On Wednesday, I took a look at some of the ways the Cardinals might be able to upgrade their most troublesome spot in 2015, that of first base. In said column I focused on the internal options the Redbirds might explore, from just rolling with Matt Adams again to platoons to moving Matt Carpenter across the diamond to maximise his strengths while hopefully covering for his iffy (for a third baseman, that is), arm.
Today, I'll be covering some of the external options the club could potentially explore. I say some, because in reality, it's always difficult to gauge who is actually on the market, and who might be for realsies available, who might only be hypothetically available, and who might be had at a price you didn't think would be available ahead of time. Still, there are enough realistic options we shouldn't get bored considering them anytime soon.
The Import Option -- Byung Ho Park
I wrote about Park last Sunday, giving a fairly full rundown of what I see in him. Too long, didn't read version: I think he's worth an investment, definitely, particularly in light of what a bargain his contract might turn out to be.
I won't go over Park again in great detail here, but suffice it to say I would be thrilled if the Cardinals turned out to be the winning team in the bidding for his services, as that $12.85 million reported posting figure is well below where it was even expected to go. Unfortunately, there appears to be some reasonable belief it was not the Redbirds who won out among the local paper's writing staff, so it's probably all a moot point anyway.
The Boom or Bust Option -- Chris Davis
Are you in the market for the riskiest investment available? Are you the kind of person who likes to drive fast and live faster? Do you hit on seventeen when you're playing blackjack and seventeen year olds the rest of the time? Are internet startup stocks just too damned safe?
Well then, my risk-taking friend, I might just have the investment opportunity of a lifetime for you. His name is Chris Davis.
There's really no question that Davis has probably the highest upside of any potential first base option on the market this offseason, with one longshot possibility I'll cover later the only exception. After all, we've seen already the kind of upside Davis possesses, and it looks like this: .286/.370/.634. That's Davis's 2013 batting line, and it makes the kind of statement that's nearly impossible to argue with. A .421 wOBA and 168 wRC+ are pretty compelling, as well.
Then there's Davis's performance this past season, when he put together a 5.6 WAR campaign on the strength of a 147 wRC+, an even .300 in the ISO column, and 47 home runs. That would certainly look good driving in Matt Carpenter, Jason Heyward, and Matt Holliday, wouldn't it?
Here's the problem: I listed the 2013 and 2015 numbers for Davis. And, admittedly, they're amazing. But in between his 7.0 win 2013 and 5.6 win 2015 was the 2014 campaign, in which Davis hit .196, was a below league average hitter overall, and posted just 0.8 wins above replacement for the season. If you're going to be paying $25 million plus per year for a player, you would generally like to think there's very little chance he's going to give you less than one win of production.
To be fair, that .196 batting average in 2014 was partially driven by an unusually low BABIP of .242, but there's also the fact Davis only hit 26 homers that year in 525 plate appearances, far off his pace in both 2013 and '15. He was hampered by some nagging injuries in 2014 as well, so perhaps there's health to be blamed before simple inconsistency. But the fact remains, we've seen what Chris Davis can do in a great year, but we've also seen what he can do when just a few things don't go his way, and it ain't pretty.
The fact Davis is such an extreme swing and miss hitter (strikeout rate over 30% four of the last five seasons), is largely mitigated by his power and a patient approach at the plate (walk rater better than 10% three years running). He's an excellent defender at first base, also, again helping to pile value on the plate. Still, it's hard to look at that 2014 season and not wonder when the next rough patch might hit.
Davis will play the 2016 season at 30 years old, and his agent is Scott Boras. The threat of such an extreme strikeout approach torpedoing Davis's offensive line in much the same way Mark Reynolds has seen his value consistently hit, combined with the size of the contract it would take to sign him and the other options for the position available, not to mention draft pick compensation attached to Davis that I think the Cardinals value more highly than the general consensus, all make me think it's somewhat doubtful the Redbirds would see the former O's slugger as an ideal option. He would certainly be able to do some damage with the number of high on-base percentage players the Cardinals could stack in front of him, though.
Then again, the Cards already have a version of Chris Davis on their roster, just a slightly less extreme version. His name is Brandon Moss, and he's not costing nearly what Scott Boras is going to demand for his client.
The Possible Bounceback, Possible One Last Hurrah Option -- Mike Napoli
It seems strange that Mike Napoli is now 34 years old and possibly approaching the end of his major league career, but that's where we are. Not that Napoli ever really seemed like that young of a player, mind you; it's just that so much of his career was spent as a part-time catcher in Anaheim that he feels as if he's been a big deal for far less time than you might expect.
Make no bones about it: Mike Napoli was bad in 2015. In 133 games and 469 plate appearances, he was worth just 0.7 wins above replacement, posting a 97 wRC+ as a first baseman and occasional Chris Duncan-level outfielder. (He actually hit so well for the Rangers after being traded they were searching for a way to keep his bat in the lineup, but after seeing him play left field I don't think that will happen ever, ever again.)
So why, you ask, would the Cardinals be interested in a player who was as bad as Napoli last season? Well, because as bad as he was, his .268 BABIP appears to have been the primary culprit; his batted-ball suggests a player who should still be effective at the plate, though certainly not the same thumper he was a few seasons ago. Napoli has also been one of the more patient hitters in baseball since he arrived in Texas in 2011; his lowest walk rate in the time since is 12.2%, which has led to some extraordinary on-base numbers. He also remains an above-average defender at first base, in spite of being physically compromised.
There's also this: in his career, Napoli has crushed left-handed pitching specifically to the tune of a .917 OPS. In 2015, his splits were dramatic: against same-handed pitching, Napoli struggled horribly (.603 OPS), but absolutely demolished lefties (.954 OPS). Given that both Matt Adams and Brandon Moss, two other first base options for the Cards in 2016, bat from the left side, it might be very intriguing to have Mike Napoli as the short side of a platoon.
But what about Stephen Piscotty, I can hear you asking. Well, to be honest, Napoli really only makes sense for the Cardinals, or at least makes the most sense as a platoon option at first, if the Cardinals were to fail to resign Jason Heyward, and Piscotty looked to be getting the majority of his at-bats in the outfield for 2016. In that particular case, moving Piscotty to right field, trading Matt Adams, and signing Napoli to be a platoon partner for Brandon Moss could actually be a very intriguing method of trying to add some offensive firepower.
The primary issue with Napoli is a degenerative hip condition which has limited him in recent seasons; it's why he may be staring down the end of his career relatively soon in spite of being only 34 years old. How many more years he will hold on is tough to say at this point, but considering the situation, one would have to think he may be looking to go somewhere with a somewhat less than full time spot open for him, and potentially on a more reasonable contract as well.
Napoli is probably not a great fit if Piscotty, Moss, and Matt Adams are all in the mix for playing time at first base in 2016. But if things break differently, and the Cardinals were suddenly in the market for a right-handed platoon option there, I think they could do far worse than the patience and still-solid power of Mike Napoli.
The Slightly-Out-Of-the-Box Option -- Ben Zobrist, First Baseman
Ben Zobrist has been one of the best players in baseball for more than half a decade now, and if you were to make a list at any point in the last five years of guys I most wanted to see playing in a Cardinal uniform, he probably would have been in the top three of every list.
Pros: Zobrist remains an extraordinarily patient hitter, and an extraordinarily productive one. He walked more than he struck out in 2015, and overall was a well above-average hitter, posting a 123 wRC+ for the Royals and Athletics. Bottom line, even at 34 years old, Zobrist remains the kind of offensive force you just don't see all that often. He's also one of the most versatile players in the game, and while his defense certainly took a dive by the numbers this past season, it's too early to just accept that he's lost a step or two. Or three or four, actually, looking at how much worse the numbers were.
In this scenario, the Cardinals would essentially be acquiring Zobrist with the idea of converting him to first base, full time, and asking him to transition all of the skills and athleticism that have made him one of the most uniquely valuable defenders in the game over the last handful of years into becoming the best defender he can at just one position. Moving him to first could possibly extend his career, and remember that thing about how good Matt Carpenter might potentially be at first base? That same idea applies in spades here. Zobrist is also a switch-hitter, meaning there would be no need for a platoon partner, freeing up the Cardinals to more liberally use some of their other assets in potential trades.
Cons: Converting Zobrist to just one position would seem to be a waste of his versatility, long one of his biggest strengths, but I personally feel the potential payoff of plus defense and possible stress reduction would be worth that tradeoff. If you're the sort of person who buys into the notion that the Cardinals specifically need more power in their lineup, Zobrist is definitely not going to offer much of a solution there, as he's hit just 12, 10, and 13 homers the last three seasons.
More than anything, there's the simple fact Ben Zobrist is now 34 years old, and every team in baseball is likely to have at least some interest in him. In other words, he's getting old, and he's going to be expensive. Neither one of those are exactly points in his favour.
Still, it's hard to imagine a more intriguing idea, and his bat would fit in perfectly with the overall hitting philosophy of the Cardinals.
And that, literally, is all the free agent options. How about a few trade ideas, hmm?
The "Smooth" Option -- Carlos Santana
I wanted the Cardinals to trade for Carlos Santana this past season, and I admit to assuming he was the player coming back when I heard the Redbirds were sending Rob Kaminsky to the Indians. Alas, it was not to be, and so we are left to contemplate trading for yet another Indians' first baseman, which seems like a strange habit to have.
Pros: Santana gets on base. It's just what he does. The lowest walk rate he's ever posted in the big leagues is 14.5%, which has led to a career .365 on-base percentage, playing almost entirely within this new deadball era in which we find ourselves. Santana also doesn't strike out at some crazily elevated clip, either, as you might expect from such a patient hitter. His career strikeout rate is 18.3%, and he's only once ever broken the 20% mark. (And just barely, at that.) He has above-average power, though not true slugger-level thump, and made significant strides this season defensively at first base. (It was his second season playing more-or-less full time at first, after playing primarily catcher his first few years in the league.)
Cons: So Santana doesn't strike out a huge amount, does walk a huge amount, and has above-average pop in his bat? Why is his offensive value not through the roof?
Because Carlos Santana, in spite of all those very positive things, has managed in his career to hit for just a .245 batting average, consistently held down by what would, on initial inspection, appear to be flukily low BABIPs. The last two seasons, for instance, Santana's BABIPs have been .249 and .261, respectively. So, some bad luck, but he's due to regress upward, right?
Not so fast. Santana's low BABIPs actually appear to be realistic. The reason? He hits an enormous number of infield pop ups. Has his entire career, in fact. It's very strange; everything about Santana's offensive profile suggests a guy who should be laying waste to the league, and then you look and discover his IFFB% in 2015 was close to 20%. It's literally the only thing he really struggles with. He's also a pretty extreme pull hitter, which makes him easily shiftable. Combine the shifts, his well below-average speed, and a ton of infield flies, and you have a recipe for a hitter who can actually sustain a BABIP in the mid-.200s.
I still like Carlos Santana, quite a lot. The Indians seem to perpetually be on the cusp of contention, but still need pieces to put them over the hump. Santana is under contract for 2016 and has an option for 2017, and is very reasonably price. He likely wouldn't be the cheapest acquisition, but could possibly be worth it in a big way. His plate approach and high on-base skills would fit in with the Redbirds the same way Zobrist could, and hey, if Santana ever flukes his way into a .310 BABIP instead of a .250, he might get a few MVP votes at the end of the season.
The Decade-Long Mortgage Option -- Joey Votto
No, we don't know that the Reds and Walt Jocketty would actually be willing to part with Votto. But hey, might as well ask, right?
Pros: Joey Votto is fucking awesome. At pretty much everything, in fact.
Cons: Joey Votto is also signed through 2023, and that's a serious problem. If he were signed through, say...2020, I would be banging the drum to trade for him. But eight years of an enormous contract for a 32 year old first baseman? Yikes. At that point, the Cardinals might as well have just ponied up to keep Albert Pujols, right? Then again, Joey Votto is better than Pujols at this point, by quite a bit, and isn't showing the same kind of troubling signs of decline Albert displayed his last two seasons in St. Louis.
Joey Votto has so much money, and so many years, left on his contract that it feels untradeable. However, in the current financial climate, the $20 million he'll make in 2016 is basically a three-win salary, and the way marginal win prices are going, his $25 million a year beginning in 2018 won't be much more than that either. I don't know what the Reds would want for him, or if the Cards would be willing to take on his whole salary to avoid paying through the nose in talent. And even then, he's probably still not worth it.
Can you imagine?
Honestly, those are probably the only two really intriguing trade possibilities I can think of at the moment, everyone. Milwaukee seems very hesitant to completely tank and sell off Adam Lind, so I doubt that happens. Looking elsewhere in the league, the teams with great first base options seems to have little reason to want to move them. Yonder Alonso remains an enigma in San Diego, or perhaps less an enigma and more just a slap hitter going the Sean Burroughs route right out of the league. The White Sox would want the moon and sun for Jose Abreu, and that's only if they decide they could fleece someone to the point they would be better without him almost immediately. The Yankees would probably be willing to move Mark Teixeira after the emergence of Greg Byrd, but he's old and injury-prone and probably not a great investment, even if only on a one-year deal.
I'm sure there are options I'm missing; players playing out of position in the outfield who really belong at first with the big giant glove or a part-time player capable of bigger and better things I've just failed to notice. But, looking around the league, it becomes quickly apparent there aren't a ton of amazing options just falling out of the sky. Unless, of course, the Cards were, in fact, the winning bidder on Byung-Ho Park, in which case he would be falling out of Korea, rather than the sky.
In other words, ladies and gentlemen, internal seems more likely. But, we'll see.