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Investment Opportunities

We know the Cardinals will be shooting to make at least one big move this offseason. But what about making a supplemental move or two as well?

New York Yankees v Baltimore Orioles Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

Heading into this offseason, all the focus is on the really big moves. The big, huge, needle-moving, franchise-altering, paradigm-shifting moves that we’ll all fantasise about until the moment when either it becomes obvious no big move is going to be made, or a big move is, in fact, made, only it’s the wrong big move and we’re all upset about it.

However, as fascinating and sexy as the big moves are, if the Cardinals are going to make the kind of leap we all hope they will this offseason, it’s probably important we look beyond the big moves as well. One big move is all well and good, and if there is one major acquisition made I would probably consider it a successful offseason. But what really probably needs to happen is something like one big move, and then one smaller move that wouldn’t really move the needle enough to matter all on its own, but improves the club by a moderate amount, and offers some upside should things break right. Or even just a risk that offers upside. Call it a midsize move, if you like. Combine one Stanton/Donaldson/whatever sized move with one other roster addition you think adds some extra upside, then throw in a couple small bets, again with upside, and you could have a major, major sea change this offseason.

There will be plenty of time later to go down the road of those small side bets, the non-roster invitees and the like (for instance: someone should really try Derek Holland out in a bullpen role in camp just to see if the stuff could play back up in short bursts throwing only two pitches, but no way in hell would I guarantee him anything, I don’t think), but today I want to look at a couple of these mid-level upside plays. These are players who, for one reason or another, might be available at a middling price and could bring some upside to the roster in some way. We’ve got two pitchers and two position players.

Kevin Gausman, RHP, Baltimore Orioles

You may know Gausman as the Enigmatic Kevin Gausman, of Orioles fame, as he has pretty well earned that capital e Enigmatic designation at this point. I’m sure Pegasus will, at some point in the next couple weeks, publish a piece covering the Orioles as potential trade partners for the Cardinals, so I hope I’m not trampling his subject matter too much here by mentioning that Baltimore, beyond the obvious Manny Machado dream scenario, actually have a pair of pitchers on the roster that are among my favourite offseason targets. (Mychal Givens is the other, in case you were wondering.)

Gausman has been one of my personal cheeseballs since way back when he was a Colorado high schooler, close to a decade ago. I loved the velocity, combination of two- and four-seam fastballs, and an excellent tumbling changeup that was remarkably polished for a high school kid. These days, I still like him for the big velocity and a nasty tumbling split-finger pitcher that evolved out of the changeup from so many years ago.

The issue with Gausman is that, for all the promise he’s shown over the years, he’s never really quite put it together. He’s still a solid performer, but there’s so much more talent in his arm than results on the field. His ERA this year was a not very good 4.68, and while his FIP of 4.48 suggests a little poor fortune, that’s still not particularly good.

However, in the second half of the season, Gausman put up much better numbers than early on, with a 3.41 ERA overall and several short stretches of absolutely dominant pitching. The problem, as has always been the case with the LSU product, was that he was still simply unable to really carry that good stuff over from start to start consistently.

Gausman would not, by any means, be a giveaway for the Orioles, but their inability to tap into his talent fully could push them to move him for future assets, depending on how they see themselves going into 2018. The O’s seem set on trying to contend, but frankly I think Baltimore is in bad shape and needs to change direction to avoid a prolonged tank job in a couple years whenever Machado has moved on. The Orioles’ biggest needs right now are in the outfield and the rotation — and yes, I realise speculating a club might trade away a starter when the rotation is bad is somewhat counterintuitive — and those happen to be the deepest areas of the Cards’ system.

Dealing a young outfielder and a pitching prospect or two to the O’s for Gausman might actually push their timetable back, and that may not be acceptable for them as they try not to waste their final year of club control over Manny Machado, but if they are realistic about their chances in the suddenly beastly again AL East, trying to establish a new window in the near future might be their best bet. The hope for the Cardinals would essentially be Jake Arrieta 2.0; a new group of eyeballs could be just what the doctor ordered to help Gausman get over that last hurdle that seems to be tripping him up and keeping him from getting the most out of his talent consistently.

There is also the fact Gausman is heading into his second year of arbitration eligibility, and is only going to get more expensive. Again, if the Orioles are looking to try and establish a new window on the fly, moving Gausman before his salary escalates much more while loading up on future assets might be the smartest choice to make.

Shane Greene, RHP, Detroit Tigers

A starter early in his career with the Yankees, and then initially with the Tigers as well, Shane Greene has worked exclusively out of the bullpen the past two seasons, and has developed into one of the more tantalising relievers in the game.

Greene was always possessed of a very intriguing power arm, but just didn’t miss enough bats consistently as a starter. He looked good in his debut season of 2014, but tanked down the stretch that year and in 2015. Since moving to the ‘pen for the Tigers, though, his strikeout rate has ticked up markedly, crossing the 25% threshold this year as he posted a 2.66 ERA in just under 70 innings of work.

That’s the good news with Greene: his strikeouts are trending in the right direction and he features one of the nastiest two-seam fastballs in the majors. The bad news is he walks too many batters, or at least did this past season, and will turn 29 this offseason, so it isn’t as if he’s a low-mileage arm bet.

The other piece of good news is that he’s cheap. Very cheap, in fact. This will be Greene’s first shot at arbitation this offseason, and while he’s certainly in line for a raise, it might just be that a club could offer him some security in the form of an extension in exchange for cost certainty, if said club believed he could slot in as a bullpen weapon in the late innings for them over the next three or four years.

As it stands right now, Detroit has virtually no chance of competing any time soon, and so don’t really need a closer. Greene will have value on the trade market this offseason, but this could be an opportunity to pay in prospects rather than money, which could be attractive if another, larger move might dictate paying in money rather than prospects, and he could represent a significant late-inning upgrade.

I’m not generally a fan of throwing huge resources at a bullpen, preferring to simply toss as many talented arms at the wall and seeing what might stick, but a Greene pickup, particularly if the club were to resign Nicasio as well, could bring some real intimidation to the back end of the relief corps, and might be an interesting workaround for the problem of a rotation potentially thin on innings, if one thought he could handle a somewhat more versatile usage pattern than he’s worked the past two seasons. Essentially, the idea would be to acquire him, buy out his arbitration years, representing his age 29, 30, and 31 seasons, and use him as part of an overall plan to build a more versatile, talented relief unit.

Jose Abreu, 1B, Chicago White Sox

Very nearly the only quality player left on the White Sox not to be dealt away, Abreu has never quite gotten back to the heights he achieved in his rookie season in the bigs, but following a two-year decline phase rebounded this year to put up a very good 138 wRC+. He’ll turn 31 sometime next season, so age-related decline is a concern within the next few seasons, but there’s really no question Abreu can flat-out hit.

He posted the lowest K rate of his career this season, at 17.6%, while putting up an excellent .248 ISO. While the rest of baseball was striking out at a greater pace than ever before, Abreu was refining his plate approach and making more contact without sacrificing power. That’s a pretty fine combination, really.

The bad news with Abreu is that he’s limited to first base, and so in order to accommodate both he and Matt Carpenter on the roster Carp would be forced back over to third more or less permanently, or possibly to second if Kolten Wong were to be made part of a trade package. Carpenter himself could be part of a package, of course, but I doubt the Cardinals are particularly eager to move Carp coming off an injury-plagued season in which he was still an outstanding hitter, but was clearly limited by an ailing shoulder. The hit the club would take on defense moving Carpenter to one of the other infield spots would mitigate much of the gains one might make brining in Abreu, but the bat might actually be worth it. I’m not certain it would be, but it might be.

If the Cardinals decided to pivot away from Matt Carpenter this offseason for whatever reason, Abreu would be a very strong replacement candidate. Outside that, however, I’m not sure shuffling him in would improve the overall deck enough to be worth it. He’s a hell of a hitter, though.

Brad Miller, IF, Tampa Bay Rays

One of the more disappointing overall hitters in the game this season, Miller followed up a 30-homer breakout season in 2016 with a bit of a wet blanket across the board in terms of expectations in 2017. His power virtually vanished, and Miller struck out way too often to have just modest pop in the bat.

Miller is an interesting option, as he plays every position on the field, but he also doesn’t really seem to excel at any one spot. Still, there’s the fact he does have the capacity to play pretty much anywhere, at least in that Aaron Miles-y sort of way, and he did also just put up a 15.5% walk rate in over 400 plate appearances this past season. Those walks come along with a 27% strikeout rate, but if a club thought they could work with him on improving his contact rate Miller could present an intriguing package of offensive tools to go with that versatility. It’s basically what Tampa Bay was hoping for when they picked him up from Seattle, in fact; it just hasn’t really come to fruition yet.

Basically, Miller is a higher-upside version of Greg Garcia, by dint of his superior power potential, but in order to really buy into Brad Miller being something special one would have to believe that the Seattle Mariners possessed not one, but two of the best utility/multi-position players in the game and managed to sell both off (the other being Chris Taylor, of course). Not to say that’s impossible, necessarily, but doesn’t seem all that likely, does it?

Miller could be an interesting buy-low candidate either as a super utility player or a lottery ticket at third base if one had to move Jedd Gyorko as part of a plan to increase liquidity on the roster and bring in a star or two. He shouldn’t cost much in terms of trade value, having not had the kind of career so far we expected he would when he was matriculating through the Seattle system, but the ingredients are there. If one were to buy the 15% walk rate, believe he could regain the 2016 power to some extent, and that his 2017 BABIP of .266 represents some legit bad luck, placing a modest bet on Miller blooming late might be worth it. Better places to spend capital? Sure. But if you’re making one or two really big moves, then Miller could be worth taking a shot on as well. It’s the sort of pickup one could see the Dodgers making, certainly, as they just try to acquire as many talented players as possible.

And finally, a bonus player....

Jurickson Profar, IF, Texas Rangers

I had an interesting exchange not too long ago on Twitter with Chris Mitchell, creator/maintainer of the KATOH system of prospect evaluation over at FanGraphs. It was right after he published a piece on the players KATOH looked to be right on, in terms of liking them more or less than the industry consensus, and I asked him if he would mind running Jurickson Profar through KATOH, pretending he wasn’t already not a prospect.

Chris was kind enough to do so, and his system spit out a six-season projection for Profar of 4.1 WAR, which Chris figured would probably put him somewhere in the ~140 range as far as prospect rankings go.

Now, that is admittedly a far cry from a few years ago, when Profar was the consensus number one prospect in the game, but that was prior to a catastrophic shoulder injury that cost him the better part of two years. However, here’s the thing about Profar: he’s still only 24 years old (I know, that seems impossible, but it’s true), just put up a .383 on-base percentage in Triple A this season after struggling in the bigs to begin the year, and walked over a third again as often as he struck out. The power potential still hasn’t come back around to where it once was, but the plate discipline is showing signs of moving back toward elite, and he’s received outstanding reviews at pretty much every position defensively throughout his playing career.

Here’s the other thing: Jurickson Profar and the Texas Rangers just really need to call it quits, walk away, and agree to see other people at this point. The Rangers’ handling of Profar — rushing him to the big leagues as a teenage shortstop, only to then play him at every position on the field when he had never done so in the minors, then yo-yoing him back up and down with no solid opening for him, but still refusing to cash in the chip for something they really needed — has always been slightly curious, but things seem to have finally just hit a boiling point late this season. Profar began the season in Texas, playing left field, and struggled to hit. He was sent to the minors, had a great year, and popped off at some point about not getting called back up. He was then not promoted even in September, and Jon Daniels had some pretty pointed comments about there being other players in the Rangers’ system they would rather take a look at.

Basically, things haven’t gone well over the past few years, and player and team both need to get on with their separate lives, I think. The Rangers like Rougned Odor (probably more than they should), and Elvis Andrus in the middle infield, and they have the ageless Adrian Beltre still at third base, with Joey Gallo having seen plenty of time there this season as well. There just isn’t room for Profar, and while he’s played all the positions they’ve asked, it seems a waste to run him around left field when he could be playing in the dirt.

One would think the acquisition cost would be very modest, particularly seeing as how Profar has way more service time than you might think due to spending two years on the disabled list. He made a million bucks even this year, and it’s basically impossible to predict anything about his arbitration case this offseason. It’s just a weird, weird, weird situation with Profar.

It’s possible that Jurickson Profar, far from the legendary top prospect he once was, has essentially become a Quad-A player due to injuries and time lost, but it’s also possible he’s going to make some team look very smart for picking him up from the Rangers this offseason. More than anything, he needs a fresh start somewhere else, just to see if the talent is still in there.

I admit to being very, very curious what would happen if a club picked Profar up, parked him at some infield position, and just told him, this is your position. For the whole year. We’ll see where it takes us beyond that, but for this season this is your home. No utility duty, no outfield, no minor league shuttle, no looking over your shoulder. And then just....see what happens. Might fail completely. Or maybe that 11% walk rate and 8% strikeout rate is the kind of player he is — which is a lot like what he looked like he was going to be, once upon a time — and you might really have something.

This is the second time in this article I’m going to invoke Jake Arrieta, but there’s a good reason for that. Once upon a time, the Cubs were able to pick up Arrieta, a supremely talented but inconsistent pitcher, for a reliever because the Orioles had a need, and the Cubs basically didn’t care if they were any good or not at the time. That created an opportunity for them, because they were able to take a chance without having to worry about it going wrong. It’s the sort of bet the Cardinals simply could not have made, because they have had too much to lose every year. If they traded a reliever for Jake Arrieta, they had to hope he would be good, and immediately. The Cardinals could not afford to just throw him out there, work with him on his delivery and command, and just give him time and space to work and see what happened. They had to worry about winning.

Profar is in a very similar spot right now. The one thing he’s never really gotten at the big league level has been a real opportunity, or at least not one without a bunch of limiting factors attached to it. If a team could pick him up, give him an opportunity, and just not care if he sucks for a period of time, there’s a chance it could pay off huge. Now, I’m not sure the Cardinals are in a position to do that this offseason either. But, I did mention earlier that if they decided to move Jedd Gyorko as part of a larger package, they might have an opening at third base. Or, if they moved Kolten Wong in a package, there could be an opportunity at second. Profar could fit at either spot. So just imagine for a moment that El Birdos were to liquidate part of the roster, moving Piscotty and Grichuk and Gyorko all for prospects, then packaging up half the farm system for Chris Archer, and taking on the majority of the Giancarlo Stanton contract to avoid selling the other half of the farm. At that point, picking up Profar for a modest return, a bullpen arm or something, and installing him at third, could be a perfect experiment to conduct.

It’s obviously not a likely scenario, but as the resident Profar honk here, I had to fit him in to this investment-minded column. He wouldn’t make sense as the club’s only move, but if there really are as many moving pieces going in all directions this offseason as it seems there could be, then perhaps there’s an opportunity created for what once seemed like a surefire star, just to see if there’s some post-hype sleeper magic to be mined.

As I said at the outset, none of the players listed here could be the primary move of the offseason and have it be considered a success. But if you’re making one big move and then looking for an additional incremental improvement, there’s some talent to be had here. Every player, to a greater or lesser degree, has flaws and warts, but every one of them also has some talent that could make them a part of the solution.

The Cards aren’t that far away, but they have a tough roster to upgrade. They’ll need to be creative. And if there’s already a big deal being made, these are the kinds of secondary pickups that would fit that creative description perfectly, I would think.