Well folks, we've lost out on Jason Heyward, and David Price. The question is, what next? Some will suggest that the Cardinals pursue "plan B" free agent options such as Alex Gordon. Others are suggesting a trade designed to help the cardinals re-load, such as trading for Carlos Gonzalez. I do not want the Cardinals to pursue either options. Instead, I believe that the Cardinals should come to grips with the fact that 2016 and 2017 are years in which they are not likely to win the World Series, and should re-tool their roster for a strong push in 2018 and beyond.
The Cardinals, as currently constructed, almost certainly will not win the World Series in 2016 and 2017
Yes, the Cardinals won 100 games last year. They have dominated the division for years, and have been a mainstay in October baseball for a decade plus. However, there are several reasons to be pessimistic at their chances for success in the near term.
1. As many have pointed out (I've only linked to a Grantland piece but you are free to google others) they performed unsustainably well with in several situational stats that, while one could always argue are part of the amorphous "Cardinal way" I'm more inclined to attribute to "luck."
2. They no longer have a 6.0 WAR outfielder in Jason Heyward.
3. In 2016 they will not have Lance Lynn. They have also lost John Lackey from their starting rotation.
4. Their remaining starting rotation consists of several players who would have to be considered high injury risks at this point. Wainwright is old and missed almost all of last y ear with a torn achilles. Michael Waccha has a serious shoulder condition that could rear its ugly head. Jamie Garcia is an obvious injury risk. Even the beloved El Gallo has yet to prove that he can withstand the grind of a full MLB season. Marco Gonzalez was injured all of last year. Tim Cooney has never pitched more than 118 innings in a season.
5. Several key positional players are also significant injury risks at this point including Matt Holiday, and Yadier Molina. Tommy Pham also has a significant history of injury. Several other key players are over 30 including Perralta, Carpenter, and Moss. These players would have to be considered above average injury risks in light of their escalating ages. While I'm not really sure I'd consider them more prone to injury than anyone else, I'll also just throw it out there that both Matt Adams, and Randall Grichuk missed significant chunks of last season with injuries.
6. The Cubs are looking like a clear 100-win team. The Pirates also loom large. Winning the division will be an extremely tall task. Playing in the wild-card game essentially cuts your odds of advancing through the crapshoot of postseason baseball in half.
The 2018 Free Agent Market is going to be historically strong; and the Cardinals are far better positioned than the Cubs to exploit that market
Potential free agents in 2018 include: Bryce Harper, Clayton Kershaw, Jose Fernandez, Josh Donaldson, Matt Harvey, Dallas Keuchel, Manny Machado, Pollock, McCutchen, Arietta, and Brantley. These players have all seen the massive paydays that lesser stars (of which I would include Heyward) have received, and are unlikely to re-sign prior to hitting the free agent market.
In 2018 the Cardinals currently are currently committed only to Adam Wainwright, Matt Carpenter, and Jedd Gyorko. Meanwhile, the Cubs have made massive investments in John Lester, Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist. All of their resources will likely be devoted to trying to keep Jake Arietta. They will also be forced into arbitration with guys like Kris Bryant, Addison Russel, Baez, and Schwarber--all likely to significantly add to their payroll. It would be shocking if they were able to significantly improve their team in the 2018 free agency market.
Thus, 2018 poses a unique opportunity for the Cardinal Empire to strike back, as it were and land a player of greater value than Jason Heyward.
Conclusion: Retool and Plan for 2018
So what would retooling with an eye to truly push the Cubbies in 2018 and beyond look like?
1. I think the team should invest heavily in Carlos Martinez as its future ace and sign him to a club friendly extension now, which hopefully can hopefully buy several additional years of control (currently El Gallo is scheduled to become a free agent in 2020) in return for paying him a slightly reduced market rate. They should look to do the same with Rosenthal and Kolten Wong (who still has star potential in my mind). Extending this core through, say 2022 would be a great start to what 2018 might look like.
2. Consider trading Matt Holiday for established prospects. Similarly, focus considerable time and energy into scouting the futures of Matt Adams, Randal Grichuk--and consider trading these players for higher upside prospects a year or two away from being MLB ready.
3. Focus on lower ceiling, higher floor, MLB ready prospects (rather than higher potential projects) in this year's draft and in next year's draft. The goal is to fill in several additional 2018 roster spots with above average talent.
4. Avoid the temptation to invest in lesser free agents who, at this point, I do not think will put us over the hump relative to the Cubs, and who will prevent our ability to be players in 2018 (and perhaps even to resign guys like El Gallo and Wong).
5. Do not trade away prospects for stop gap measures like CarGo with impending free agencies. We just saw that Jason Heyward left after we traded significant future value to acquire him. Cargo is a free agent after the 2017 season. While we would get an additional year out of him compared to Heyward--there would be pressure to spend money on him in 2017--which can better be spent in 2018. Additionally, the prospects we would trade to acquire him would be useful come 2018.
Thanks for reading.