After failing to make the playoffs for the first time since 2010, it is clear that the St. Louis Cardinals need to upgrade the roster for the 2017 season. With the postseason still in its very early stages (congratulations to the Blue Jays on being the first team to reach their league’s Championship Series), most potential transactions are nothing more than speculation at this point.
That being said, we have a decent grasp on what the Cardinals intend to do internally. Matt Holliday’s $17 million option will not be exercised (which in turn will require a mere $1 million buyout). Seung Hwan Oh’s 2017 option has already vested since he met the threshold for 30 games finished this season. The Jaime Garcia $12 million option ($500,000 buyout) is a bit cloudier, and if John Mozeliak is showing his true hand, the organization may soon be parting ways with the 30-year-old lefty. We don’t yet know the future of the qualifying offer as we know it, but there is a nonzero chance Brandon Moss returns to St. Louis next season.
A position not addressed in the paragraph above is center field. As already reported at the St. Louis Post Dispatch, Mozeliak understands the importance of upgrading at the position — especially from a defensive standpoint. Regarding the incumbent center fielder (Randal Grichuk), you can pretty much ignore all defensive metrics associated with his time in center (positive DRS, negative UZR) because, frankly, the sample isn’t big enough to be taken seriously.
However, there are two concrete things we do know about Grichuk’s first full season manning Jim Edmonds’ old post. He often displayed a slow, misjudged first step (StatCast, when its bells and whistles are rolled out fully, will help quantify this qualitative assessment) on his routes, and he was inconsistent, at best, with his throwing arm. At times, he flashed good arm strength while other times he seemed confused on where to throw the ball, leading to two or three hoppers to the throw’s destination. Now, this is not meant to be a total knock on Grichuk as he made some outstanding catches and could still be at least average in center, but there is a better chance for him to be above-average (or even better) in left — a position vacated by Holliday.
Enter Ender Inciarte, center fielder of the Atlanta Braves. Earlier this morning, our own Alex Crisafulli made a solid case for signing Dexter Fowler as the 30-year-old switch hitter does indeed check a lot of boxes. And full disclosure, I would not be in the least bit upset if the Cardinals went the Fowler route (yet, he will demand quite the contract, given the free agent market). However, with it being October 10th, I am choosing to shoot a little higher with Inciarte. “Higher” can be seen as a bit subjective here because it cannot be denied that Fowler has been a significantly better hitter than Inciarte up to this point in their respective careers (110 wRC+ versus 95).
However, I believe Inciarte is a far superior defender to Fowler. Sure, Fowler had a bounce-back year defensively, but again, one-year defensive metrics are tricky, and though he may have figured something out regarding positioning, he is on the wrong side of 30 while Inciarte will be entering his age-26 season in 2017.
The next point of comparison is base-running. Since becoming a full-time player in 2009, Fowler (27.1 BsR) ranks in the top-30 of Major League Baseball in BsR — FanGraphs’ all-encompassing base-running statistic. Inciarte, who became a full-time player in 2014, has not been as effective on the bases as Fowler but still checks in between “above-average” and “great.” Factor in age, just as I just did with defense, and it would not be unreasonable to believe that Inciarte will grade out as the better base-runner going forward.
Let’s return to offense for a moment. While Inciarte has technically been five percentage points below average for his career (hence, the 95 wRC+), his low strikeout rate (11.3%) along with his above-average on-base percentage (.337) make him an attractive addition to a slugging Cardinals lineup. The fact that he bats left-handed is a plus in order to keep the Cardinals outfield from becoming all right-handed, and his 1,169 plate appearances at leadoff certainly cannot hurt.
When you combine all of the characteristics described above with the fact that Inciarte is under team control until 2021, you have a really valuable player. Subsequently, valuable players with years of team control demand significant trade packages. Unfortunately, Mozeliak and the Cardinals are not dealing with Dave Stewart and the Diamondbacks, either. That being said, I truly believe the farm system and current 40-man roster have the pieces necessary to get an Inciarte deal done (I’d build a deal around Luke Weaver). And no, I do not think it will require a package that will ultimately decimate the farm, but at the same time, it will not be the bargain the Braves received when sending Shelby Miller westward.
Bottom line, regardless of the proposed target, I hope the Cardinals are serious about improving in center field. We will find out soon enough.