clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The great free agent outfield debate continues for the Cardinals

With Justin Upton and Yoenis Cespedes still on the market, the question of whether the Cardinals should get in on the action persists.

Jon Durr/Getty Images

Another week has passed, and still two of the very best free agents remain on the market. Yoenis Cespedes and his 35-homers and nearly seven wins above replacement in 2016 are still out there. Justin Upton and his three straight seasons of 25 home runs and a wRC+ above 120 are available, just waiting for the right offer. The only other players to reach those marks in each of the last three years besides Upton are David Ortiz, Edwin Encarnacion, Jose Bautista, and Mike Trout. Depending on who you ask, the Cardinals might be a good fit.

Because the Cardinals entered the offseason trying to sign an outfielder. Because the Cardinals seemed to want to improve an average offense. Because a new billion-dollar television deal is about to kick in, and because Matt Holliday's $17 million per year contract runs out at the end of this season, the Cardinals stay in the discussion when it comes to needing an outfielder. Cardinals General Manager John Mozeliak is cautious in his approach, but does not rule anything out.

"There may be times when something becomes available that makes sense for us to pursue," Mozeliak acknowledged. "I don't think anybody upstairs is closing the book on anything, but I would also caution people to understand we're not hotly pursuing anything, either. We're following markets. We're paying attention. And if it leads us to something, great. But we're certainly comfortable going in with what we have."

Chris Davis is out there, too, but the $150 million offer to return to the Orioles seems much to rich for a slugging first baseman in his 30s. As for the outfielders, there is a range of opinions on what the Cardinals should be doing. Ken Rosenthal, with Fox Sports tends to agree with Mozeliak. In a recent column, he attempted to shoot down the necessity that the Cardinals should make a move, citing the strength of the roster as it stands. He notes that the anymove could hamper the development of Piscotty or leave Moss without a significant role. Finally, he cites Mo's m.o. and lack of panic.

The Cardinals never panic when constructing their roster; people within the industry routinely laud general manager John Mozeliak for staying disciplined. Mozeliak will jump on a remaining free agent only if he views the price as too good to ignore. And if the team stumbles, he can react before the July 31 non-waiver deadline, when he normally does some of his best work.

There are a few things to unpack there, but Dave Cameron takes care of one of them, providing a counterpoint to waiting in season.

the in-season trade market is dramatically different than the offseason free-agent market. The obvious difference is that trading for a player requires giving up talent from the organization's stockpile. But beyond that, there's a pretty significant supply problem at the trade deadline these days. In this day and age of parity literally every single team in the American League is trying to win this year there just aren't that many teams willing to unload significant pieces of value during the year anymore.

Cameron went on to question whether the team really needed to create at bats for Moss and Adams, and advocated spending $125 million on the outfielders. Dayn Perry listed the Cardinals as a team that would be a good fit for Upton and Cespedes, and while Mozeliak focuses on the positive aspects of the Cardinals in-house options, Perry warns of the pitfalls.

They're still a good team, but their unspectacular offense could use a free agent jolt. Matt Holliday turns 35 this month and is coming off an injury-compromised 2015. Randal Grichuk hasn't proved he's able to stay healthy over the course of a full major-league season. Stephen Piscotty's power performance may not be sustainable.

As for the playing time question, I discussed that a week ago.

Consider the Cardinals corner outfield and first base situation at present. There are currently 2100 plate appearances to divide between Stephen Piscotty, Matt Holliday, Brandon Moss, and Matt Adams. Let's assume no injuries and we give 600 plate appearances to Matt Holliday and 600 plate appearances to an outside acquisition. That leaves 900 plate appearances for Piscotty, Moss, and Adams. Regardless of how they divide them up, each player should have the opportunity to prove himself and no player will have his development hindered, particularly in Piscotty's case.

At one time this offseason, it was believed that once Jason Heyward signed, the outfield market would shape up behind him. Alex Gordon took a while, but he eventually signed, returning to the Royals. Gerardo Parra and Denard Span have signed, but those guys are in a tier lower. Dexter Fowler is still available as well, but he fits well below Cespedes and Upton.

At this point, I'd be remiss if I did not mention Tommy Pham, who appears to get short shrift in most of these discussions about the Cardinals outfield. He has injury concerns of his own, and he is not young, having had his development delayed by those injuries. However, he can hit and he can play center field, and deserves a lot of playing time this year.

I think Upton, two years younger with a more consistent track record than Cespedes, is likely a better bet to provide a return on value long term. Upton does cost a draft pick, something the Cardinals have been loathe to give up, especially if the rumbling about hacking punishment leads to picks being taken away. My target for the Cardinals is still around $120 million for Upton and $100 million for Cespedes. We do not yet know what kind of offers they have on the table, or if they are still seeking considerably more than that.

The Cardinals payroll is already a fairly robust $140 million. Signing an outfielder might necessitate expanding the payroll more than the Cardinals planned this year. Trading Moss is an option as well. The free agent market does not look good next year, and this could be the Cardinals best opportunity to upgrade the team. There is only so much longer we can repeat, if the price goes down, if the price goes down, if the price goes down...If the price had gone down, Cespedes and Upton would have signed by now. Until the price does go down, or somebody's offer goes up, the great outfield debate marches on.