Not too long ago, the Cardinals were considered by many as a small-market, middle-payroll club. In the last decade (2005-2015), they only cracked the Top 10 in payroll three times (2005, 2012, 2013), and most of the time hovered around the middle of the pack (11-14 overall). Compare with to teams like the New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox, and the Los Angeles Dodgers, and clearly the Cardinals weren't even close to those team's level of spending, and market size.
Soon, that will change.
Thanks to bigger contracts expiring, one of the highest attendants rates in baseball, and the huge T.V deal with Fox Sports Midwest, the Cardinals will now have more payroll muscle than ever before. This is an important step for a team like the Cardinals. Why? Because in order to stay competitive, a team must always have players who are ready, and able, to contribute. This can be achieved through Farm depth (prospects), acquiring players from outside the organization, and retaining the core talent you already have. The money that the Cardinals will get in the next few years, has a chance to help them in all three areas.
Now, of course, this doesn't mean the Front Office will go out and spend big on Free Agents just for the sake of doing it, in fact given the reputation of John Mozeliak and his team, I wouldn't be surprised if the Cards don't bite at one single big name Free Agent in the next several years. But that is apart of their nature to win, and not take big risks.
The point of this piece, however, is to discuss what they could, and possibly should do, with this money. I will propose a topic, analyze it, then tell you what the Cardinals could do with that topic, and take a guess at what they probably would do. And at the end, I'll throw in what I think they should do, given this is an opinion piece after all.
1. Sign pending Free Agent Jason Heyward (RF) to an extension:
This has been talked about an awful lot since the All-Star Break. We're getting closer to the playoffs, which means closer to the offseason, which means the Cardinals, Jason Heyward, and their financial representatives have an important choice to make. First things first. I wrote an article way back during Winter 2014 on a first look at Heyward and how he'll do in STL, and eventually what his fate will be in terms of a future deal. I was very sure he'd sign an extension with the Cardinals, given the teams need for a young cornerstone to take the Outfield helm from Holliday once he is gone or declines, and that he wouldn't cost a ton of money considering his total offensive production. Then this happened:
While the Power may not be where he'd like it (Slugging-wise, also only 11 HRs on the season), everything else has been MVP-worthy and he's absolutely been carrying a light-hitting Cardinals lineup in the second half. At this rate, going into the postseason, that is some of the best news Cardinal fans could hope for out of Heyward. Oh wait, there's bad news? Yes.
There is a reason I haven't bought a Heyward jersey yet. And that is, I'm not confident both sides will reach a deal, given everything that has happened. There are several reasons why. But none more important than this:
He won't be worth to the Cardinals what the Free Agency market will pay him.
The Cardinals have an outfield that consists of a franchise face (Holliday) who is a lock for Left Field for the next few years, two experienced Center Fielders (Jay, Bourjos), who both would be Starters on any other franchise, and then two rising starts (Piscotty, Grichuk) who both look to be Corner Outfielders who hit for power and average. Combine that with the recently acquired Brandon Moss, and Mark Reynolds who hits for power off the bench, there isn't much more room for another OF on the 25-Man Roster. Heyward's value to the Cardinals diminishes when you look at who is already ready to be a starter. Other teams who don't have 3 full-time starters would value Heyward way more, and probably be willing to pay what will probably be a hefty price. Yes he is the best all-around Outfielder on the team, but to the Cardinals, who would have to pay him 20+ million a year, he doesn't bring anything they don't already have. He doesn't hit for Power; Cardinals have Moss, Reynolds and Grichuk who all have the ability to do so. In his career he has shown little consistency with the average; Holliday, Piscotty and Jay have excelled in their professional careers at their batting average. Heyward does have an excellent arm and fields well; But so does Bourjos and Piscotty, as well as two potentially plus defenders with Jon Jay and Randal Grichuk. Just because Heyward has the potential to do all these things in one player, doesn't make him worth what the Yankees, Dodgers, Cubs or Red Sox will potentially offer him. The only way the Cardinals retain him is if they get him for a little bit cheaper, and the trade one or more Outfielders away, and that isn't likely, given that it would actually be cheaper to platoon Jay/Bourjos in CF and Grichuk/Piscotty in RF.
I love Heyward. Great person, tremendous player, exciting to watch. But unless he takes less and truly wants to stay in St. Louis, #22 will have a different occupant in the near future. (Also remember the Cardinals' 2015 First Round Draft pick Nick Plummer, who is a dynamic outfielder who has plus hitting and decent fielding).
2. Sign a pending Free Agent Starting Pitcher:
Kind of weird talking about possibly getting a starting pitcher, when the Cardinals have a historically good pitching staff. But I'm not looking at this year alone. Let's talk about future outlook for notable pitchers on the Cardinals staff:
- Adam Wainwright: Coming off Achilles injury, which can be a definite uphill battle. He needs to take his recovery slow, even if he says he'll be ready be October (Look what happened to Ryan Howard after his Achilles injury). Even after Waino comes back, who knows if he'll still be a legitimate 'Ace' or return to form as a top of the rotation pitcher. He turned 34 in August, and it's likely he may not gain all of his momentum back until midway through next season, and that's when he'll be 35, and most pitchers don't age well past that mark.
- Lance Lynn: Everyone talks about Lynn being an underrated pitcher, so much to the point of where he's not so underrated anymore. He is a very solid pitcher, one that has a good amount of strikeouts and innings pitched every year. Biggest problem for him? He's in his age 28 season, about to be arbitration eligible, and he has regressed this year in several key areas. For one, he is throwing his fastballs at the lowest velocity since his rookie year. That isn't too good for a player who is supposed to be in his prime. Also, he is on pace for his lowest strikeouts and innings pitched in his last three years. And though his ERA is at it's lowest, those other three areas concern me for a pitcher at age 28. I don't think Lynn will be a pitcher who you can depend on as he ages. If he doesn't have his velocity and durability, he isn't going to be consistent. But because of arbitration, he will be getting a significant pay raise. And once he reaches his Free Agency year in 2018, he may be too costly for a pitcher who isn't truly a #1 pitcher.
- John Lackey: He has been a great value this year, specifically because he is pitching for the league minimum (approximately $500,00). That's great for this year. But if the Cardinals want to keep him, they'd have to spend way more than league minimum to keep him. On top of that, he'd want a multi-year deal, and for a pitcher who turns 37 in October, that may not be a great move.
- Carlos Martinez & Michael Wacha: I've combined both of them because they are sort of in the same boat. Both young. Both in a breakout year. Both have very high potentials. Obviously, either of them, or both, could be Cy Young award winners in the future. The problem with that is, they both still have some growing to do. But that's fine, considering by the start of the 2016 season, they'll both only be 24 years old. But in the meantime, the Cardinals shouldn't rely on those two alone to anchor the rotation starting next year. They may not of achieved enough of their potential then to be Aces.
- Jaime Garcia: Honestly? He probably has the best stuff on the staff after Wainwright. When he pitches, he is lights out, and if he ever put together a consistent season, he'd be a natural contender for the Cy Young award. Of course though, I don't remember a month where he hasn't suffered at least on injury. Although he has an option for the 2016 season worth $11.5 MM, which the Cardinals will should pick up, he obviously isn't dependably for 30 starts a year. Heck, Cardinals would be happy to get just half of that a year.
So what does this all mean? It wouldn't hurt for the Cardinals to sign another top of the rotation starting pitcher, to help bolster them to another World Series run after this year. And boy oh boy would this be the offseason to do it.
This offseason's FA pitchers consist of the following (age is during 2016 season):
- Jordan Zimmermann, 30 years old
- Jeff Samardzija, 31 years old
- David Price, 30 years old
- Tim Lincecum, 32 years old
- Mike Leake, 28 years old
- Mat Latos, 28 years old
- Scott Kazmir, 32 years old
- Zack Greinke, 32 years old (Probably will opt out)
- Yovani Gallardo. 30 years old
- Doug Fister, 32 years old
- Johnny Cueto, 30 years old (Though I'd bet my life Cardinals wouldn't pursue him)
That's just naming the ones I thought were notable. There are many more pitchers that will be available, and some of those listed aren't Aces, but have the chance to be.
Point being, it would be advantageous to go after one of these pitchers to pair with Wainwright at the top for a formidable 1-2 punch. Which could then be followed by a 3-4 punch of Wacha and Martinez. Cardinals could go big and sign a pitcher like David Price to really add some firepower. Or go a bit smaller like a Tim Lincecum or a Mike Leake. Either way, I'm sure Cardinals will at least extend a conversation with some of these pitchers, and see if there is a fit between them. My take on it? I don't think Mozeliak really wants to spend big on a pitcher with a 3 in the first digit of his age. Also given next year Cardinals will for sure have Wainwright, Lynn, Wacha and Martinez, (with Garcia probably filling out the final spot), there isn't a do or die move needed in the rotation. That being said, Waino could decline, Lynn might be eclipsing, Wacha/Martinez aren't aces yet, and Jaime Garcia will probably throw his arm out during a spring training game. So I do expect Cardinals to spend money on a starting pitcher, just as an insurance. Names that I would look out for: Mike Leake, Yovani Gallardo, Scott Kazmir.
3. Sign or Acquire a 1st Baseman:
Lets be real, Cardinals have had somewhat of a vacancy ever since Pujols left. Lance Berkman got injured in 2012, and was older anyway. Allen Craig was solid for a couple years, but never was a true First Basemen. And this year, Mark Reynolds was played too much at First, which is partially a reason why he'll hit less than 20 HRs for the first time since 2007. Recently acquired Brandon Moss has the chance to play at 1B next year, but he is very similar to Reynolds. Definitely will hit for power, but will strikeout a ton. That brings us to Matt Adams.
By some people in the Front Office, Adams is looked at as a mainstay if he's healthy. Others, not so much. His biggest criticism is that he doesn't generate enough power for his position, which is a valid point. But then others will argue and say if he tries to hit for too much power he'll sacrifice his average. Either way, it wouldn't be surprising if the Cardinals decide to go get a more defined First Basemen this winter, wether it be through trade or the FA market. Like always, let me break down some of the options:
Chris Davis: Davis will be a Free Agent once the postseason concludes. And with power and offense at a low point, his services will be at a premium. At the beginning of the season though, it didn't seem like he'd be as sought after as he once was due to a horrible 2014 season, and also his suspension just in time for the Orioles postseason run. But look what he's done this year:
This year, his power has been pretty consistent. He posted decent power in the first half, but really broke through during the second half of the season. In ever category except strikeouts, he has improved, and if there was a second half MVP award for the American League, I'm not sure who else could top him. I mean there is a possibility he could hit 50 HRs this year (Although it's more likely he'll end up around the 45 mark).
Of course, however, this means he will get a pretty nice contract, even with all the strikeouts he'll put up. And for a player who doesn't turn 30 till right before the 2016 regular season, Cardinals could comfortably sign him to a 3-5 year deal. Now it is relatively risky to give a big contract to any power hitter. Why? Because if he loses his power, he doesn't have much else. I don't see Davis' .293 BA in the second half being a standard for him. But, Cardinals have the ability to take that risk. Also the upside is huge. Cardinals have lacked a consistent source of power besides Matt Holliday, and he might be trending downward. To plug a First Basemen like Davis in the lineup in the 4 or 5 hole, would give a huge boost to the Cardinals' run production, which we all know needs some type of realignment. And it probably would cost less than trying to resign Jason Heyward
Another option, granted it is less likely, comes from another First Basemen from inside the division, Joey Votto.
Joey Votto: Yes I know right about know you are rolling your eyes. And for the most part, I agree. But there are a couple of key factors that make me think that there will be some kind of conversation kicked around in the future.
For one, Votto, even though he's had a bounce back season posting a monstrous .461 OBP and a .562 SLG (1.022 OPS), his value has decreased ever since he's signed his extension, and the Reds know it won't get much better. Because of his age, they might want to maximize value as soon as this winter, as he turns 32 before the season concludes. This leads me into my second point. The second that contract was signed, the Reds knew it was a mistake. 10 years for a player who was turning 30 when he signed it isn't exactly a smart decision. Even back in 2011 there was rumors of the Reds shopping Votto around, so I'd bet money that they are looking at numerous ways to get out under the contract. Combine that with Votto's inevitable decline, they'll need to attempt a trade ASAP if they want to see any positivity out of it. And considering the Reds are on the precipice of rebuilding, Votto may want out more than ever.
So why would the Cardinals even want to entertain this thought? Because it could be a bargain.
Though First Basemen do decline, like all other players, they stay in better shape for longer because it isn't as physically demanding as other position such as Catcher, Pitcher, SS ect. That means you probably wouldn't be seeing a sharp decline, nor such an early decline. Also, Votto as a player is still a premium. High contact, high average, high on-base skills, and a solid defender? Why wouldn't that be sought after?
Oh yeah... The 192 Million still remaining on that contract. But, there are ways to get around that.
In most deals, there is a specific balance on talent and money traded between any two teams. For example: Team A wants a player with a sizable contract, but doesn't want to give up good prospects/talent to acquire him. So Team B will take lesser prospects, on the agreement that the team acquiring the player will pay for most of the contract. Now there is the opposite. This is similar to what the Phillies did in the Cole Hamel trade. Team A has talent, but doesn't have enough money to pay for this players contract, so in order to get better prospects, Team B sends a decent amount of money in exchange. Every deal is somewhere on that sliding scale, and this deal wouldn't be any different.
Cardinals and the Reds could come to some agreement where Votto is acquired for a decent package, but Cardinals pay for a sizable amount of the contract. Let's say the pay for 2/3 of the contract. Once you break it down, that is about 16 Million a year for the rest of Votto's contract. It compares similarly to the amount Matt Holliday is getting payed at the hight of his contract. Now, rightly so, you're probably thinking that is still not good for an aging player. But, put it into perspective. That would be cheaper than spending money on a Free Agent in today's market. And once again it would be for a player who's bat is still very capable, and at a position that doesn't decline as much as others.
Yes, this probably won't happen. The likelihood of the Cardinals wanting to trade Matt Adams to make room and/or Alex Reyes or Stephen Piscotty as part of a package to get Votto from a division rival, is slim at best. But if the Cardinals wanted an impact First Basemen who they certainly could afford because of the money they have, this would be a surefire way to do that.
Will the Cardinals go get a First Basemen? Probably not this offseason. Considering they have Moss, and will likely want to give Matt Adams an opportunity to claim 1st for himself, I see them standing pat for the next year. If they do, these are the names to look for: Adam Lind, Corey Hart, Sean Rodriguez.
I've saved the best for last, as it's also the most likely to happen. But who and when we'll get theirs, is the bigger question. First things first, let's see where the notable Cardinals are eligible for Free Agency.
- Kolten Wong: Free Agent in 2020
- Matt Adams: Free Agent in 2019
- Michael Wacha: Free Agent in 2020
- Kevin Siegrist: Free Agent in 2020
- Trevor Rosenthal: Free Agent in 2019
- Stephen Piscotty: Free Agent in 2021
- Carlos Martinez: Free Agent in 2020
- Lance Lynn: Free Agent in 2018
- Randal Grichuk: Free Agent in 2021
- Jaime Garcia: Two club options in 2016 and 2017. Free Agent in 2018.
Naturally I left Yadier Molina, Matt Holliday, Adam Wainwright (ect.), off because they are players who have already reached Free Agency in the past. Anyway, what is the common theme with those players listed? 2020 is a big year for Cardinal Free Agents. The Front Office will definitely have to take a long look at these players and determine who is worthy of an extension and at one point. Obviously some of these players will be extended, some won't.
Out of all those players, I think there are only four who the Cardinals won't sign extensions with. And those are Kevin Siegrist, Jaime Garcia, Lance Lynn, and Matt Adams.
Let's start with Siegrist. He has had a good year, just like most of the Cardinals' pitching staff. But, if your following the Cardinals lately, you'll notice he's struggled quite a bit. Combine that with the fact that the easiest thing in baseball to find is a bullpen arm, and I don't think he'll stick around as he hits FA, maybe for lack of ability, maybe for lack of need. I just don't see it. Next is Garcia. Like I said he's great when healthy, but he's rarely healthy. My guess is Cardinals will exercise his options for the next two seasons, and then barring a miraculous run of health, let him walk. These are where it gets a little harder to determine. Lance Lynn is good, and is for the most part is everything you want as an MLB pitcher. But that's exactly what will make him so attractive to other teams in the FA market. On top of that, like I said, I don't like where he is trending in certain areas. In the next few years he'll be going through arbitration, and the closer he gets to FA, the higher the price, and I don't think the Cardinals will want to pay him near the amount the open market will pay a Starting Pitcher. Cardinals might just want to develop or trade for another pitcher rather than extend Lynn. And then you have Matt Adams. He's still young, just turned 27. But that's when you want to see a player enter his prime. This next year will be Adams' biggest of his career, because it probably determines wether or not he'll take over as a full-time First Basemen, and if he's actually capable of putting it all together in MLB. That being said, I don't think he will. Call me a pessimist, but I don't think he'll do that. He might hit for average, but I don't know if he can hit anymore than 15 HRs while keeping a high average. Naturally, this is just a gut reaction, and he could easily come back and win a Silver Slugger. But if he doesn't, and he gets towards FA, the Cardinals may not pursue an extension.
Naturally, everything I've said is an estimation. Baseball is a crazy sport, that I've never seen go the way sportscaster said it should. Especially with a team like the Cardinals, having extra payroll muscle is key. It will allow them to keep their window to contend open for many more years than they would without it. Here, I just tried to layout some ways in which they could. We all know the Cardinals are more conservative, however. Rarely do they spend big dollars on players, unless they are homegrown. And if I had to put money on it, I'd bet that 90% of their money will go towards extending talent they already have, with a few complimentary signings and trades here and there. But, given we are coming upon a Free Agent market with a plethora of Top of the Rotation pitchers, I wouldn't be surprised if they do sign one of them. Or go the way of picking up a power bat like Chris Davis. Only time will tell, but for all the excitement that the Cardinals have brought us, there should be plenty more to come because of the cash influx.