Coming into the offseason, the Cardinals made it pretty clear, in every public statement they released on the matter, that they considered the outfield their number one priority. More specifically, center field was the priority position, and more generally, getting fresher legs and more athleticism into the mix was job one.
It’s relatively easy to see why, of course; while many of us looked at the infield — third base, specifically — as an area of greater concern, given the pitching staff’s groundballing tendencies and the overall brutality of the defense in the dirt, the fact is, the Cardinals have enough infielders. In fact, they probably have too many, but too poorly defined; how wonderful would it be if we could magically trade Jhonny Peralta, Jedd Gyorko, and Greg Garcia for one Kyle Seager? Alas, utility is what the Cardinals have, and utility is what we will get, even at the cost of a more ideal fit.
In the outfield, though, the Redbirds literally did not have enough players to fill the various positions a month ago. Matt Holliday departed for New York and the American League, Jeremy Hazelbaker was lost to the waiver wire, and Brandon Moss was allowed to leave following one of the most brutal slumps I’ve ever personally witnessed a player experience. To be fair, one could have cobbled together a starting outfield of Randal Grichuk, Tommy Pham, and Stephen Piscotty, but Grichuk has injury issues and is also maybe not that good (although maybe he is, too; that’s the fun of RANDAL), Stephen Piscotty is a good right fielder but not what you want in center (and also lost some lustre in the second half of 2016), and Tommy Pham doesn’t have injury issues; young hamstring sprains, when they’re in the injury equivalent of Cub Scouts, sit around the campfire and tell scary stories about Tommy Pham.
And after those three? The depth immediately descended to Jose Martinez and then Anthony Garcia, who self-destructed last year just to spite my positive scouting reports. Harrison Bader is somewhere on the horizon, potentially, but under no circumstances do you want to be depending on him 2017. Anticipating? Sure, that’s fine. Depending upon? Now you’re in trouble. In other words, the depth was very, very much not ideal.
Given that set of circumstances, we may have preferred — or at least been more excited by — an infield upgrade, but the outfield was the obvious area of greatest need. Hence, Dexter Fowler as the team’s best fit and primary target. He plays the outfield, handles center at what is probably an acceptable level, and provides a beautiful top of the order presence to complement the Galveston Grinder. Fowler was an obvious fit, and now that he’s in the fold the outfield depth suddenly looks much better.
Here’s the thing, though: that depth is still maybe just a little on the shallow side. Fowler looks set to play center more or less every day, Grichuk will start in left unless something goes wrong, and Piscotty has pretty well solidified himself as the Cards’ solution in right for the foreseeable future. Tommy Pham is your primary backup to all three positions. And then we get right back into that Jose Martinez area that should make you a little nervous.
There’s also the matter of the outfield’s overwhelming righthandedness as a potential issue. Fowler is a switch-hitter, of course, but that’s basically the only lefthanded-hitting option the Cards have right now. (Unless you count Kolten Wong, I suppose, and please don’t count Kolten Wong.) Grichuk, Piscotty, Pham, Martinez, and Garcia all hit from the right side. The outfielder the club could conceivably look at as their next big arrival, Bader, is a righty. Paul DeJong, perhaps being groomed to move around the field and who played the outfield some in college? Bats right, throws right. The only left swinger on the Cards’ 40 man roster right now is Magneuris Sierra, and he’s not getting anywhere near the major this year. After Mags, you’re talking about guys like Nick Plummer and Jonatan Machado. In other words, the Cardinals don’t have any lefty bats in the outfield now, and it doesn’t look like they’re going to have any in the near future, either.
With that in mind, it would seem to behoove the organisation to potentially look at a flycatcher capable of serving as a platoon partner to some of the righties they now have. It wouldn’t really be important for said lefty bat to play center field, since Fowler hits from both sides; the only reason to care about a backup center fielder is days off and injury insurance. But it would be very nice to have a lefthanded bat to put in one of the two corners on days you want to stack the lineup a bit more sinisterly.
Ideally, you would like a lefty stick with some real power; the projected lineup for the Cards right now has a nice mix of on-base guys up top and a little pop sprinkled throughout, but they’re missing a real thumper. Said thumper wouldn’t have to be a full-time player, obviously; you have everyday solutions already in place for both left and right field. But a guy with 20+ home run power over the course of, say, 400 plate appearances? Well that would work out just right. Er, left.
So we’re looking for a lefthanded hitting corner outfielder to take something like 400 plate appearances. We want a power bat. It would be nice to keep the commitment to a relatively low level; the Cards are still very much in a transitional period, and should really be looking at solutions that don’t compromise the long-term vision of the club.
I mean, you see where I’m going with this, right? Even if you didn’t read the title of the column?
There might not be a better fit on the market right now for what the Cardinals need in the outfield than Brandon Moss. I say that remembering full well how lost Moss looked at the plate down the stretch this past season, and I’m fine with that. The market for Moss hasn’t really developed this offseason, even without the onerous presence of a qualifying offer (which he undoubtedly would have simply accepted), dragging down his value. At midseason 2016, Brandon Moss looked to be in great position to cash in on the one and only big contract opportunity of his career. Six months later, it doesn’t seem like anyone is banging down Brandon’s door on even a shorter-term deal.
So how about this: something like a one-year, $10 million deal, with a club option for 2018 for a similar amount? You could even make it a mutual option, to give Moss a little more flexibility if he hits well enough in 2017 to maybe pull a three year deal from some other club. The Cardinals get a corner guy who hits from the left side to potentially back up left, right, and first base, and hopefully sock a bunch of dingers. Dinger camp was fun in May, wasn’t it?
I know, I know; I can hear the concerns being voiced now about Mike Matheny playing Moss too much. “But Moss is one of Mike’s Guys,” the argument goes, “look at how he just kept putting him out there day after day even when he was 4 for his last 100.” And I get that. But, this year, looking at what the Cardinals have, I don’t see that as nearly so much of a problem. Of the three positions Moss can play, all would seem to have entrenched starters. Mike Matheny on the third day of an absinthe bender isn’t going to play Brandon Moss over Matt Carpenter, and Piscotty has seemingly established himself to nearly the same degree. I suppose I could see Randal struggling out of the gate and getting shuffled off to the bench, but if Randal Grichuk playing less than might be ideal is your biggest problem, well....
Now, would a move like this really move the needle in a huge way? No, probably not. Brandon Moss is not the difference between an 85 win club and one that pulls 92 and the first wild card spot. But Brandon Moss as a power bat off the bench could be the difference between 90 wins and the second wild card and 92 and hosting. And where the Cardinals are on the win curve, every last shred of value they can pull from any source is incredibly valuable. They have the payroll space to add a minor contract like this, particularly considering how short the commitment would be, and the return could be significant.
If not Moss, then your only real lefthanded thunder off the bench is Matt Adams, and while you may like Adams as a pinch hitter, he’s also limited to first base. I suppose you could try to teach him to play the outfield, but that doesn’t seem like a great idea to me. So you’re currently looking at Matt Adams, professional pinch hitter and once a week starting first baseman. That, my friends, is what you could call a waste of a roster spot.
I could understand someone potentially not wanting to bring Moss back after seeing how poorly he played in August and September this year, when he sported a .639 OPS. Or someone feeling like that’s just rolling the same team out as last year and expecting different results. Both are at least somewhat valid points. But really, and this is my argument here: who is a better fit for this roster as currently constructed? And if not Moss, then you really are rolling with Jose Martinez as your potential fifth outfielder. Which, hey, if you’re fine with that, great. I think there’s an opportunity here to make an upgrade at the edges, though, and considering the position the Cardinals will likely be in this coming season, it could be very, very important to grab all the marginal wins they can.