With the signing of Dexter Fowler and Brett Cecil, the heavy lifting aspect of the Cardinals’ off-season is probably over. Whether you supported signing Justin Turner or Edwin Encarnacion, both those options are off the table now. Word is the Cardinals are no longer in the Brian Dozier sweepstakes. Jose Bautista looks like he might be heading back to Toronto.
Still, that doesn’t mean there are not other moves to be made. Roster maintenance if you will. There is the issue of outfield depth. The team currently has Tommy Pham slated as the fourth outfielder. He’s passable in center, and despite a rough time in terms of strikeouts last year, has been an above average hitter in his 358 MLB plate appearances. Counting on Pham as a fourth outfielder might be fine, if he wasn’t so injury prone. Since 2009 - the first season Pham started the year in a full-season league - he’s averaged just 300 plate appearances a year.
The Cards’ front office has shown they value depth. Currently behind Pham on the outfield depth chart would either be Anthony Garcia or Jose Martinez. Garcia was a well-below average hitter (79 wRC+, or 21% below average) in his first 250 plate appearances at Triple-A last year. That was his age 24 season, so it’s not like we should expect all that much more development at this point. Jose Martinez has been better, but at 28 projects best as organizational depth. The Cards would be smart not to have either in a position where they’re just one injury away from a significant role on the 2017 Cardinals.
Of course, there’s also the top outfield prospect in the org, Harrison Bader. He hit well at Double-A and in the Arizona Fall League, but not in Triple-A. Entering his age 23 season, I think it’s fairly likely Bader will be a future MLB contributor of some degree eventually. You wouldn’t want to bet on it happening in 2017 though.
So the Cardinals could use a backup outfielder. He wouldn’t necessarily have to play center-field. Fowler, Grichuk, and Pham are all playable there. It would help if he was left-handed, to compliment right-handed bats Stephen Piscotty and Randal Grichuk. Here’s the top 10 remaining outfield free agents, ranked by projected wOBA:
Of course, Bautista and Trumbo are not going to sign on as backups. Right behind them however, is ole buddy Brandon Moss. He’s tied with Michael Saunders, who also probably holds out for a starting job as well. You might also notice that he’s not far off at all from Mark Trumbo, whose sure to receive a ton of money any day now. It falls off pretty hard after that. As you might remember, I’m not the first VEB writer to throw their support behind a reunion with the slugger. John made the case for him back in November, as did The Red Baron a couple of weeks ago.
Moss is by no means a perfect player. He’s below average on defense and on the base paths. However, he is a much better defender in the outfield than at first. In the last three years, Moss has tallied 1 1⁄3 seasons worth of innings in right and left field combined, only about half the required sample size to get a good idea of a defender. Still, both of the public advanced defensive metrics see him as above average relative to other corner-outfielders in that time. At the very least, he’s not an obvious liability out there.
He doesn’t hit for average and he strikes out a lot. Of course, if he were better at those things he would easily find a starting spot elsewhere. Still, what Moss does do, is hit for power. And he does it well. Let’s turn our attention to the Statcast data provided at BaseballSavant.com. According to their leaderboards, Moss’ average Exit Velocity (the velocity at which the ball leaves the bat) was 89.2 MPH. Slightly above average, but nothing special. However, his average line drive and fly ball percentage is way better. 513 players had at least 30 Statcast-recorded batted balls last year. Here’s his ranks in those two, as well as average groundball EV:
I included Jedd Gyorko, because I also found it interesting how similar he was to Moss. I remember the announcers remarking that the two were good friends once last year, and I wonder if they have a lot of conversations about hitting. Both are great at maximizing their strength towards fly balls, creating power despite ordinary overall Exit Velocity. Moss posted the 22nd highest difference between the two, Gyorko was 26th. That puts them both around the top 5%.
It’s not just that though. It’s also how many chances he gives himself for hitting homers. The large majority of homers occur on balls that leave the bat at vertical angles of 18 to 44 degrees, inclusive (that’s with zero representing an angle leaving the bat that is parallel to the ground). The league average rate of getting the ball in-between these angles is 30%. In 2016, 46% of Moss’ batted balls made it in that window. A little more than a 50% increase over average.
Let’s get a more visual understanding of Moss’ batted ball quality, using BaseballSavant.com’s cool angle graphics:
The left graphic represents the proportion of batted balls at each angle, and the right represents average Exit Velocity at each angle. Moss’ largest spike of batted balls comes at 30 degrees, very close to the very best angles for home runs, 27 and 28 degrees. His second highest spike occurs at 20 degrees, not terrible for homers and a good spot for hits as well as doubles. It drops off hard after that, spikes again at 5 degrees, then falls off the table. The tightness in the left graphic is much more like Dexter Fowler’s batted balls than say, Brian Dozier. That implies to me that Moss has a better than average ability to square the ball up.
Moss is shifted against heavily and is a below average runner, so he has little need for ground-balls. His profile show that he feels the same. Indeed, Contact Quality expert Tony Blengino over at Fangraphs stated that Moss’ grounders are so weak he barely suffers a penalty for being shifted against. In other words, shifting takes hits away from hard hit balls more so than soft, which intuitively makes sense.
Moss is not a player without warts. Indeed, Edwin Encarnacion’s high pull rate and fly ball rate was just one of the reasons I didn’t support signing him. The logic there was that he had nowhere to go but down, as his profile was already maxed out towards hitting homers.
That’s true of Moss as well. However, there’s a world of difference between a 3 to 4 year, $20M+ a year deal for someone you’re expecting to start, and someone you’re signing to be an adequate bench player. Maybe this is the year Moss falls apart, but we’re also talking minor money here. Dave Cameron expects a one year deal for $11M, and the writers at MLBTradeRumors.com expect $14M over two years. A one year deal sounds much better to me, as Harrison Bader should be in the mix by at least mid-2018.
Adding Moss along with Pham and Bader to the outfield reserves would make for three players with some upside capable of stepping up in the case of an injury. Most the attention goes towards signing the stars. Realistically though, great depth makes for a team built to run the marathon that is a 162 game season.