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A very early look at the 2017-2018 free agent market

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This year’s Hot Stove is cooling down. If you’re not ready for it to be over, let’s look ahead to next year’s market.

MLB: ALDS-Toronto Blue Jays at Texas Rangers Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Hello, fellow Cardinals fans. Like most days lately, there isn’t much new to talk about in terms of off-season moves the team could make. No new rumors that deserve discussion. The team is likely to make some minor moves between now and Opening Day, but the heavy lifting of the off-season is probably over. Still, it seems like it ended too soon. We can keep the Hot Stove going, we might just have to shift our focus a year. Let’s take a very early look at next year’s market.

When talking about making moves a year in advance, we’ll have to use a lot of “ifs”. The 162 game season can unfold in an infinite amount of ways, and positions that looked fortified at one point can become weaknesses over the course of a season. One spot that looks most likely to be a weakness a year from now is third-base. Jhonny Peralta is the presumed starter in 2017, with Jedd Gyorko a possibility if Jhonny doesn’t bounce-back. That’s probably fine, though I sure would have preferred out-bidding the Dodgers for Justin Turner instead.

Next year though, the position could look much less fine. Jhonny Peralta is on the way out. Gyorko would be the presumed in-house solution, but what if he or Kolten Wong has a rough 2017? The team would still have Greg Garcia, who could be perfectly cromulent to be honest. Infield prospect Paul Dejong could also improve his stock and look worthy of a starting spot going into 2018. However, if those four fail to be worthy of two infield starting spots, it could spur a look at the free agent market. There’s really only two free agent targets that could help, both third-basemen:

Some fans are already predicting a Todd Frazier signing next year, in the mold of last year’s signing of Mike Leake and this year’s signing of Dexter Fowler. Frazier’s not a star, but he’s been a strong performer over his career and projects as an average hitter with good defense.

If that doesn’t excite you, Mike Moustakas could be the one to watch in 2017. In 2015, he seemed to finally find his way at the plate, scoring a 122 wRC+ to go with predictably strong defense at the hot corner. He was hitting an above-average rate again in 2017, before injuries shortened his season. More so than most players in their walk year, this year will be big for Moustakas. He doesn’t have the track record at the plate to shrug off a weak platform season. If he does have another year similar to 2015 though, he would look like a very attractive asset, especially since he’ll still be on the right side of 30 in his first free agent season.

Sans a strong season from Moustakas though, I’m not all that excited about the infield market. What I’d much rather prefer, is that the Cardinals find a way to make third base work for 2018, and make an exorbitantly large offer to Manny Machado, who will be a free agent following the 2018 season. The idea of an eventual Manny Machado-Delvin Perez duo on the left side of the infield is intriguing to say the least.

So let’s shift our focus to the outfield. The outfield seems markedly less likely to need an upgrade next year. The team has Randal Grichuk, Stephen Piscotty, and Dexter Fowler under control for 4, 5, and 5 years respectively. Prospect Harrison Bader should also join that picture by this time next year.

Still, it’s not impossible that we feel completely different a year from now. Bader’s contact problems could get exposed badly in the majors without further development. Piscotty could have a bad season. Grichuk could continue his weak strikeout/walk game but with less success on contact. Each of these things is unlikely to happen on it’s own, but Baseball can be unexpectedly weird. If two of those four things happen, the Cards could again be in the market for an outfielder. Here’s four outfielders the team could have interest in:

There’s a pair of Detroit Tigers the Cards could have interest. They already have several center-field options, so a corner is fine. Upton has an opt-out in his deal: he can choose free agency or make $88.4M over the next four years. If he opts out, he should look like an attractive asset. J.D. Martinez is an interesting option, as at the plate he’s been a lot like a better version of Randal Grichuk. In 2016 he increased his walk rate, making him more valuable.

Jarrod Dyson and Carlos Gonzalez are farther down the totem pole, but they’re interesting options that have been connected to the Cardinals in the past. It’s hard to see the team pursuing either as a starter in a year’s time, but who knows what happens between now and then.

Now we’ll look at pitching. Like the outfield, it seems unlikely the Cards will be involved in the starting pitching market. The team currently has seven options that would crack most MLB rotations, and can only lose one of them between now and Opening Day 2018. Pitching can change in a hurry though. What if Michael Wacha gets injured again? What if he moves to the bullpen and thrives there? What if Adam Wainwright continues to decline? What if Reyes’ command gets worse, rather than better? What if someone ends up needing Tommy John Surgery late in the season or at the conclusion of the year, like Lance Lynn a year ago?

At the very least, if the rotation suffered several losses, the Cardinals would be in a great position to add some high-end talent. Our fearless leader, Craig Edwards, already wrote on the strength of next year’s starting pitching market for Fangraphs. For starters, here’s eight strong options for next year:

It may be hard to imagine Johnny Cueto or Jake Arrieta donning the Birds on the Bat (particularly Cueto), but boy do those numbers make me want to ignore the fact that they played for a rival team for several years. If those two aren’t your cup of tea, there’s still high-end talent available in the form of Yu Darvish and Masahiro Tanaka. Lower down but still well above-average is Michael Pineda and Danny Duffy. Four players have asterisks next to their name, indicating that they’ll have a decision to make on opting out of their deals. Here’s each of those four along with the terms that they would be opting out of.

Of course, the nature of the opt-out clause means that if the players do exercise their opt-out, that will be because they’re good enough performers to be attractive free agent options. If any of these players don’t opt-out, you probably won’t feel like the Cardinals missed out on signing them.

For being about nine months ahead of time, I think this is a good enough look. The stock of many of these players could change quite a bit. Still, this gives a good list of players to watch for in 2017, as well as some talent to dream on if you get bored just dreaming on the 2017 team during the off-season. Pitchers and catchers don’t report for another month, so we have to dream on something. Here’s hoping the next month goes fast.