As Joe talked about yesterday, The Cardinals, by rumor at least, have been connected to free agent Dexter Fowler. The particular person pushing this rumor has been dead wrong in the past, so there isn’t much reason to think an impending move is coming. General Manager John Mozeliak is also reportedly more interested in the trade market than the free agent market.
There’s been a lot of talk about Fowler around here. Joe’s article links to pieces by John and Alex, one in support and one against signing him. I also weighed in on the issue, looking for an acceptable price to sign him.
There’s also been a lot of analysis of the trade market though. Whereas free agents cost money, trade targets cost players. A couple of weeks ago, I looked at the value Luke Weaver could provide as a trade chip. I think he’s the team’s best chance to get a big deal done. That’s because he’s projected as an above-average pitcher going forward, and has six cheap years of control remaining before he hits free agency, with three of those coming at the league minimum.
The idea is that the Cardinals would be trading from depth. They have seven major league pitchers controlled for the 2016 season other than Weaver: Adam Wainwright, Carlos Martinez, Lance Lynn, Jaime Garcia, Michael Wacha, Mike Leake, and Alex Reyes. However, that surplus isn’t far off from possibly becoming a shortage. In fact, the Cardinals biggest hole right now is in the outfield, an area that was very crowded, very recently.
Going into 2015, the Cardinals had a lot of options in the outfield. Matt Holliday manned left and Jason Heyward was brought in via the Shelby Miller trade. Veteran commenters here will remember the continuous debate surrounding Peter Bourjos and Jon Jay. Randal Grichuk’s emergence took it to a whole new level. Stephen Piscotty was still unproven, but you couldn’t count out the former first round pick either. Things managed to get even more crowded after the trade deadline when the team acquired Brandon Moss.
How quickly things changed. Heyward signed with the Cardinals’ greatest rivals. Jon Jay was traded for Jedd Gyorko in a deal that currently looks like a steal for the Cardinals. Peter Bourjos was apparently only worth a waiver claim. Moss and Holliday both made it to free agency without so much as a qualifying offer.
The team now has only two outfielders they should be planning on starting, with the constantly injured Tommy Pham currently slated to start. Behind him are players no contender should be counting on to play even a part time role, Anthony Garcia and Jose Martinez. Concerns lurk for Harrison Bader, and while he might end up being a valuable contributor, it’s definitely not prudent to count on it happening in 2017. Thus, the team and this blog is left to spend a lot of time now considering what to do to plug the hole.
I get why many in the community scoff at the idea of giving Dexter Fowler the amount of money he’s expected to get. He’s an above-average to average player, and fans of this team have probably grown to expect the farm system to continually produce players who are at least average. The idea of giving someone like that a four year guarantee and around $60-$70M (and a draft pick that the Cardinals have done so well with) bothers some people. But in a world where Mike Leake gets an $80M guarantee from a smart, cautious team, this is the market we’re in right now.
Still, a lot of attention has been paid elsewhere. Kevin Kiermaier is perhaps the most popular outfield target around these parts. But why would the Rays want to part with one of their very best players, especially when he has four cheap years of control left? Don’t get me wrong though, I get it. The Cards are full of average players, and with only one hole to fill, it be nice to get a real high-end talent to move the needle as much as they can.
What would be even nicer though, is if they just didn’t have a hole in the outfield to begin with, and that’s what gives me concerns over trading Weaver. While the Cardinals are flush with pitching options right now, you can’t count on that being the case tomorrow.
Jaime Garcia is still Jaime Garcia, and he only has one year of control left anyway. Lynn is a free agent the following the 2017 season as well. Wacha has only thrown 426 innings in the last three years, and his only full season was still filled with concern during several parts of the year. Wainwright has already had one Tommy John Surgery, and he’s thrown around the amount of innings that should cause concern that another one may be around the corner. He’s also only signed through 2018. Even Carlos Martinez has his concerns, with shoulder trouble in the recent past and a small frame that has always lead scouts to question his long-term durability.
There will be more help on the way, but not quick enough. As Joe discussed back in August, the Cardinals’ strength in terms of prospects is still the fact that they have tons of interesting pitchers. However, only two of the guys (other than Reyes and Weaver) that Joe mentions have made the most difficult minor league jump by pitching at the Double-A level. That’s Austin Gomber and Daniel Poncedelon.
I’m certainly happy the Cardinals possess those two arms. But there’s a bit of a gap between Reyes and Weaver and the more talented arms of the system. Jack Flaherty, Junior Fernandez, Sandy Alcantara, Jake Woodford, and Ronnie Williams should all elicit excitement, but none are likely to contribute in the majors in 2017, and only Flaherty has a decent shot of contributing in 2018. And you know what they say about the existence of pitching prospects.
There's also Marco Gonzales and Tim Cooney, both returning from arm problems. But Cooney was a fringe talent before the issues. Marco is a former first round pick, but there were always concerns over his mechanics, and those that had those concerns have been vindicated the last couple years.
I get it. The Cardinals missed the playoffs this year, the Cubs won the World Series, and the Cubs currently are projected to win the NL Central in 2017 by a sizable margin. But let’s not lose focus on the fact that it would take a ludicrous amount of moves to get the team on par with Cubs in 2017. I’m not saying the Cardinals can’t get lucky and end up competing for the division next year, but most likely we’re looking at them competing for the Wild-Card. And if the Wild-Card teams played to their BaseRuns record last year, the Cardinals would have made it. This is not a team desperate for a big move, no matter how much it can feel that way sometimes.
I’ve heard something a lot this year. There’s this idea that the Cardinals can’t do the same thing they did last year and expect a different result. That’s referring to the fact that they didn’t make a big upgrade last year, and it cost them the playoffs. But it’s not that simple. You can’t get caught up in the results. Baseball is full of randomness, and it was that randomness that cost the Cardinals a playoff spot in 2016.
Is this the year to start turning long-term assets into short-term ones? A big move would make the team more likely to make the one-game playoff, but it won’t move the needle much in terms of catching the Cubs. Can Weaver be turned into a controllable star position player with several years left such as Kevin Kiermaier? Maybe, but I wouldn’t bet on a deal getting done for Kiermaier specifically. Teams just don’t make controllable star players available all that often, and when they do they cash in big time.
I don’t think this is the year to bet big on. Give the Cubs a bit of time for things to go wrong. The Cardinals had the number one farm system in the game before going into the 2013 season. It got them three division titles before they were knocked off the NL Central throne. It’s easy to think of the Cubs as an impending dynasty, but things never go that smoothly. Jake Arrieta has one more year before free agency. Jon Lester will age at some point, as will Ben Zobrist. Unpredictable things happen all the time in baseball, eventually some unpredictable things that hurt the Cubs will happen. When it does, that’s when the Cardinals should strike.
I know this probably isn’t what you want to read. On some level, I don’t even want to type it. It sounds like a lot more fun for the Cardinals to make some loud moves. When thinking of the next five years though, 2017 doesn’t seem all that special, except for the fact that it’s the next season we’ll get to watch play out. The Cardinals have some work to do this winter, but their strategy of drafting and developing well, and signing free agents at sensible prices has yielded some great results. I wouldn’t want that to change just because of the new giant in the division and some unlucky results.
I think the Cardinals should shop Weaver, and maybe they’ll end up getting a big upgrade on the position player side that makes sense for the short and long term. But the Cards should be conscious of the fact that trading him could easily lead to a hole down the line, one they’ll have to fill either by trade or free agent signing. Then we’re back to arguing whether slightly above average players are worth four (or in the case of Leake, five) year deals again.