Heyward could make fans yawn and grumble all day and still actually be very valuable. Sure, this is likely only a one-year rental, but if you aren’t willing to do a one-year rental on a player who has been worth 15 fWAR over the past three seasons, then you probably don’t need to be a major league GM. Heyward’s measurable baseball intelligence has led to his becoming one of the elite defenders and base runners in the game, and he should still provide at least an average presence at the plate even if he doesn’t excel into his prime during his time in St. Louis.
It’s easy to bemoan the Shelby Miller-Jason Heyward trade when Miller is flirting with no-hitters and Heyward is rolling over every pitch to second base, but it’s wise to remember what both players were when the deal was consummated. Mozeliak took a calculated risk to boost a team primed for playoff contention in an area of weakness by dealing from a potential area of strength. Regardless of how this one looks in a decade, the reasoning behind the deal was extremely sound. If you’re a Cardinal fan, that should provide nothing but comfort going forward.