MLB.com Columnist

Richard Justice

Heyward's signing could spark free-agent market

Cespedes, Gordon, Upton could be the next players to land deals

Heyward's signing could spark free-agent market

The Cardinals still have choices, good ones actually. So do the Angels and Giants, and all the other teams who believed Jason Heyward would be a perfect fit. Here's to taking a deep breath and another phase of the free-agent market. This offseason is just hitting its stride.

First, the Cardinals. You're going to love Alex Gordon, Cardinal Nation. Big-time defensive player. Impact offensive guy. In fact, you might come to like him every bit as much as you came to love Heyward.

Hey! Hey! Cubs reportedly land Heyward

Or Justin Upton. He would be a nice fit, too. In fact, some baseball people think Upton's production could match Heyward over the next few seasons.

And there's Chris Davis and Yoenis Cespedes. They're both power guys, and for a team that was 25th in home runs last season, either could be a nice addition.

See? Excellent choices all.

Here's what has changed: timing. There's some urgency now. Baseball's free-agent marketplace evolves as players sign and teams consider their second and third options.

With Heyward joining the Cubs, there could be a run on the remaining free agents. The Angels, Nationals and Giants were thought to have aggressively pursued Heyward, so they're all moving to their second and third choices.

Cardinals move on from Heyward

If the Cards are more aggressive, it's because of the Cubs. With the additions of Ben Zobrist and Heyward, the Cubs have made themselves favorites to win the National League Central.

In a few weeks, they've given manager Joe Maddon a lineup card in which Heyward and Zobrist hit in front of Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo and Kyle Schwarber. That's about as good as it gets.

Sure, winning the offseason can be overstated. The Cardinals were the only team that won 100 games last season and the only team that has made five straight postseason appearances. In that time, they've won 17 more regular-season games and played 23 more postseason games than any other team in the sport.

And the Cards didn't get dumb overnight. They've still got talent and depth. If they don't add a single player, they might be good enough to win a fourth straight division title.

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But it's now too close to comfort. General manager John Mozeliak would like to add a starting pitcher and a hitter. If he rates the four top remaining free-agent position players as all being good fits for the Cardinals, Mozeliak could still play the market and take the one that best fits his budget.

Things get less uncertain each time another premier free agent leaves the market. So let's reconsider:

1. Gordon

Suitors: Royals, Giants, Cardinals, Angels

Background: He'll be 32 on Opening Day next season, which is six years older than Heyward. Gordon missed two months last season with a groin injury. So those two things present a bit of risk.

Don't be fooled. There are no perfect options in free agency. Gordon is a tremendous player. His defense has been as good as Heyward's for most of his career, and his OPS has been higher for four of the past five seasons. Given his age, Gordon would mean a smaller financial commitment.

A potential signing of Gordon by the Cardinals would have the feel of Carlos Beltran replacing Albert Pujols four years ago. But Gordon is likely to have a ton of offers. Still, he seems likely to circle back to the Royals, who continue to make the most sense.

Hot Stove Tracker

Favorite: Royals

Comment: Kansas City probably is feeling less confident with each passing day. The Royals see Gordon as one of the faces of their franchise and the guy whose emergence was the first signal of a turnaround. He may ultimately return to Kansas City, but he's going to have a long list of offers.

2. Upton

Suitors: Cardinals, Giants, Angels, Nationals

Background: We hyped Upton as a future superstar for so long that there's a tendency to diminish what he has become. Like Heyward, Upton impacts games in various ways. He's coming off a season in which he had 26 doubles, 26 home runs and a .790 OPS. Upton hit twice as many home runs as Heyward (26 to 13), and his OPS was only seven points lower (.797 to .790). Who votes to have J-Up replace J-Hey?

Favorite: Cardinals

Comment: Upton fits anyplace. He'd be perfect playing left field for the Angels. Upton could play right for the Cardinals or center for the Nationals.

3. Cespedes

Suitors: Giants, Angels, Nationals

Background: Cespedes probably has been the least talked-about free agent on the market even though plenty of baseball people rank him ahead of Gordon and Upton. They view Cespedes as athletic enough to play any outfield position and also capable of matching last season's 35 home runs. At 30, he's two years younger than Gordon and two older than Upton.

Favorite: Angels

Comment: Cespedes may not be the next free agent to go, but he, like Upton, would fit anywhere. Cespedes is good enough to play center field. He could do it in San Francisco or Anaheim. Only Davis provides more power. Cespedes had his best season heading into free agency, so this is a nice time to be Yoenis Cespedes.

4. Davis

Suitors: Orioles, others

Background: The Orioles have made Davis their No. 1 priority and have made an aggressive offer in excess of $150 million. Maybe the question is how long they hold out before turning to other options. The O's have wondered if they're bidding against themselves, but others have doubted agent Scott Boras before and gotten burned. As for the Cardinals, Mozeliak has discounted the chances of pursuing a free-agent first baseman since he has Stephen Piscotty, Brandon Moss and Matt Adams to play there. He could reconsider now with Heyward gone. Piscotty is capable of shifting to the outfield.

The Cards might not be comfortable with the required financial commitment for Davis, especially if they can get Gordon or Upton for less. But Davis is an intriguing possibility and would dramatically change the look of St. Louis' batting order.

Favorite: Orioles

Comment: With each passing day, Davis' return to Baltimore looks less likely. It's still the perfect fit, but he'd be a great boost for the Cardinals, Angels or even the Giants. The Orioles have raised the bidding to a place that a lot of other teams won't be comfortable getting involved.

Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.