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GM For a Day

Veni, vidi, et populos.

World Series - St Louis Cardinals v Boston Red Sox - Game One
Your face here.
Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

Baseball is currently treating us to a thrilling World Series, full of remarkable performances and some genuine heart-stopping drama. We have two of baseball’s old-guard franchises, both trying to end historically long championship droughts, and with the exception of game two the on-field product has been nothing short of spectacular. (Game two, sadly, was just a miserable slog, and not because the Cubs won. )

There was a Dave Cameron piece at Fangraphs a couple days ago about baseball needing to focus in on their pace of play rules again, as most of the reforms of 2015 were lost in 2016, and these playoffs have at least occasionally shown some of the very worst potentialities in terms of a game grinding to a halt, and I completely agree. Of course, longer commercial breaks are a big part of that very few people ever seem to mention, but somehow I doubt we’re going to ever get back to the 90 second advertiser’s breaks of my childhood.

On the whole, though, we’ve seen just what one hopes to see from a Fall Classic: great players playing great baseball on a pair of great stages. It’s a shame I don’t really have a whole lot to say about it, other than to reiterate how much I wish Carlos Santana had been the player the Cardinals acquired from Cleveland instead of Brandon Moss. And I say that as someone who very much enjoyed watching Brandon Moss play for the Redbirds for most of the season.

As much as I would love to type an opus about the World Series, though, my baseball thoughts, such as they are currently, are still wrapped up largely in the puzzle that is this current Cardinals’ roster, and how to push it toward the future, to the next glorious era. So what we’re going to do today is play a game.

There will be plenty of time, once the World Series is over and qualifying offers are made and options are officially exercised or declined and the market begins to clear up, for us to have realistic discussions over how much sense certain moves and scenarios make. Minutiae will likely be the order of the day for much of the coming winter, and that’s just fine. Minutiae is a beautiful way to pass gloomy, baseball-less hours most of the time.

Today, though, I want less minutiae, and more broad, sweeping brushstrokes. I want your grand visions for the 2017 Cardinals. In other words, I want you to pretend that, for unknown reasons, Bill DeWitt just called you up and made you the General Manager of the Cardinals for a day.

Actually, the ‘for a day’ thing doesn’t really work here; literary conventions override practical considerations in cases like this, but obviously you couldn’t really get everything done in a day. So, we’ll say this temporary GM gig is more like the title of Dictator back in the old Roman Republic, where one man was given total power, but for the accomplishment of a specific goal. Destroy Carthage. Defeat the Cimbri and Teutons. Restore the constitution. Make it back to the playoffs. Total power, until such point as the goal is accomplished.

Now, although I did say a moment ago I wasn’t concerned with realism, in terms of what targets are available and worth pursuing and all the real-world concerns we’ll get to once the actual offseason gets underway, I would like to point out that just because you have been made GM of the Cardinals for the moment, the other executives are under no obligation to help you out. You do not possess magic powers, either illusory, hypnotic, or telepathic, so no magicking Mike Trout away from the Angels for $25 million in surplus prospect value, okay? (That being said, if you’re predicating your entire offseason plan around somehow acquiring Mike Trout, I have no issue with that idea. Just remember the Angels aren’t giving him away.)

If you think the roster is close to okay as it is, and just want to make one or two marginal moves, that’s perfectly fine. If you think the roster is a disaster and needs to be blown up for a two-year rebuild, hey, that’s fine too. Moar dingers? Great! Defense and pitching? Also great. Just give me your idea of how to reshape the roster over the coming offseason. Like I said, we’ll have plenty of time for small considerations; what I want today is to see what different visions we might have among us.

As for my grand vision of the club, I have a couple stipulations. One, I would like to improve the defense. That is pretty close to going without saying territory, as the Cards’ defense has been rightly maligned as one of the chief reasons for the disappointing season we just witnessed. Still, though, I feel I need to state that as a primary goal, and explain why. Obviously, keeping runs off the board is a good thing, but the stress reduction on the pitching staff by not encountering those extended four and five out innings is a big deal for me as well. Two, I’m trying to keep the roster young. I can certainly see the benefit to one or two established players as centerpieces of the roster, but given where this club is right now, I want to build as much for the next few years as just next year alone.

Three, I want more speed and athleticism if at all possible. It’s probably the lowest priority for me of these three, and honestly, should be partially taken care of by focusing on some defensive upgrades, but all the same, I would like to see a more dynamic, athletic roster in 2017. If a station to station mashing first baseman comes free for a reasonable price, though, I could easily see shifting my plans around.

You may notice I didn’t say much of anything in there about pitching, and there’s a reason for that. I’ll be trying to make a marginal upgrade or two to the bullpen, but I think the starting rotation is largely set. The return of Lance Lynn gives the Cards an easy top five of Carlos Martinez, Adam Wainwright, Lynn, Mike Leake, and Alex Reyes. (Yes, I realise neither Michael Wacha nor Jaime Garcia is included therein, and that is on purpose.) Marco Gonzales coming back should offer at least one solid rotation back up, and there’s more pitching depth bubbling up beneath the surface.

The fact the Cards have so much pitching depth really leads to an interesting situation, in which any upgrade would, by definition, have to be of ace or near-ace calibre in order to make a really meaningful difference. Chris Sale might be the only guy potentially on the market this offseason who would make real sense for the Cardinals to go hard after. (And again, I could easily see someone basing their offseason plans entirely around getting hold of Sale — or to a lesser extent Jose Quintana — and counting on that bona fide ace to transform the rotation.) For my money, though, I think one could make a larger, easier upgrade on the defensive side of the run-prevention equation, rather than spending massive resources on one world-beater who pitches every fifth day.

So with all that in mind, don’t be surprised when I don’t make rotation-focused moves. In spite of the pitching being one of the big issues with the club in 2016, I actually don’t think the pitching needs a ton of upgrading. It’s a strange thing to feel.

Anyway, as GM of the Cardinals I’m actually going to take a couple fairly big risks. You might be asking why I feel the need to take big risks, when the roster is already fairly solid and very close to being right there in the playoff picture. Well, two reasons: one, I think the 2017 version of this roster is going to be worse (I don’t think Jedd Gyorko approaches his 2016 power production, for one thing), and two, because the roster is so stacked with solid-average-ish sorts of players, in order to make any meaningful upgrades it’s going to require some real risks, I think.

First off, the internal moves I need to make.

  • Matt Carpenter is now the full-time first baseman. I’ve said it before, but I feel like Carpenter could be an outstanding defender at first, simply because it covers for both his mediocre range — while emphasizing his ability to make great decisions on the fly, and his very poor arm. Defensively, I think first is Carpenter’s best position, and as we’ll see later, I’ve got tons of moving parts on the infield.
  • Extend Carlos Martinez. Like, yesterday. I want Carlos under contract for at least the next five years, and preferably more like the next seven. A five year deal with a pair of options at the end, similar to Jaime’s contract, would be perfect, I think.
  • I’m moving Michael Wacha to the bullpen. I know the Cardinals won’t, and I understand why, but two of the last three years Wacha has missed a big chunk of time late in the season on the disabled list with the same shoulder injury. Last year, when he didn’t get hurt, he still looked completely done by September. He allowed a .962 OPS against the final month of the season, and looked downright awful in the postseason. He made it to 180 innings, yes, but looked a whole lot like late 2004 Matt Morris by the time October rolled around. And the whole thing of, “Well, he just needs to work out and add strength,” that we’re hearing right now? We heard that exact same stuff at the end of 2014. It didn’t work, and I don’t think it’s going to. Which is fine. It’s not the end of the world. Wacha, when healthy and whole, still has one of the most dynamic one-two punches of pitches in all baseball with his bottom of the zone fastball and that ungodly changeup. A while back, my colleague Alex Crisafuli wrote that Seung-hwan Oh, going forward, should be used as the Cardinals’ Andrew Miller. I would posit that Wacha may actually be an even better choice for a hybrid sort of bullpen role, where he could come in whenever, throw between three and eight outs, and hopefully accumulate something like 90-110 innings in a season. Oh remains at the back of the ‘pen, offering the security blanket at closer managers seem almost incapable of giving up, and Pac-Man becomes your most dynamic relief weapon. Baseball is going to be moving in this direction slowly over the next handful of years, I think; why not get out in front and bring back the 1960s fireman role as a way to use a dynamic talent with durability concerns?
  • I’m picking up Jaime Garcia’s option, then trading him. I just want his number off the books, and with a win approaching $8 million, someone in need of pitching will trade for him. A lottery ticket and that contract off the books is what I want. I suppose, if I can’t drum up interest ahead of time — as in, like, right now — I could always just decline the option. He still feels valuable to me, though.
  • I’m going to allow Trevor Rosenthal to come into spring training as a starter. It might be crazy, and I probably won’t have room anyway, but Rosenthal is going to start getting expensive enough soon that paying him as a closer only is going to feel slightly onerous, in spite of that just being the going rate. I think there’s a very good chance his time with the club is limited, and it would be nice just to see what he would look like right now with the opportunity to stretch out as a starter before the relationship likely comes to an end. The most likely outcome is he ends up back in the ‘pen, and maybe stretched out enough to be used in a similar fashion as to what I outlined for Wacha above.

Okay, housekeeping taken care of. On to the actual moves.

  • My first move is going to be a very big risk, and I realise that. I’m also of the mind it could lead to a very big payoff if it works, and so I’m willing to risk it. I’m trading Randal Grichuk and Luke Weaver to the Dodgers for Andrew Toles and Yasiel Puig. The Dodgers need rotation depth that isn’t already in the hospital, and they’re ready to be done with Puig. Puig himself badly needs a change of scenery, and I think is in a position to actually take advantage of that change. Toles slots in as my center fielder, hopefully keeping up the young Carl Crawford impersonation he’s been doing, and Puig probably takes over right field from Stephen Piscotty, who moves to left, simply because Puig’s arm is such a difference maker in right. I would be fine with him in left, as well; I think he and Piscotty are both above-average defenders in the corners. There are two big concerns I would have about Puig: one, he’s older than we believe, which would surprise me, but it’s possible, and two, that he was juicing when he came over, and the version of Puig we’ve seen the last year and a half is more reality. Personally, I think he’s just a player who needs out of his current situation, where history has put him in a corner, and perhaps there’s a real turnaround to be had here in St. Louis. So long as Puig is actually still a little shy of his 26th birthday, I could see him becoming a great Cardinal. He also improves my plate discipline over Grichuk a little, though admittedly Puig himself had a tough year in terms of losing patience in 2016.
  • I’m going all in for Lourdes Gurriel, pretty much no matter what else I do. He could be a bust, but considering how much money I have right now going into 2017, the opportunity to potentially sign a star player for nothing but money at 23 years old is simply too enticing. I’m putting him at third, and trying to develop him into a superstar.
  • I’m going to contact the Angels about Andrelton Simmons, and what picking him up would cost. He’s a year older than when the Angels dealt Sean Newcombe+ for him, so he should be a bit more reasonable, and is still every bit the elite defender we’ve seen in the past. The strange spike of power Simmons showed in 2013 has disappeared, but he’s made himself into one of the toughest hitters in baseball to strike out, and was something close to an average hitter this year for the Angels. Add that to all-world defense and you have a very productive player. Picking up Simmons would be the biggest single boon I can imagine for a groundball-heavy staff of the sort the Cardinals feature. He’s also under contract for four more years, which would be almost perfect for a franchise who just drafted Delvin Perez. Not to put the cart too far ahead of the horse....
  • If Simmons could be gotten for a reasonable price (say, Jack Flaherty and Edmundo Sosa and maybe a low-level arm), he become my shortstop, and I have a decision to make regarding Aledmys Diaz. If Gurriel is a no-go, then I shift Diaz to third — which I don’t love, since I believe the majority of his defensive issues are throwing-related, which would not really be alleviated at third. If, on the other hand, I do get Gurriel, then I’m probably starting Jedd at third in the short term, and moving Diaz to second. This is a tough decision for me, as I really like Kolten Wong. Honestly, if some team wanted to offer a king’s ransom for Diaz, I might be talked into dealing him. But, failing that — and I don’t think it’s very likely — I’m not sure I could justify moving the bat Diaz brings in favour of Wong’s more rounded game. Now, if I did get both Gurriel and Simmons, my lineup is looking a little too right-handed, so perhaps at that point I try to turn Wong into the super-utility guy, and trade Gyorko instead. I would lose some power, but would gain on defense and speed, I think.
  • If Simmons is not, in fact, available at a cost that would make sense, I’m leaving Wong at second, Diaz at short, and considering another move at third. Gurriel could be that guy; hopefully by the second half of the season he would be ready to take over and Gyorko can go back to taking at-bats at all positions. If not him, though, I really would consider Justin Turner if he gets away from the Dodgers, big contract, 32 years old, and draft pick attached or not.
  • Ideally, I would get both Gurriel and Simmons, and by the second half of 2017 my infield would be, left to right, Gurriel, Simmons, Diaz, and Carpenter. This perfect scenario would also feature Wong as my primary utility player, filling in as a lefty bat all over the field, and Gyorko as my top pinch hit/corner utility guy. I’m not sure if that’s realistic, though, honestly; there might not be enough playing time to justify keeping two players of that quality and on valuable contracts on the bench.
  • I’m trying as hard as possible not to give Harrison Bader away in any deals, as I feel at some point in 2017 he’s going to be ready for the big leagues, and would be an ideal fourth outfield option. If it turns out he’s too good for that, either a resurgent Puig or Piscotty could be very good trade chips down the road a bit.

With all those moves made, I could potentially be looking an outfield of Piscotty, Toles, and Puig left to right, giving me above-average defense at all three spots. Well, potentially, anyway. There’s also the potential for above-average offensive production at all three spots, with Piscotty looking like a solid bet for a 115-120 wRC+ season, Toles offering plus-plus speed, solid power on contact, and reasonable plate discipline. Puig is the real wild card of the bunch, but we’ve seen big time production from him in the past, and perhaps he can rediscover some of that form away from his LA history.

On the infield, we’re talking about something like Gurriel-Simmons-Diaz-Carpenter, or Diaz-Simmons-Wong-Carpenter, or Gurriel-Diaz-Wong-Carpenter. That first scenario features above-average defense at third, I believe, all-world defense at short, at least average and probably above at second, and above-average defense at first. The second we’re a little shakier at third, but amazing up the middle, with one of the best to ever play the game at short and a solid plus defender as his double-play partner. The third scenario is slightly scarier, as while I believe Gurriel to potentially be a very good defender at third, it’s not a guarantee, and you’re living with Diaz’s shaky defense at short. There’s a way to squint and see a left side of the infield that’s a real liability there. The right side would still be outstanding, though, between Wong and the Galveston Grinder playing every day.

  • I’m dealing Jhonny Peralta for nearly anything at this point, just to get his contract off the books. There’s a very real chance Peralta could come back and a have a very productive season in 2017, but I’m not sure I want to bet on it. Also, he and Gyorko are seemingly redundant on my roster, and Jedd is making about half as much as Jhonny. Perhaps he can be included as part of the Simmons deal, to give the Angels an immediate presence on the infield while they retool things.
  • Matt Adams is gone in a trade, and most likely Greg Garcia as well. I like Garcia, a lot, but if it’s a choice between Garcia and Wong as lefty-swinging utility infielders, I’m going to have to go with the player I see as the superior athlete, I think.
  • Sure would be nice if Arizona decided what they really needed to get back on track was to trade for Mike Leake. I’ll bet he would waive that no-trade in a heartbeat to go where he was hoping to last offseason.
  • For the bullpen, I’m signing a couple of the lottery ticket types I outlined last Sunday. I’m not investing big money in the ‘pen this offseason; rather, I’m going to place some calculated bets on role-change guys, injury risks, and the like. Greg Holland I think goes back to KC, but I could easily see signing all three of those others to minor league deals with NRIs. Corey Littrell is close to ready, as well, and others. With Oh installed at closer and Wacha serving as fireman, I’m choosing between Rosenthal (probably), Kevin Siegrist, Matt Bowman, and Tyler Lyons as holdovers, and Littrell, my misfit toys, Sam Tuivailala, Ryan Sherriff, and one or two others as new additions. I think Jonathan Broxton I may just move or even cut loose, unless Rosenthal somehow forces his way into the rotation.

With all that done, I’m looking at a starting eight of:

  1. Matt Carpenter 1B
  2. Aledmys Diaz 2B
  3. Yasiel Puig RF
  4. Stephen Piscotty LF
  5. Lourdes Gurriel, Jr. 3B
  6. Yadier Molina C
  7. Andrew Toles CF
  8. Andrelton Simmons SS

with Kolten Wong, Jedd Gyorko (maybe), and Tommy Pham on the bench. A starting rotation of:

  1. Carlos Martinez
  2. Adam Wainwright
  3. Lance Lynn
  4. Mike Leake
  5. Alex Reyes

with Marco Gonzales serving as the immediate sixth starter, and Tim Cooney probably the seventh. The bullpen would slot in as something like:

  1. Seung-hwan Oh (C)
  2. Michael Wacha (primary fireman)
  3. Kevin Siegrist (setup)
  4. Tyler Lyons (lefty fireman type)
  5. Matt Bowman (grounder-getter)
  6. Sam Tuivailala (setup)
  7. Henderson Alvarez (or whoever) in the Cal Eldred Memorial lottery ticket role.

Seth Maness I release. Sorry, Seth. I just like Bowman better as a similar pitcher.

Admittedly, I’ve made huge turnover a part of my offseason plan, and I think there’s very little chance the Cardinals do this. However, I think the fact I can so easily consider that level of turnover also points to something we all instinctively understand is an issue for the Cards currently: there is a real lack of core level players you simply can’t imagine parting with. That’s not a fatal flaw, necessarily, but I feel like a nucleus around which you can build is a very helpful thing to have. I do also have two extra spots on the roster, one for a backup catcher (about which I do not care), and a fifth outfielder. That spot I’m reserving for hopefully another left-handed bench bat, but I’m not sure who yet.

Overall, I think my club could be a run-prevention monster, with above-average defense at nearly every position on the field. I will say I might have some concerns I’ve moved too far away from offense, though, and the team might be a little underpowered. I could see an above-average offensive club, if things break right, but I could also see a way the team could fall back to the offensive struggles of 2015. In all likelihood, though, seeing Brandon Moss leave and Jedd Gyorko likely regress in 2017, we’re probably going to see fewer home runs almost no matter what.

My bullpen could also be very high-variance, and that could either be a very good thing, or a very bad thing. Outside of a very few pitchers, though, relievers are so fickle that I feel more comfortable trying to build a ‘pen with great talent and premium arms than paying through the nose for performance. And no, I will not consider signing Aroldis Chapman. I might not even write about the Cardinals if they were to sign him.

So with all of that done, I will now give power back, be declared immortal, and retire to my estate on the coast of Sardinia.

How about you?