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We might have to wait one more year for the Cardinals to spend big

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It might be forcing things to get a big upgrade this winter, but next winter is a different story.

Miami Marlins v Washington Nationals Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

As the Astros and Dodgers battle it out for the World Series championship, 28 other teams consider the winter ahead of them. Here at VEB, the Cardinals were nice enough to miss the postseason altogether, thus allowing us a whole month before the offseason to consider all the angles they could take this winter.

For the most part, we’re obsessively looking for big upgrades, wherever we can find them. The Cards are fairly solid all-around, to get better they need very good and great players to upgrade over their pile of above-average to good players. Unfortunately, even bad teams don’t often trade elite players - Mike Trout, Freddie Freeman, and Joey Votto are testament to that. Paul Goldschmidt had been until recently.

That’s a problem, because not all that many elite players become free agents. The teams use those six and some change years of an exclusive negotiation window and do their best to keep their elite players as long as possible. Case in point: Mike Trout would be a free agent this winter, had he not signed an extension with the Angels a few years back.

This winter might be a little short on big upgrades, but not by much. It’s at least better than last year, when only one player was deemed worthy of a $100M+ contract. There’s options out there. Using fangraphs’ projections, there’s six players projected to be worth 3 WAR or more over a full season’s worth of play. That’s 600 plate appearances for hitters and 180 innings pitched for starting pitchers:

3+ WAR 2017-2018 free agents

2017-2018 Free agent WAR/full season
2017-2018 Free agent WAR/full season
Yu Darvish 3.9
Masahiro Tanaka 3.6
Jake Arrieta 3.3
Lorenzo Cain 3.6
Zack Cozart 3.4
Justin Upton 3.0

This isn’t a group worth turning your nose up at, but each option is a little underwhelming in their own way. Yu Darvish has Tommy John Surgery in his recent past, and this was a down year for him, at least until he was lights-out after being traded to the Dodgers. Masahiro Tanaka (who still has to opt-out of his contract to be considered a free agent, but probably will) has partially torn his UCL previously, and while he avoided Tommy John surgery, it’s hard not to have it in the back of your mind when considering the type of investment it’ll take to get him. Jake Arrieta is coming off his worse season.

Zack Cozart is an interesting option, but you wouldn’t want to buy-in too hard to his 2017 results. Lorenzo Cain recently became a favorite option of mine, but maybe the org isn’t willing to move Fowler to a corner. Justin Upton is coming off a strong year, and is still fine in a corner-outfield spot. According to the projections, his 3 WAR is still a little more than a win better than where Randal Grichuk and Stephen Piscotty are projected for, but it’s hard to get too excited about that when he’ll likely get a $100M+ guarantee.

Let’s compare this to 3+ WAR players in the 2018-2019 free agent market:

3+ WAR 2018-2019 free agents

2018-2019 Free agent WAR/full season
2018-2019 Free agent WAR/full season
Clayton Kershaw 5.8
Josh Donaldson 5.7
Bryce Harper 5.3
Manny Machado 4.9
Andrew McCutchen 3.8
Brian Dozier 3.5
Garrett Richards 3.4
Dallas Keuchel 3.4
Daniel Murphy 3.2
Charlie Blackmon 3.2
A.J. Pollock 3.2
Nelson Cruz 3.1
Brian McCann 3.0
Gio Gonzalez 3.0

I see now I have Brian McCann pro-rated to 600 plate appearances, but we should only pro-rate him to 450 plate appearance since he’s catcher not named Yadier Molina.

Maybe it’s not fair to compare this winter’s free agent market to next winter’s as this is the most star-studded free agent market in recent memory, and perhaps ever. They still have another year where each player’s projection could improve or worsen. As we stand right now though, there’s 4 players in next year’s class that are better than any player in this year’s class.

It’s not just the high-end though. There’s more than double the amount of 3 WAR players on this list than the first. As fans, we tend to like the idea of just paying cash for players, as opposed to trading other players or prospects. We can’t help it, we want all the talent wearing our favorite laundry. Next year, that looks like a legitimate option.

This year though, the Cards have to at least consider the trade market, and consider the cost of prospects, if they want to get a big upgrade. I looked at the cost of Chris Archer last week. I came to the conclusion that he would cost five legitimate Cardinals prospects, provided it included Carson Kelly, Alex Reyes, and one of Jack Flaherty and Luke Weaver. That probably makes you queasy, but prospects are known to break hearts, and proven elite pitchers who are signed for pennies of their value aren’t easy to come by.

It’s easy to think Josh Donaldson or Manny Machado should be available, as they play on teams that profile as third or worse in their division, and are free agents following 2018. However, both the Blue Jays and Orioles seem to be pushing for one more run despite facing a Red Sox team hellbent on winning a World Series, a Yankees team with a brighter future than almost any other team in the majors, and a crowded A.L. Wild Card picture.

Giancarlo Stanton and his giant contract is presumably on the market, and the Cards actually might be in the best spot to trade for him. Of contending teams looking to upgrade in a corner-outfield spot, the Cards are one of few that have the payroll space and prospects to get him.

Stanton’s contract brings us back to the question of next year’s market though. Does the team get Stanton now, and handicap what they can spend in next year’s free agent market? Or is the better option to wait until next year, when there’s elite players of almost every type?

To some though, this is like giving up on next year already. While the team really is still in a fine position to compete for a Wild Card with it’s current roster, it would definitely be demoralizing to a portion of the fanbase to not make any significant moves.

Still, the team is several wins away from being at the same level of the Cubs. The near-term probably doesn’t offer much chance of a Cardinals division championship, as the Cubs are clearly focusing a lot of resources on their current window, and they can’t do that forever. The Cubs have probably peaked. They were one of only two teams to not have a prospect on any scouting-based top 100 mid-season list.

In that sense, it does make sense to delay gratification. No sense in trying to butt-heads with a team that lost on purpose for years in order to build its current super-team. Give them another year to fade, and then make the move.

That doesn’t mean I think the Cardinals should have a quiet offseason. Signing Cain could easily be a two-win upgrade over Stephen Piscotty and Randal Grichuk in right, and he’ll probably end up signing for less than what Dexter Fowler cost last year. A signing like that would still leave the Cards with enough money to possibly get two 3+ WAR free agents in next year’s class, or at least one of the very best free agents.

And if they did sign Cain, they might as well try to swap some outfielders for an upgrade somewhere else. Carson Kelly is also getting more expendable, with Andrew Knizner’s rise through the system. For not that much cash and from dealing from depth, the Cards could still get two upgrades this winter without seriously harming their long-term picture in terms of payroll space or the farm.

The point is, prepare yourself, fellow Cards fan. Prepare yourself for the possibility that there isn’t a big upgrade this winter. With all the big upgrades available next winter, it might be best to wait one more year before getting serious about knocking the Cubs off the Central division throne.

I know, two years without play-off baseball has been grueling, and I already can’t stand the thought of a third. It’s all the more horrific when you consider the Cubs - THE CUBS - have enjoyed three consecutive NLCS appearances. Who do they think they are, the Cardinals? Just kidding, the Cards had four in a row. If executed right though, waiting just a little longer might be the best course of action.