John Mozeliak let it be known around the arrival of the offseason that fixing center field would be a priority for the Cardinals. Soon thereafter, on these very pages, there were arguments presented for signing Dexter Fowler (and arguments against it), and the case for a trade for Ender Inciarte. On Friday, Mark Saxon, who covers the Cardinals beat for ESPN, suggested Carlos Gomez for what he calls an “outside-the-box” solution.
Gomez, 30, slashed .284/.362/.543 in 33 games with the Rangers and set himself up, perhaps, for a sizeable multiyear deal this winter. He is, in a way, the anti-Fowler, a riskier acquisition with greater upside. Just two seasons ago, Gomez was a 5.7 fWAR player. Fowler’s career high easily is 4.7 fWAR, and it came last season, meaning a team that signs him will be buying at the peak of his marketability. A team that signs Gomez could get a bargain. Unlike Fowler or Desmond, who rejected qualifying offers, signing Gomez wouldn’t cost the Cardinals a draft pick.
Gomez is a better center fielder and better base stealer than Fowler. He has stolen at least 30 bases four times in his 10-year career. He’s also one of the highest-energy players in baseball and his always-running motor could add excitement to a team that at times looked like it was standing around waiting for home runs.
Saxon’s not wrong - Gomez, who is entering his age-31 season, is not that far removed from being a great player. Between 2013-2014, only Andrew McCutchen was worth more wins per fWAR for position players in the National League. Only Andrelton Simmons and Russell Martin had higher rated defensive value. Gomez’s defensive grades have dipped in recent years but most metrics indicate he still plays more than serviceable defense. And he’s responsible for what is possibly my favorite trip around the bases following a home run:
But 2013 and 2014 are cherry-picked for a reason. Gomez is coming off two seasons (most of which were spent in Houston) where he was below average offensively, especially last season in which he was so dreadful it should throw up a few red flags for anyone let alone a guy on the wrong side of 30.
Always known to strikeout a bit more than preferable, in 2016 Gomez had a strikeout rate of 30%, easily the worst of his career (his previous low was 24.8% in 2011), and the eighth worse in MLB for all position players with at least 450 plate appearances. His OPS (.682) and wRC+ (83) ranked in the bottom 15. Gomez swung and missed at more pitches by percentage than at any point in his career and when he did make contact the results were not there like they used to be. His ISO has decreased every year since 2013 as has his hard contact.
That’s the bad part and to be clear it’s pretty bad. But last Wednesday Jason Martinez at MLB Trade Rumors wrote an in-depth free agent profile of Gomez and a fair takeaway is that Gomez may have had a lost season or two offensively but it might be too early to say he’s broken.
Had Gomez continued to struggle as he had during his time with the Astros, he’d be lucky to find a one-year deal in the $8MM range this offseason. But after slashing .284/.362/.543 with eight homers over his final 130 regular season plate appearances after catching on with the Rangers, it’s a near certainty that the soon-to-be 31-year-old will command a multi-year deal [...]
Not only did Gomez finish on a strong note, he also had a very good month with the Astros that has gone unnoticed. In 109 plate appearances from June 5th through July 6th, Gomez slashed .289/.367/.495 with four homers and six doubles. This is not the kind of production you’d expect from a guy who would be released only six weeks later.
Those are small sample sizes and can certainly be interpreted however you may choose. It’s probably not wise to ignore the 621 plate appearances going back to the beginning of the 2015 season and leading up to June 5, 2016, in which Gomez hit .238/.297/.370, good for a lowly wRC+ of 81. But what might be just as important as Gomez finishing 2016 on a relatively high note is that, as Saxon mentioned above, Gomez is a free agent without the heavy weight of a qualifying offer.
The qualifying offer is getting a lot of play right now as the current Collective Bargaining Agreement is set to expire in December and the QO is reportedly one of the hot-button issues. Players like Fowler and Ian Desmond who have been branded with the QO in the past have languished too long on the market as a result of teams not wanting to sacrifice a draft pick for solid yet not elite talent. That’s not helping the players and if teams aren’t signing capable talent that’s not helping the teams. (The Red Baron covered a lot of this very well yesterday.)
This might be an issue for another day but what we do know is that Mozeliak has not signed a player who had been offered a QO since he was named GM in 2007. To that end, Gomez makes a bit more sense. He wouldn’t cost the team a draft pick (which may be in shorter supply after Commissioner Rob Manfred announces the penalties for the hacking scandal) like Fowler would, nor would he force the Cardinals to part with some of their higher-end prospects which would likely happen in a trade for someone like Inciarte.
Lastly, if Martinez in his free agent profile is on point, Gomez is going to command in the ballpark of 3 years/$36 million, which, if anything, seems modest for a player of Gomez’s caliber, diminished however that may be. A few years of Gomez might be a good band-aid while the Cardinals wait for a better free agency market or to see if the solution lies in-house with Harrison Bader. I still want the Cardinals to sign Fowler. I understand why some don’t. But if the Cardinals could land Gomez at a value of roughly a 1.5 WAR player (or whatever they’re saying a win is now worth) and not have to give up a draft pick in doing so, that wouldn’t be so bad in this talent-drained market.