Bargains and Rehabs

Beltran's ability to see into your soul was not part of the contract and merely a feature. - USA TODAY Sports

Can the Cardinals find another cheap "project" player to catch lightning in a bottle?

Baseball has more money than it knows what to do with. And, while it's early in the offseason, this could be one of those years where stupid contracts are handed out left and right. How many $100M contracts will there be? Who wants to pay for an age 40 season? Who wants to buy high after a career year?

These things may not come to pass but it never ceases to amaze me that comparisons to what don't look like good contracts are blithely made. Consider that over the first three seasons of Werth's deal, he accumulated 7.6 fWAR. That's been production at a $5M/WAR clip. That isn't bad but it is hard to call that anything better than a market deal -- and these are during the cheap years after he salvaged the first half of the contract with an impressive 2013.

Yet the question isn't "why would team hand out another deal like this" so much as "how soon is a team going to hand out a deal larger than this?". Robinson Cano would like for that moment to be this year and the likelihood is that he's correct.

The worldview of contracts is one that seems like it will always be outpaced by the reality of contracts. Bad contracts last year are mediocre contracts this year. Mediocre contracts last year suddenly represent savings. The reference window for contracts has to be moved each year and seemingly in a big way.

Which is probably why the Cardinals are regularly looking for bargains like Carlos Beltran.  Find a player that the market has undervalued and get him for a limited commitment contract. Do those players still exist? Sure. Here's a few to consider.

Kevin Youkilis - 2013: 28 games, .219/.305/.343 for -0.4 WAR

Youkilis was injured for most of 2013 while playing with the Yankees. When he wasn't injured, he wasn't very good. It's also the second year of his decline -- 2011 was an above average year but 2012 was closer to replacement level -- so there's certainly questions regarding his viability moving forward.

That said, the old Youkilis would look pretty good off the bench and backing up the corners of the infield. Youkilis' plate discipline numbers took a dive last year. He was swinging at anything and couldn't make contact when he did. That's probably health related though his bat speed could have taken a hit too. But Youkilis was know for his walks and a batting eye wouldn't be likely to disappear overnight.

Could the Cardinals convince him to take a 1 year deal for $7M or so? Would they be able to mix him in at 1st base and 3rd base with enough frequency to warrant it? Youkilis has generally be better against left handers than right handers and the Cardinals' struggles in that regard are well documented. An aging bat off the bench that still has some pop could prove timely in bolstering the club.

Franklin Gutierrez - 2013: 41 games, .248/.279/.503 for 0.4 WAR

Injuries have robbed Gutierrez of the elite centerfield defense that he once possessed. 2014 will be his age 31 season, however, so he isn't exactly ancient. When he was able to play last year, he showed surprising pop over 151 plate appearances with 10 home runs. He's also another player with a true platoon split over his career faring much better against left handers.

Can the Cardinals find enough playing time for Shane Robinson, Gutierrez and eventually Oscar Taveras in 2014? That would be a legitimate concern ... to an extent. Oscar Taveras isn't the kind of prospect that gets blocked by a 4th outfielder. So if he's ready, the Cardinals would simply need to be prepared to trade or release one of their other players -- likely Robinson, Gutierrez or (less likely) Jon Jay. Given that Gutierrez was productive when healthy and there is still a whiff of his glory days on him, some team might be willing to give him a slightly overrated contract but a 1 year $10M deal or a 2 year $14M could be palatable for the right team.

Chris Young - 2013: 107 games, .200/.280/.379 for 0.5 WAR

The last time Chris Young was an above average hitter was 2011. Shockingly, he's only had 2 seasons where he's been an above average hitter: 2010 & 2011. That said, he's the kind of player that lets you dream on his athleticism. For all his troubles, he's never been below replacement level usually posting above average defensive numbers.

Young can cover all three outfield spots and, again, can hit lefties to reasonable effect. He's ill-suited as a full time player but would make a nice bat off the bench and compliment to the outfield in platoon situations. (Allen Craig to first and Chris Young in right field.) Young probably won't get more than a 1 year deal worth 5 million. If the Cardinals need to bridge half a season to their outfield prospects or preserve some depth at that position, Young could be an attractive option to do so.

A.J. Burnett - 2013: 191 IP, 2.80 FIP  for 4.0 WAR

Burnett is not the type of pitcher that the Cardinals would normally pursue in this context. He was excellent in 2013 and quite good in 2012 also. But three items might make him a lucrative target: (1) he is said to be contemplating retirement and probably wouldn't want a long term deal, (2) the Pirates did not make a qualifying offer to Burnett and (3) he is from Cardinals territory originally and expressed a desire to play for the team previously back in 2005.  Could the Cardinals offer a deal that let's Burnett stick around with a contender for another year on a team he grew up rooting for.

It's important to note that Burnett is on record saying he wants to retire a Pirate but this is still the kind of player worth placing a call on. A Burnett signing is counter intuitive given the Cardinals strong pipeline of pitching talent but it would almost certainly facilitate a trade of Lance Lynn and/or Joe Kelly without damaging depth in the rotation. There's history between Burnett and the Cardinals and if there's a chance to capitalize on that for $14M in 1 year, it could be worth it.

Ryan Madson, 2013: Did not play

The Cardinals always tinker with their bullpen over the course of a season. Edward Mujica was not slated to enter 2013 as the Cardinals closer and he'll depart the club without ever having that title prior to a season. Seth Maness wasn't projected to play a major role and Kevin Siegrist was a surprise few saw developing in the way he did. Having depth in the bullpen is a good thing. (Consider that Victor Marte pitched innings for the Cardinals in the majors last year.)

Ryan Madson has been hurt for a couple years running. He hasn't seen the majors since 2011. For a four year stretch with the Phillies from 2008-2011, he was a very good and sometimes excellent relief pitcher.  He threw in the mid-90s and complimented it with a deceptive cutter and changeup. Madson isn't going to cost more than a song to sign. He'll have to accept a minor league deal with a spring training invite but this is the kind of rehab project the Cardinals used to excel at. If you can get vintage Madson at pennies on the dollars, it's worth a risk. Especially if you can develop him in the minors. Ryan Madson may be permanently broken but there's no harm in having him prove that for a season in Memphis.

Conclusion

The Cardinals would do well to bolster their bench with a better signing than Ty Wigginton this offseason. Short of landing Stephen Drew or trading for Troy Tulowitzki, there may not be a major free agent that makes sense for the Cardinals. That gives them the opportunity to leverage their 2013 spend and their minor league depth to sign players to short term contracts and try to catch lightning in a bottle. When an injured/old/questionable player pans out from time to time, they create other opportunities: additional draft picks, trade chances, contract leverage. When they don't pan out, not much happens. They just fade into history.

The Cardinals found gold in Carlos Beltran 2 years ago and they'll have another draft pick on top of the incredible in game value he provided. 2014 is an opportunity to try and find that kind of value again if in a more discreet way.

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