From day one of the 2016-17 off-season (well, technically before it, since speculation began during the 2016 playoffs), the chief priority cited for the St. Louis Cardinals was to upgrade in center field. With the news that Randal Grichuk, raised to be a corner outfielder through the Angels and Cardinals farm systems but refreshingly adequate if unspectacular in 2015 and 2016 in center field, would assume full-time duties in left field for 2017, Cardinals fans' eyes grew wide with anticipation of the next center fielder for the Cardinals.
Speculation has centered largely around some of the big names in free agency: a lot of Dexter Fowler, a little bit of Ian Desmond, a pinch of Yoenis Cespedes, and the occasional vouching for Carlos Gomez.
Secondary speculation surrounded big names who were intuitive trade candidates: terrific, young players under club control with teams motivated to dispense of them for even younger, even cheaper prospects. These players included Kevin Kiermaier, Charlie Blackmon, Adam Eaton, and on the slightly older end, Lorenzo Cain.
Any of these players would make the 2017 Cardinals a better team, but none of them would make the Cardinals division favorites. The Cardinals finished 17 1/2 games behind the World Series champion Chicago Cubs in 2016. While remarks of the "aging core" of the Cardinals, as it is so often paraphrased, are routinely hyperbolic, the ultra-young Cubs core would make any team look ancient by comparison.
This isn't to say that the Cardinals should just give up on the immediate future—after all, the Cardinals did finish just one game behind the San Francisco Giants, who are only good during even years anyway (or so Baseball Twitter has taught me), for a playoff berth. It is to say that the Cardinals have a modest, utterly realistic goal ahead of them--improving a few games in 2017 to make the playoffs--as opposed to the probably unrealistic goal of winning the NL Central.
Now the Cardinals should certainly strive for the latter on the field, but doing so in an all-out fashion in the front office probably means sacrificing the future for a short term payoff that looks increasingly unlikely.
The big blockbuster trade of the off-season so far, which will probably eventually be the big blockbuster of the entire off-season, was the acquisition of Chris Sale by the Boston Red Sox, which cost the team Yoan Moncada, baseball's top prospect, and another Top 100 prospect in Michael Kopech, as well as an additional two prospects.
The Cardinals could have offered a mega-prospect in Alex Reyes and a very good prospect in Luke Weaver and dealt a pair of smaller-end prospects for Sale but unlike the Red Sox, who just went from among the AL East favorites to the American League favorite, the Cardinals would remain a clear second in the division.
An even more scathing indictment of blockbuster off-season trades was the package that the White Sox acquired from the Washington Nationals for Adam Eaton, which included super-prospect Lucas Giolito. Eaton is a fine player, but the Cardinals equivalent to Lucas Giolito, once again, is Alex Reyes—the two spent 2016 trading off the title of baseball’s best pitching prospect. The cost of acquiring a young star via trade can be rather daunting.
Jarrod Dyson of the Kansas City Royals would be a rental in center field, but he is a player that the Cardinals could likely acquire for a relatively low cost, and last night's trade (made official today) of closer Wade Davis to the Cubs suggests that the Royals are willing to move on from the 2015 World Series honeymoon phase and into a rebuild of sorts.
Dyson had his best season in 2016. Formerly, his value was derived primarily from his elite fielding and baserunning, and he remained fantastic at both last season, but his career-high 94 wRC+ was a new addition to his skill set. And Dyson improved his offense mostly independent of his batting average on balls in play (his .315 BABIP in 2016 was immaterially lower than his .314 career mark) thanks to a career-low 11.6% strikeout rate.
Dyson has far too little power to be a great offensive player (in 1539 plate appearances, he has only seven career home runs), but he contributes such value outside of his bat that he remains an above-average player on the whole. While Dyson is, at 32, deceptively old, to borrow a phrase from my Viva El Birdos podcast co-host Heather Simon, he will hit free agency after 2017; while only one season of club control means Dyson has a somewhat low ceiling for any team looking to acquire him, it also means the Cardinals would not be stuck with his decline phase unless he aged immediately and without warning. Given that Dyson saved the 5th most runs in baseball by UZR among 2016 outfielders despite fielding barely half as many innings as other names near the top of the leaderboard, it is unlikely that he will experience a dramatic drop in quality immediately.
Speculating on potential trades is always difficult, as nobody knows what the exact cost would be, but it is likely that the Cardinals could acquire Jarrod Dyson, who would give the team an immediate outfield boost, without parting with a prospect so significant that his absence would dramatically hinder the team's future. And while Dyson wouldn't erase a 17 1/2 game (or whatever amount of games separate the teams on true talent) deficit on the Cubs, he could easily be the difference between October baseball or not if 2017 plays out anything like 2016.