I decided to write another nerdy article by examining the predicament facing the Cardinals this offseason. According to fWAR (yup, the analytics avalanche is already underway), the Cardinals were a top ten team at every position with two exceptions: catcher and centerfielder.
Yadi is Yadi. There will be no replacement at catcher but John Mozeliak said that centerfield is a spot the Cardinals will look to upgrade this winter. With Matt Holliday and possibly Brandon Moss departing, St. Louis can move Randal Grichuk to a more optimal leftfield which leaves a gaping hole in center. If the Cardinals make no move this offseason, Tommy Pham would likely be the Opening Day centerfielder and hold that job until Harrison Bader makes his debut.
Nobody is saying Mike Trout is on the radar, nor do I consider Andrew McCutchen a candidate to play for the Cards in 2017. With a new TV deal about to begin, the Cardinals have the ability to be more agressive in free agency than in years past. A spending spree in the international amateur pool paired with three first round picks in 2016 have helped restock the farm to make a larger scale trade more feasible.
Here are eight players, in no particular order, the Cardinals may consider acquiring to upgrade their outfield.
Age (all ages are as of Opening Day 2017): 30
Contract status: 2 years of arbitration remaining ($3.5 million salary in 2016)
2016 stats: .324/.381/.552 slashline, 29 HR, 17 SB, 130 wRC+, .350 BABIP, -8.5 UZR in CF, -2 DRS in CF, 4.1 fWAR, 4.4 bWAR
It appeared Blackmon was finally putting things together when he made the NL All-Star team in 2014, before regressing to a 77 wRC+ in the second half. After a 2015 season that proved to be more of the same, he finally broke out in 2016 when he finished second among all NL centerfielders in fWAR.
This breakout didn't come without its asterisks, however. While Blackmon hit a career high 29 homers this season, he reaped the benefits of playing at Coors Field with a 16.2% HR/FB rate. To put that into context, league average is 10.5%. Even more peculiar, his HR/FB rate was higher on the road than at home.
Blackmon held his own and then some on the road in 2016 but his career home (.388 wOBA) and away (.314 wOBA) splits can't go without notice. Despite an increased soft contact rate, Blackmon's BABIP rose to .350. Asides from his inconsistent offensive production with the Rockies, Blackmon is a below average centerfielder defensively. In over 3,100 career innings in center, he's posted a UZR of -25.2 with -15 DRS.
Bottom line: a trade for Blackmon would likely begin with Matt Adams and/or one of the Cardinals' expendable starting pitchers. Colorado would likely ask for a prospect ranking anywhere from the high single-digits to low twenties depending on how much major league talent Mozeliak is willing to part with. The Cardinals would be banking on Blackmon's unusual road splits to hold up going forward. A reasonable, albeit optimistic, projection for Blackmon would have him at around a three-win player next year.
Contract status: Free agent; not eligible for a qualifying offer
2016 stats: .231/.298/.384 slashline, 13 HR, 18 SB, 83 wRC+, .313 BABIP, 0.0 UZR in CF, -4 DRS in CF, 0.8 fWAR, 0.9 bWAR
Oh, how the mighty have fallen. In 2013 Carlos Gomez led the NL with 8.5 bWAR. Fast forward three years and Gomez had been traded, DFAed, and shortly after released. After signing with the Rangers for the stretch run, Gomez revitalized his career with a .905 OPS in Texas. Although his late season turnaround was fueled by a .377 BABIP, these hot streaks that Gomez has ridden the past few years certaintly allow for a short term, low risk deal to capture lightning in a bottle.
Defensively, Gomez isn't the gold glover he once was. But how much has his defense regressed? From 2011-2013, Gomez averaged a UZR/150 games of 21.1. Since 2014, that average has dropped off to 4.0. I will note this: according to Inside Edge Fielding, Gomez is still making all the routine plays but it's the more difficult plays he isn't making as often.
If the Cardinals feel they can handle the temper Carlos Gomez brings, he could offer a bat that, when right, would be just what the doctor ordered for the St. Louis lineup. Unlike Blackmon, acquiring Gomez would only cost money while allowing Randal Grichuk to slide over to a preferable corner outfield spot. A one or two year deal at $6-7 million annually (with some of this money in incentives, if possible) sounds fair depending on how the rest of the outfield market plays out.
Contract status: $4 million in 2017, $6 million in 2018, $8.4 million in 2019, $9.5 million team option in 2020, $10.5 million team option in 2021
2016 stats: .284/.362/.428 slashline, 14 HR, 14 SB, 155 wRC+, .329 BABIP, -0.4 UZR in CF, -2 DRS in CF, 6.0 fWAR, 6.2 bWAR
After a mediocre start to his career in Arizona, a three-way trade sent Eaton to the White Sox where he burst onto the scene in 2014 with a 5.2 bWAR. Eaton found a power stroke in 2015, jumping from 1 homer to 14 (his HR/FB rate also rose from 1.3% to 10.9%).
See more on Eaton's defensive struggles in 2015 below, but a switch to right field did wonders for him in 2016. His wRC+ and wOBA both dipped by a few points, but the position switch alone increased both his bWAR and fWAR by more than two full wins. (One more thing: Eaton has a career 118 wRC+ and .346 wOBA against right handed pitchers; which drop to 100 and .320 when facing lefties.)
What complicates Eaton's hypothetical value to the Cardinals is his aforementioned struggles in centerfield. In centerfield, Eaton's UZR was -10.2 paired with a DRS and rPM (also known as Plus Minus runs saved) of -14 and -13, respectively. Playing rightfield in 2016, those 3 numbers changed to 22.5, 22, and 9.
While adding Eaton would allow the Cardinals to push Matt Carpenter into the middle of the lineup if they wanted, Eaton wouldn't adress the issue of centerfield. Grichuk would most likely remain in center with Piscotty moving to left field to keep Eaton in right where he excels.
You don't just trade five years of team control for nothing, especially a player coming of a six-win season. While a deal for Eaton could be done without yielding Alex Reyes, the Cardinals would be giving up multiple top ten prospects. If a prospect like Luke Weaver doesn't significantly move the needle, Mozeliak would probably have to put together a package larger than the one that brought Matt Holliday to St. Louis in 2009.
Contract status: $6.75 million in 2017, 2018 is final year of arbitration
2016 stats: Essentially irrelevant because he only played 12 games in 2016.
A fractured elbow wiped out Pollock's 2016 season, but this injury may not have been a fluke accident. AZ Snake Pit, the SB Nation site devoted to the Diamondbacks, revealed Pollock's history with elbow issues.
It's clear both that there was significant structural damage to the elbow, and that it was an area of concern. The origin of the problem dates all the way back to spring training in 2010 [when] he broke his elbow, and had a plate inserted into the joint to stabilize the fracture...Said surgeon Dr. Joe Sheridan, "We didn’t really set the plan in motion until last Friday night but we’d known this was coming,"
After putting up 6.9 fWAR between 2013 and 2014 (a season in which he missed 79 games with a fractured hand), Pollock broke out in 2015 with a 7.4 bWAR and 6.5 fWAR. Pollock's sucess wasn't BABIP inflated, it actually fell six points from 2014 to 2015, and his improved contact rate over the past few years is definitely a sign of encouragement.
Pollock's home park is Chase Field, the second most hitter-friendly ballpark in the majors, and his splits are indicative of that. On the road, his career wRC+ drops from 124 to 110 and his wOBA falls from .367 to .333. For whatever it's worth, Pollock's road stats were favorable to his home stats in 2015 despite a lower road BABIP.
Pollock is best suited in centerfield where he is an upper tier fielder. Among qualified centerfielders in 2015, Pollock ranked eighth in UZR, tied for third in DRS, and third in rPM. Although his 2014 season was shortened by injury, Pollock was on pace to finish close to if not in the top five in the three previously mentioned categories. It's also worth noting that Pollock finished 2015 tied for the fifth highest baserunning value (BsR) in the majors.
A trade for A.J. Pollock would turn the Cardinals from a bottom ten team in centerfield to a top ten team overnight. While the Cardinals would have Pollock for at least the next 2 seasons, that doesn't entirely mitigate the injury risk he poses. He won't be a 25-30 home run slugger, but Pollock would provide elite glovework at one of the most important defensive positions in the game. Pollock doesn't have as extensive a track record as a player like Jason Heyward, but Pollock's additional year of team control would likely cost St. Louis a bit more than Shelby Miller and Tyrell Jenkins.
Contract status: 2017 salary near the league minimum, arbitration in 2018-2020
2016 stats: .246/.331/.410 slashline, 12 HR, 21 SB, 104 wRC+, .278 BABIP, 12.0 UZR in CF, 25 DRS in CF, 3.7 fWAR, 5.5 bWAR
Since it was first tracked in 2003, no player has ever posted a higher DRS than Kiermaier did in 2015. His MLB record 42 defensive runs saved smashed the previous record for an outfielder by nine runs. How many players in today's game could possibly make this catch?
Offensively, Kiermaier could be considered a shade above average. He has league average plate discipline metrics across the board, but his batted ball analytics provide some intrigue. Looking at a single season's batted ball stats can be a slippery slope due to the relatively small sample size we are dealing with. That being said, 2016 saw Kiermaier's hard contact, line drive, fly ball, and pull rates increase while his ground ball rate decreased from the previous season. His pop up rate almost doubled from 2015 to 2016, however.
What makes Kiermaier's 2016 season peculiar was the fact that these batted ball stats were met with a .278 BABIP, down 28 points from the year before. All in all, these stats could forecast a future where Kiermaier consistently reaches 110 wRC+, which matched with his defensive prowess could make him a 4.5-win player or higher in the coming years.
While Busch Stadium is considered a pitcher's park, it would certainly be an upgrade over Tropicana Field, the sixth worst ballpark for hitters. Keep in mind, Kiermaier will be 26 on Opening Day which means the Cardinals would be acquiring his prime years.
The 2015 Platinum Glove winner's historic level of play in centerfield has been well documented with his frequent placement at the top of various defensive leaderboards, but Kiermaier suffered a hand injury that forced him to miss eight weeks this past season. While a player with an agressive play style like Kiermaier will always be more injury prone, this is his only DL stint in the majors thus far.
The Rays could have two potential needs a trade with the Cardinals could fill. 1) The Rays could use a power bat for their infield and 2) if they choose to bump a pitcher like Drew Smyly from the rotation to deepen their bullpen, the Rays could be in need of another starting pitcher. With players like Jedd Gyorko, Matt Adams, Jaime Garcia, and Luke Weaver movable this offseason, the Cardinals have the general base of a Kiermaier trade that could be finished off by dipping into the farm.
Contract status: 4 years of arbitration remaining
2016 stats: .291/.351/.381 slashline, 3 HR, 16 SB, 97 wRC+, .329 BABIP, 11.6 UZR in CF, 13 DRS in CF, 3.5 fWAR, 3.8 bWAR
Here's the article VEB's Joe Schwarz wrote about Inciarte.
After putting up 6.0 fWAR in his first two seasons, Inciarte was sent to Atlanta in the Shelby Miller heist this past winter. His offensive production was slightly down from 2015 by every major account with two major exceptions: his OBP climbed 13 points and his walk rate improved by 3.2%.
He provides the bat of a stereotypical centerfielder who took over 80% of his plate appearences this year batting either leadoff or second. Inciarte a light-hitter whose ground ball rate is well above average. Inciarte chases pitches slightly more than the average hitter but his exceptional contact rates on pitches both in and out of the strike zone make his offensive production more than tolerable.
Asides from having a very punnable name, Inciarte provides premium defensive value in centerfield. Inciarte spent considerable time in Arizona manning the corners, but almost all of his 2016 innings were in center. Among 2016 centerfielders, Inciarte had the third highest UZR and DRS while tying for the second highest rPM in the majors. Looking at all outfielders with at least 3,000 innings since 2014, Inciarte ranks third in UZR, second in DRS, and third in rPM.
The Braves still appear to be in a rebuilding mode, but their organization could switch directions in the near future. While they didn't land any big fish this past few offseasons, Atlanta has been incredibly agressive in free agency. We know for sure they made runs at Jon Lester, Yoenis Cespedes, and Justin Uption. When GM John Coppolella took over the Braves Twitter account, he said the biggest disappointment of the year was "the progress, or lack thereof, of our starting pitchers". The Cardinals could afford to tap into their starting pitching depth for a centerfielder like Inciarte while providing Atlanta the steadying hand their staff is in need of.
Contract status: Free agent; likely to receive a qualifying offer
2016 stats: .285/.335/.446 slashline, 22 HR, 21 SB, 106 wRC+, .350 BABIP, -4.5 UZR in CF, -6 DRS in CF, 3.4 fWAR, 2.7 bWAR
When Spring Training was opening in 2014, Ian Desmond decided to make a $107 million bet...on himself. After putting up 9.5 fWAR between the previous two years, Desmond turned down the Nationals' seven-year contract offer with hopes of an even larger deal as a free agent after the 2015 season. He took a step back in 2014 before dropping down like an Adam Wainwright curveball in 2015. Desmond's streak of four-win seasons could not have ended at a worse time. In his contract year, Desmond's value was only 1.7 fWAR and any chance of a $100 million contract had vanished before his eyes.
After rejecting a $15.8 million qualifying offer, teams kept clear of Desmond with a first round pick now attatched to his name. As free agents flew off the board, Desmond was teamless until the last day of February. He had to settle for six years and $99 million less than what Washington offered him two years prior. What Desmond didn't know was that he was about begin one of the best comeback campaigns of the season.
A 2016 All-Star, Desmond bounced back with a 106 wRC+ (83 in 2015) and a 3.3 fWAR. Desmond posted his highest wOBA and lowest strikeout rate since 2013, but was this a fluke? His BABIP shot up to .350, third highest in the AL. Desmond had BABIPs over .330 in some of his seasons with the Nationals, so this .350 number wasn't out of nowhere. The concern comes with Desmond's falling hard contact rate paired with rising soft contact and HR/FB rates. To make things even more complicated, Desmond's hit more line drives in 2016. In conclusion, Desmond's performance this year was for lack of a better word: inconclusive.
Desmond made the transition from shortstop to centerfield, where his limited sample says he is a below average fielder. 3,000 is widely considered the mininum number of innings needed to accurately evaluate a player and we only have 1,109 innings to base Desmond off. In centerfield, Desmond has a -4.9 UZR with a -6 DRS and -5 rPM. His one positive is his arm, which Kolten Wong learned the hard way is a cannon. StatCast used its findings to declare just eight players as five-tool players in 2015, one of whom was Desmond. With more experience in the outfield, Desmond is likely to improve in the next few years, but the 31 year old will only grow older.
Ian Desmond, also adding the fifth highest BsR over the past two years, wouldn't be the defensive upgrade Mozeliak wants. He would, however, be able to make up for the potential losses of Brandon Moss and Matt Holliday. Jon Heyman forecasts a $64 million contract over four years for Desmond, which would be decent value if he can produce at or close to his 2016 level.
Contract status: Free agent if $9 million mutual option is voided; likely to receive a qualifying offer
2016 stats: .276/.393/.447 slashline, 13 HR, 13 SB, 129 wRC+, .350 BABIP, 1.9 UZR in CF, 1 DRS, 4.8 fWAR, 4.2 bWAR
Here's the article VEB's Alex Crisafulli wrote about Fowler.
Like Desmond, Fowler made the mistake of rejecting the qualifying offer until he struck a three-year, $35 million deal with the Orioles near the end of February. Fowler then shocked everyone when he signed a one year contract to stay in Chicago after talks with Baltimore broke down over a potential opt-out in the proposed contract. The Cubs' Opening Day centerfielder, Fowler had easily the most productive season of his nine-year career that included a .367 wOBA, his highest mark since leaving the hitters heaven that is Coors Field.
Fowler fits like a glove in the leadoff spot, finishing 2016 with the 11th highest OBP and 10th best walk rate in the majors. Fowler's power (.171 isolated power in 2016) often goes unnoticed, and Busch Stadium's dimensions (25 feet shorter down the leftfield line; 23 feet down the rightfield line) would help alleviate leaving the hitter-friendly Wrigley Field. Fowler's .350 BABIP in 2016 was well above average, but so is Fowler's career rate of .342 so not much should be made of it.
Fowler knows how to work a count, posting the fourth highest pitches-per-plate-appearence rate in MLB. In 2016, Fowler also had the lowest chase rate in the majors, a category he placed third in the year before.
Fowler doesn't hit the ball particularly hard, but he isn't jammed much either. His batted ball stats are right on par with the rest of the league, though his line drive rate is a shade above average. Fowler also held the eighth highest BsR in the majors in 2016.
With the exception of one career inning in right, Fowler's only position is centerfield. Fowler is more comfortable than Grichuk in center, but Fowler is by no means an elite fielder. In over 8,000 innings, Fowler's career UZR is -63.1 (-10.6 per 150 games) with a DRS of -64 (-9 per 150) and an rPM of -33 (-4.7 per 150).
Fowler, now on the wrong side of 30, does present an injury concern going forward. Fowler played 156 games in 2015, but he has landed on the disabled list five times in career, including a strained hamstring that sidelined him for 28 games in 2016.
One of the bigger names in a shallow free agent class, the jury seems split on what type of contract Dexter Fowler could receive this offseason. The aforementioned Heyman article estimated Fowler would get a two-year, $24 million deal but that seems too low for me. I've heard chatter among Cardinals fans on Twitter that a 3-year deal would be ideal, but to avoid giving him a fourth year the AAV on his deal would likely have to be at least $14 million. The current qualifying offer system, set at $17.2 million for this winter, is expected to remain in the new CBA. This means the Cardinals would be forfeiting their first round pick, which would be 19th overall at the lowest. The Cardinals haven't sacraficed their top selection since 2002, when they signed Jason Isringhausen.
Thank you for reading. If you want more of my shenanigans you can follow me on Twitter @Tyler_Opinion