Okay, so here’s the thing: the St. Louis Cardinals need to get better.
Actually, maybe that’s not the thing; perhaps we should take a slightly different approach to that.
Okay, so here’s the thing: the St. Louis Cardinals need to have a better season in 2017 than they did in 2016. After all, it’s not even the middle of October yet, and El Birdos have not played a game of baseball in a week and a half. That’s not an acceptable situation, and so it’s clear that the Redbirds are going to need to have a better season, with a higher win total, in 2017 than they did this year.
Now, it’s fair to look at what the Cardinals did this past season, project some better luck in sequencing and the like, a little better luck with health (can’t have an epidemic of broken hands due to Andrew Cashner every year), expect the defense to be a little less porous and the baserunning to be a little less disastrous, and say that they should be able to roll out the same roster in ‘17 and get better results. I could throw the old definition of insanity line about same process different results out at you, but there really are legitimate reasons to think the results with the exact same process should go slightly better.
However, if one wishes to have a better season, the best way to try and achieve that is to have a better team. After all, better teams more often have better seasons than bad teams (the 2016 Texas Rangers being one of those edge cases that really stretches belief), and so having a better team should, ipso facto, result in better seasons most of the time.
Here’s the other thing: this particular Cardinal roster looks really, really hard to actually upgrade. I’ve written before about how brilliant and beautiful the upgrades to the roster were in 2014 and 2015. The ~5 win upgrade from Pete Kozma in 2013 to Jhonny Peralta in 2014. The ~8 win upgrade from the Allen Craig/Oscar Taveras/Randal Grichuk chimaera in 2014 to Jason Heyward’s all-around excellence in 2015.
The problem, in a nutshell, with the 2016 Cardinals when it comes to improving them, is that there are not huge areas of need on the roster. Now, that could easily be seen as a positive, because it is. Not having huge gaping holes on your roster is pretty great. The downside? All of your upgrades are going to start from a higher floor, are going to represent smaller overall jumps, and are correspondingly going to feel more expensive, in spite of the talent being the same. Basically, picking up a four win solution over a replacement-level situation nets you four wins, and that feels great. Picking up a four win solution over a 2.2 win situation costs the same, because you’re still acquiring a four win solution, but it only nets you twoish wins, and that feels much more costly.
However, that doesn’t mean there are no areas of opportunity; in fact, there are several. The club will not improve in all of the areas in which they have some opportunity, but they probably don’t need to. Just one or two upgrades would make a huge difference for the Cardinals, because they are at exactly the point on the win curve where every bit of value added is absolutely huge. When you’re a 95+ win team, additional wins don’t matter that much. When you’re a <80 win team, extra wins might actually be detrimental, since they push you further down in the draft. But from about 82 to about 92 wins, you want to scratch and claw and fight for every extra win you can manage, since going from 84 wins to 87 represents a huge jump in your expected playoff odds. The Redbirds are right in that sweet spot.
With all that in mind, both the importance of the potential upgrades and the likely difficulty and high cost of any potential upgrades, let’s take a look at the positions the Cardinals could make those upgrades, shall we?
Note: I’m only going to be focusing on the positional side of things, as that side of the ball offers varied opportunities and tactical moves. On the pitching side, every upgrade is more linear, simply pushing the line back one spot, and so less interesting.
If you’re looking for a potential offensive centerpiece player, this would seem to be the primary option. After all, major league first basemen generally get to the majors based on their bats, and so if you’re looking for a big bat, first base isn’t a bad place to start the search.
A big move at first would hinge on a couple things: one, either keeping Matt Carpenter over at third base, or moving him to second full time, and two, moving on from Matt Adams. The latter seems fairly easy and obvious at this point; Adams has pretty much proven he’s never going to be a real plus as a starting first baseman in the league, no matter how many times the broadcast team wants to tell us how much they love seeing what he does with everyday at-bats. The former, though, is a bit more problematic. Defensively, the ideal solution for Matt Carpenter is probably first base; his weak arm is hidden there, and the fact he’s lost a step in terms of range since 2014 should really make him a not-attractive option at second.
The other issue with the first base option is, well, options. As in, there kind of aren’t any. Looking at the free agent list, Mike Napoli is pretty clearly the best player available this offseason. And while Mike Napoli certainly still has his selling points — I stumped for Napoli this past offseason, thinking he would be a perfect right-handed power bat platoon partner for Adams or Brandon Moss — with plus power being the number one box he checks, along with a still-solid walk rate, he’s also closing in on 35 years old, has slowed down considerably in the field, and has seen his strikeouts balloon the last couple years. After him, the next best option is....Adam Lind, maybe? A buy-low candidate coming out of Seattle, perhaps. Or Mitch Moreland? Ick, no. Dae-ho Lee is set to be a free agent if the Mariners don’t re-up with him.
You get the picture. The market, she is grim.
On the trade market side, things aren’t a whole lot better, honestly. Barring a sudden reversal of Joey Votto’s public stated position of not wanting to leave Cincinnati, potential impact bats at first are pretty thin on the ground. Honestly, the best course of action to upgrade first base, to my mind, is to upgrade across the diamond and put Marp here permanently. (Please, someone come up with a better nickname than Marp. It sounds like someone trying not to throw up.)
If, in fact, Matt Carpenter is moved off third base long term, then this probably becomes one of the biggest opportunities for the club. That being said, there’s a decent option in-house, as third would seem to be Jedd Gyorko’s best spot as a starter, although I still prefer him as the do-everything infielder who brings thunder off the bench to an everyday starter. Still, he looked very solid defensively at third in 2016, and if you believe in the offensive production (probably not 30 home runs again, but perhaps 20-25 with a slightly better BABIP and maybe some more doubles to make up for the lost dingers), you could squint and see a 115 wRC+ hitter with defense in the neutral to +5 runs kind of neighbourhood. That’s not bad. It’s also a prime example of that thing I said earlier, about the upgrades having high floors that are going to make them seem really expensive.
On the free agent market, there’s one really good option at third, and that’s Justin Turner of the Dodgers. After being one of the more intriguing part-time players in baseball the last two seasons, Turner got his chance at a starting job in 2016 and responded with a five and a half win season. Great, right? Well, hold on. That huge WAR figure is based on a flukey high defensive rating, and while I do think Turner is a good defender at the hot corner, he’s not +17 runs good, I don’t believe. He’s also going to be 32 soon, so you’re not buying the best years possible.
I also seem to remember there being a fair amount of evidence that late blooming players tend to have short peaks, so there’s another data point we might need to include in the calculus. Then again, he’s a late blooming Dodger with hideous hair and an equally atrocious beard, so it seems likely he’s just infield Jayson Werth.
The trade market is much more intriguing. Evan Longoria is the big eye-catching name, as the Rays seem likely to move their long time third sacker as part of their rebooting process. Longoria is 31 and coming off a 4.5 win season, so he’s still pretty good. That being said, the defense has definitely fallen off, and while he rebounded to put up big offensive numbers this year, he’s a much different kind of hitter now than he was once upon a time. He’s become much more of a low-OBP slugger type (or at least he was this season), and I wonder how that profile is going to age going forward. He’s signed through 2022, so it would be a long-term investment, and the Rays are a huge pain in the ass to trade with, from most of what we hear.
After Longoria, the names become a little less obvious. If one could talk Seattle into kickstarting their latest needed rebuild/reboot by moving Kyle Seager, he’s one of the few players in baseball for whom I would include Alex Reyes, without a second thought. A team might bet on being able to finally figure out how to get Jurickon Profar to where we all thought he would be by now. A club willing to trade with the Cubs could shoot for Javier Baez. Todd Frazier could be a buy-low rebound candidate from the White Sox, but that seems risky, and the Sox surely understand how quickly he could regain all his lost value with some simple BABIP regression upward. (Actually, his season ended up even better than I realised; he’s maybe a slight buy-low guy, but barely.)
For my money, my favourite potential upgrade at third could come via the international market, where the Cardinals are rumoured to be heavily involved in the pursuit of Lourdes Gurriel, the younger brother of Yulieski. That’s really a subject deserving of its own future post, though, so I’ll leave that topic on the table for now.
If the club is really serious about improving their defense, and believe the best way to do so is from the middle outward, they could choose to focus on shortstop. As it stands now, Aledmys Diaz would seem to have a firm grip on the job, but he was also shaky, to be kind, in the field at times in 2016. It seems impossible the club would actually move him in a deal, though, so he’s almost certainly somewhere on the 2017 roster. Moving him to second base would be my preferred option, but that would also necessitate a move of Kolten Wong elsewhere, and considering Wong’s defensive acumen that feels like a lateral move in terms of the defense, at best. The club could also consider shifting Diaz to third base, but considering the majority of his defensive issues involved throwing, I don’t feel like that’s going to be a markedly better position for him than short.
Basically, though, if you’re talking about a defensive upgrade at shortstop, you’re talking about a trade for Andrelton Simmons. The Angels desperately need to move any and all assets they possess not named Mike Trout (and maybe him, too), and Simmons is probably the best chit they hold. Simmons has shown virtually zero power the last few years, but has become a very good contact hitter along the way, with sub-10% strikeout rates three of the last four years. In other words, he’s a 1980s number two hitter, and plays defense at shortstop like no one else in the game.
Aside from Simmons, that move for Profar I mentioned a moment ago could impact shortstop instead of third base, if the club felt he was a better fit for that position and chose to move Diaz off. Beyond that, it’s tough to see clubs with quality shortstops who are motivated to move them.
Randal Grichuk was not a disaster in center this season, but he also wasn’t all that good. Probably somewhere around average. And really, that’s fine; Grichuk in center is not a huge issue. But, if the Cardinals want to focus on run prevention upgrades, trying to make center into a runs saved machine and moving Grichuk over to a corner could be a nice solution.
The free agent market — stop me if you’ve heard this one — has very little to offer in terms of center fielders. The ageless Rajai Davis would seem to be the best overall option, but even the ageless start to look shaky at 36, and that’s what Davis will be. Short-term solution at best, so no thanks. After Davis, um, Jon Jay? Also no thanks; Jay was a fine Cardinal, but isn’t what the team needs now. A team could bet on a rebound year from Austin Jackson, who is still just 29, or Carlos Gomez, but Gomez’s hip issues make him a very risky proposition indeed.
There is one really, really intriguing name, and that’s Dexter Fowler. He put up a monster season with the Cubs this year, and has a mutual option he’s absolutely going to decline for 2017. Fowler is an outstanding on-base guy, which would certainly help out the top of the Cardinals’ lineup. The downsides: up until this year, Fowler’s defense always rated poorly, meaning he’s not really going to help in center, and he’s on the wrong side of 30 and looking for his one chance at a really massive payday coming off a near-5.0 win season. Risky.
The trade market is where this position really shines, beginning with the finest fielder in all the land, Kevin Kiermaier of the Tampa Bay Rays. The Rays are going nowhere fast right now, and Kiermaier could pull the kind of package that could set them back on course in a pretty big hurry. He showed increased patience at the plate this year, and overall looks like a roughly league-averagish hitter going forward. Combine that with defensive monstrousness, and you have a tremendous player. The downside: that sounds an awful lot like the description of Peter Bourjos in 2014, so, you know. Kiermaier is a better overall player than Bourjos, though.
Ender Inciarte is the other name you’ll hear floated most in relation to solving the Cards’ center field riddle, and that’s a pretty good name to consider. The Braves stole Inciarte from the Diamondbacks as part of the Shelby Miller deal, and he promptly performed in 2016 just as one would expect. He made a lot of contact, put up a roughly league average batting line overall, and played exceptional defense. He’s probably going to do that for awhile, being just shy of his 26th birthday, so this is a long-term investment. Also, when he has a big game, the game story headline will probably always be Ender’s Game, so that’s a nice bonus.
Speaking of the Diamondbacks, A.J. Pollock is a name floating around quite a lot, but it’s tough to say if he’s actually available. I gave up trying to figure out what the DBAcks brain trust (he typed while making air quotes with his fingers unconsciously), is thinking or doing a while back, and until we see what their front office looks like it’s hard to speculate what they’re going to do.
Adam Eaton of the White Sox is another possibility; he’s been eerily consistent offensively over the past few seasons, and this year moved over to right field and put together an absurd defensive campaign, as opposed to a shoddy one in center, and saw his value balloon to 6.0 WAR. Trading for a player after a career year is always dicey, and moving said player back to a position he was worse at seems additionally dicey.
Finally, Charlie Blackmon of the Rockies seems to be getting all kinds of press around St. Louis. Personally, I’m skeptical of trading with Colorado, skeptical of the power surge for Blackmon this year, and skeptical of a center fielder who rates poorly year after year by the numbers, and who never really looks all that good to me, either. That being said, I’m willing to at least consider that Coors does weird stuff to defensive metrics, and he would certainly bring an element of speed to the club. Still, I’m probably going to pass. I might regret it, but I’m probably going to pass.
Of all these options, Kiermaier would be the dream scenario, but he’s also potentially priced out of the market. Inciarte is probably the most realistically excellent choice. If one wanted to pick up Fowler and shift him over to left field, I’ll bet he could be a plus defender to go with those on-base skills.
Finally, if the club decided their best bet for an upgrade would be to leave Grichuk in center and look elsewhere, a corner outfield spot is more where you’re likely to find an offensive centerpiece kind of player.
Both Fowler and Eaton, discussed above in the center field section, would make very intriguing acquisition targets for left field. Fowler’s career .366 OBP would look very nice hitting first or second in the lineup next year, and Eaton’s new Alex Gordon impression is very attractive.
Once Yoenis Cespedes declines his option and becomes a free agent, he’ll immediately become the biggest bat in the pool. He’s put up 135 and 134 wRC+ figures the last two seasons, respectively, and plays an above-average left field. He’d be a good fit, but is 31 and likely looking for an enormous payday. I’m not sure he’s worth what he’ll get, but he’s a very, very good player.
Josh Reddick’s days of all-around above-averageness are probably over, I think. Still useful, but not what he once was. Pass.
Matt Holliday and Brandon Moss are both right around this neighbourhood. Um...yeah. The Cards could always bring Moss back, or give him the qualifying offer, which I’m sure he would accept, but that doesn’t really help the defense, and it’s very hard to get the way Brandon ended the season out of your head.
The other really big name in the corner outfield pool is that of Jose Bautista, but it’s not clear that the game still matches the name, if you take my meaning. Bautista will turn 36 in about a week, and looks to have slowed down, badly, in the outfield. On the upside, he did just post a still very good 122 wRC+ for Toronto this year, but it’s a little scary considering how well his offensive approach might play outside the Rogers Centre. He’s also going to be a short-term fix at 36.
All that being said, Bautista still walks a ton, doesn’t strike out at an inordinately high clip, and has plenty of power, if not the terrifying Bonds-esque level of thump he was known for in 2010-12. If he came on a reasonable deal, he might be an intriguing three year investment. I’m not sure that’s realistic, though.
Hopefully now you have an idea of the challenge facing the Cardinals. I just listed five positions at which they could potentially upgrade, and yet at every one of those positions there’s an in-house option that looks to be at somewhere in the neighbourhood of average. Left field is the biggest potential win pit if absolutely no changes are made, and yet even there one could project Tommy Pham (well, for a little while, anyway), or look a bit down the line and convince yourself Harrison Bader is worth waiting around for. (I’m doubtful on that.) Big upgrades are going to be exceedingly difficult to come by for this team this year.
Barring the Cardinals just going nuts this offseason, which would be very out of character for them, we’re probably looking at one major move to fill a hole somewhere, and a couple ancillary acquisitions here and there. Free agency would seem the smartest route, in order to hold on to assets, but the options are so limited it’s maybe a little less attractive.
Here’s the bottom line, ultimately: the Cardinals just let Matt Holliday walk away, after a magnificent tenure as a Redbird over the past seven-plus years. What they now need, more than anything else, is to find their next Matt Holliday. The next long-term core investment they can make to help solidify the nucleus of this team. A guy like Kiermaier or Seager would be the absolute best fits for that role, most likely, but both are going to be ridiculously expensive to acquire. The Cardinals have enough juice for one big pickup this offseason, I think.
Let’s hope they use that juice wisely.