We all know the Cardinals are, almost assuredly, done for the offseason. Expect to see Sam Fuld or someone equally as uninspiring brought in on an NRI contract soon, but as for the meaningful moves that make us all feel like the team is actually trying to do something? Yeah, those are probably done.
And that’s not necessarily a bad thing, mind you; as has been pointed out here recently, the Cardinals were among the biggest spenders this offseason, and signed one of the two top free agents on the market (well, one of the top three or four, depending on how you look at certain players, but you know what I mean), and the other who would have — or should have — been a target for the Redbirds was Justin Turner, who seemed to have zero interest in leaving Los Angeles. It was a moderately appalling free agent market this year, but the Cardinals did pretty much all they could to upgrade the team considering the available options.
That being said, there is still plenty of consternation amongst the fanbase, and it all centers around the very real, very debatable question: did the Cardinals do enough? Sure, maybe they did about as well as any club did, but is that good enough? Some of the hue and cry has to do with Cubs anxiety and disappointment in the 2016 season overall, but there are also some real concerns about the direction of the club, and the direction in which organisational spending has been trending.
Personally, to the question of whether the Cardinals did enough this offseason, I respond with a resounding, “...maybe?”
There is a way to look at this Cardinal roster and feel very optimistic about the near future. They have two of the most talented young pitchers in baseball in Carlos Martinez and Alex Reyes, seemingly ready to anchor the rotation for years to come. Matt Carpenter is an elite hitter, and Aledmys Diaz might be as well. The lineup should be stacked at the top with high on-base hitters.
Then again, there’s also a way to look at the roster and feel far less warm and fuzzy inside. The club feels like it’s lacking a middle of the order thumper. The defense on the infield could potentially still really suck. Pitchers break, and so much of the organisational talent is loaded on the arm side that it feels extra risky. That aging core we’ve talked about over the past few years hasn’t really been replaced, as the club has moved more and more to bring up the floor, but has done very little to raise the ceiling at all.
I can see both points of view, and both have plenty to back their arguments up. I feel like we’ll know far more more about the state and direction of this club by midseason, not just in terms of 2017, but for the next few years.
In the meantime, though, it feels to me very much like the Redbirds are looking for their next Matt Holliday; the big acquisition they can add to the core of the roster that, much like a nice rug, will really help tie the place together. I’ve actually been meaning to write about that subject for awhile now, and just haven’t gotten around to it. Maybe in the next post or two.
However, there’s one name on the market still this offseason (the trade market, that is), that would very much fit the bill, immediately becoming a part of the club’s core, and one of its best players. The White Sox already traded their biggest name of the offseason in Chris Sale, as well as a very good potential landmine in Adam Eaton. They do still have one big chip to push in, though: Jose Quintana.
A few days ago, over at Fangraphs, Nicholas Stellini wrote about a potential fit for the White Sox’s second ace in trade. The team he proposed dealing for Quintana? The Cardinals. And I happen to agree with Mr. Stellini that the Cards would be an ideal fit as a trading partner for the Sox.
In his piece, Stellini proposes a package that would begin with Luke Weaver, include Dakota Hudson, and potentially include Delvin Perez or Magneuris Sierra to, “sweeten the deal.”
The comments section of the piece was largely filled with people scoffing at that trade package, with one person invoking something about the ‘sacred Cards’, I believe, implying that once again the media bias toward mid-market Midwestern teams was on full display. So, you know, standard comments section nonsense.
However, I do agree with the commentariat in general that the package proposed was a bit too light. Jose Quintana over the past three seasons has average just under 5.0 wins above replacement per year, and is signed with options through 2020 for something around $35 million total. (I say something around because there are clauses in the contract that change its value slightly depending on awards and the like.) Trading that player for anything less than a huge haul would probably not go down well among the White Sox fandom, and considering the winning streak Rick Hahn seems to be on right now with trading away stars I would expect him to hold out for a good deal.
All of which got me thinking about what kind of potential package I would be willing to part with for Jose Quintana, and how best to deploy the tradeable assets the Cardinals possess. And in doing so, I came up with an idea as much philosophical as practical that I decided to write about.
The majority of the comments on the Fangraphs piece indicated an unwillingness to part with Quintana for anything less than Alex Reyes+. If that is, indeed, the level of package it would take, then I would probably just pass. Alex Reyes for Quintana straight up? I do that in a heartbeat. Reyes plus two other top ten prospects? I can’t feel comfortable denuding the system to that extent, even for an addition of Quintana’s caliber.
However, I do think there’s a case to be made that a quantity over quality deal could be struck, if the Cards were willing to overpay in aggregate. And I would be okay overpaying (or seeming to overpay), in aggregate, so long as I could do so without torpedoing the next three to four years. The Cardinals have somewhat astounding depth, and spending multiple pieces to get some consolidated value is exactly the move they need to make right now, I believe.
So let’s see what we can do, shall we?
Any deal for a player of Quintana’s stature will almost certain begin with Luke Weaver. Keith Law may still be down on Weaver (and I still have health concerns about him), but he’s more or less big league ready, showed last season he has the stuff to miss bats at the major league level, and has done nothing but dominate at pretty much every stop since being drafted out of Florida State. Weaver is an exceptional prospect, and in pretty much any other system in baseball would be their top pitching prospect. So we’ll start there.
The Sox have gone heavy on pitching in their deals so far, which makes sense, considering both what they’ll be trying to replace over the next couple years and their reputation for having a bit of a pitching guru in Don Cooper. Still, pitching alone isn’t enough to win, and so we should probably head over to the positional side of things next.
The hitting prospects I could see being in play here are Harrison Bader, Mags Sierra, Edmundo Sosa, Paul DeJong, and Nick Plummer. I’m sure the White Sox would ask for Carson Kelly, but I think he might be too important organisationally to move. Delvin Perez I would be very hesitant to give up, and I think there are other players closer to the big leagues that should have comparable value. Plummer is probably too much of a wild card right now, though buying low on an intriguing hitting talent who’s been dinged with a couple injuries could also be a canny move for Chicago. Most likely, though, we’re talking Bader/Sosa/Sierra/DeJong.
I could see the White Sox having interest in any of those four, though I’m sure Bader would be their first choice, due to proximity and performance. Then again, Sosa and Sierra both offer more certainty of being up the middle players, so perhaps a club looking to rebuild would prefer premium defensive positions. Chicago targeted Charlie Tilson in the Zach Duke trade, so maybe they would go for the potential plus center fielder in Sierra. Really, though, you can swap in any of the four and I don’t know that it changes the equation that much.
Next we’ll try to add in some more pitching performance, so I’m going to go for the number one capital p Performer in the system: Austin Gomber. The stuff isn’t overwhelming, but he gets the job done in fine style, and the Arizona Fall League was a bit of a coming out party for him. So into the pot he goes.
Weaver, Sierra, and Gomber. That’s definitely too light. So let’s dip into the Cards’ most recent draft pool and use one of that trio of college righthanders they just selected. No, I don’t think I would add Dakota Hudson to a package already including this kind of value, but both Zack Gallen and Connor Jones are on the table for me. I personally prefer Gallen, but Jones is probably seen as the safer bet to at least make it to the big leagues, and his power sinker/slider combo could make him a strong relief candidate if starting doesn’t work out for him. Either one would be acceptable to me, but I think the consensus is generally toward Jones as the better piece. So Jones it is.
Now we’ve got Luke Weaver, Magneuris Sierra, Austin Gomber, and Connor Jones going in return for one pitcher with four years of control. Really good years, obviously, but we’re still talking about a lot of potential value and club control going over. Still, though, I could see an argument that isn’t enough real value. So I would be willing to add a fifth player, and that fifth player is actually the reason I wanted to explore this concept.
I’m going to finish off my trade package proposal with.....Lance Lynn.
Now, I know what you’re thinking. Aaron has clearly taken leave of his senses. Lance Lynn makes absolutely zero sense for a club in full rebuild mode, considering he’s in the final year of his contract, will turn 30 during the upcoming season, and is planning on testing free agency, a fact which he has been refreshingly honest about for most of his career. Why would a club that is going to be terrible in 2017 pretty much no matter what they do want a pitcher who is only going to be around for that 2017 campaign?
The answer is relatively simple, actually: future value. Not necessarily long-term value, but future value all the same.
See, here’s the thing: Lance Lynn has a certain level of value to the Cardinals this year, and it’s not huge. He’s coming back from Tommy John surgery, meaning even with the extended recovery time (it’ll be closer to eighteen months than twelve by the time the season starts), he could be rusty in the early going with his command. If the stuff is there, though, he should be a solid enough contributor.
However, Lynn is almost certainly not tradeable for the Cardinals this year. If they are in contention at the deadline, then they probably won’t want to move a pitcher who’s contributing, and for them to be in contention Lynn will probably have had to contribute. If he’s not, and they managed to fill that hole some other way, then he’s clearly not movable, since he’s not pitching well. At that point, he might not even be worth the qualifying offer next offseason. And if the Cardinals are out of contention, it’s most likely because there was a breakdown in the pitching, and Lance Lynn is a very strong candidate to be one of the culprits in that case. In other words, if Lynn pitches well this year, the Cards probably need him too much to trade, and if he’s bad, then he doesn’t have much value. The best case scenario is for him to pitch well, look stronger as the season goes on, and warrant a qualifying offer next offseason, hopefully netting a high draft pick when he signs a big contract somewhere else.
The one circumstance in which Lynn would really be tradeable would be, essentially, exactly what I’m proposing here. If the Cardinals were picking up a starting pitcher to slot immediately into the rotation they were relatively certain of in terms of performance, Lynn would be tradeable. There’s a problem, though: any club looking for what Lynn offers, a one-year reasonable deal on a solidly above-average starter is going to be a contender, and a contender is going to want more certainty than a guy returning from Tommy John.
Except....that shouldn’t really be the case.
It’s easy to look at Lynn as a one year rental, and conclude he wouldn’t really hold any interest for a rebuilding club. It would make sense to conclude that, too. But we’ve seen a trend taking shape over the last handful of season in major league baseball, of rebuilding teams signing relievers and starters with question marks and other short-term bandages to one year contracts, with the idea essentially being they can let the player get on the field, hopefully perform, and then flip them at the deadline for a prospect that the rebuilding club actually wants. It makes sense; if you’re tanking you probably have money to burn, so spend a little on a lotto ticket you might be able to turn into a piece that fits your process down the road a bit. Essentially, that’s exactly what I propose the White Sox would be doing with Lance Lynn.
There’s a decent chance Lynn will be shaky early on. Guess what? The White Sox don’t really care. They’re going to suck anyway. There’s also a good chance that getting back into the rhythm of starting, Lynn will improve as the season goes on and be an attractive trade piece at the deadline. Sure, he’ll still be a rental, but we’ve seen teams on the playoff bubble pay hefty prices for rentals when they need that one piece to put them over the top. And Lance Lynn, at his best roughly a 3.5 win pitcher, is exactly the kind of piece that could put a contender over the top, and bring back a top prospect for the White Sox.
Basically, the Cardinals would be giving the White Sox a very valuable trade chip that the Cards themselves have almost no chance of cashing in. Chicago, though, because of their different circumstances, would have no issue making use of that trade chip. Admittedly, they would be taking on a little extra risk in the form of Lynn coming out and simply not looking recovered from surgery, but I don’t think that’s really all that much of a risk. He probably won’t be vintage 3.3 WAR Lance Lynn all season, but even if a club was looking for a power arm they could use out of the ‘pen in a flexible Miller-y sort of way, Lynn might provide an attractive option.
In this deal, the White Sox would receive instant pitching depth in their minors, through the addition of one major league ready starter, one who is probably just a year away from the big leagues, and one recent second round draftee who should move very quickly. They would also get a very solid, if not completely elite, positional prospect to add to their young crop of athletes. And finally, they would receive one of the best trade deadline pieces likely to be moved in 2017, potentially bringing them another elite prospect back in July when some club sitting five games above .500 needs to shore up the middle of their rotation, desperately.
And the Cardinals would get...well, they would get an ace. For four years, at a very reasonable cost. Picking up Quintana now would be purchasing his age 28 through 31 seasons, for barely more than David Price will make in one year with the Red Sox. They would also have done so by moving parts that on the whole look like a tremendous haul of talent, but actually would not really impact the Cards’ immediate future much at all. Weaver is movable because Reyes slots in ahead of him, and there are other pitchers coming up behind. Gomber and Jones could be solid contributors, but the Cardinals have a whole lot of solid contributors potentially in the pipeline. Moving Sierra, if it hurts at all, would be a few years off, while moving Bader or DeJong would be more immediately impactful. Still, the organisation should be able to weather any of those blows. And Lance Lynn, while absolutely vital to the Cards’ 2017 success right now, would be replaced by a superior pitcher in the trade, and would go to an organisation more capable of making use of the value he could have in July due to the fact they’ll still be in asset procurement mode at the time, rather than trying to squeeze out one or two extra wins to secure a playoff spot.
This move would very much thin out the Cards’ system, but depth is what they have. And a rotation headed by Carlos and Quintana, with Wainwright and Leake backing them up, would allow Alex Reyes to perform with less pressure, and could be an absolutely dominant unit overall.
I also considered a package that would replace some combination of prospects with Jedd Gyorko, under the theory that Gyorko’s contract would be attractive to a club hoping for a competitive turnaround within the next two years or so, but I’m not sure if that makes as much sense. And it’s also possible that no kind of quantity over quality deal would get the job done, and the White Sox would always hold out for elite top end talent over depth. But considering the direction we seem to be seeing lots of competitive clubs going in, prioritising a roster with no big holes over the old stars and scrubs model (which is what the White Sox have tried to win with the past few years, disastrously), I’m thinking a deal like this could potentially make a lot of sense.
The NBA has long been the bastion of weird, creative trades; just look up ‘expiring contracts’ sometime and read the history of deals that seemingly don’t send any value from one team to the other because one team wants a contract coming off the books in the near future. And given that baseball lacks both a hard salary cap and a floor, strange trades that traffic in contracts as much as player value will likely never become a fixture of the landscape. But we’ve seen teams over the past few years begin to find new and creative ways to both acquire talent and then turn that talent into more useful assets, depending on the place a given team occupies in the competitive cycle.
If the Cardinals really wanted to make an impact this offseason, and put themselves right back into the thick of things, they could do so. And getting creative with the assets they have might be just the way to do it.
Or, you know, they could sit on all the assets they have, continue to be morally opposed to taking risks in pursuit of high end talent, and fight with their ace over an arbitration difference of less than half a million dollars while turning a profit north of $75 million.
Either way, really.