In our quest to preview the upcoming offseason action, we’ve discussed a lot of things this October. Between dumping Mike Leake’s contract, Lance Lynn’s impending free agency, and concern over Adam Wainwright’s health, the rotation is a little thin. While Alex Reyes wants to be ready for Opening Day, that would represent a quicker than average return from Tommy John Surgery, and we shouldn’t bank on that. Even if he does, and even though last year I was adamant that his talent shouldn’t wasted in the bullpen, its definitely preferable to let him find his form in the minors first before giving him the ball in major league games.
Speaking of the bullpen, with Trevor Rosenthal unlikely to contribute in 2017, the Cardinals could use additional relievers. Top on the list seems to be Juan Nicasio, who was a strong contributor in September and has expressed an interest in returning to St. Louis. While there’s been talk about Wade Davis and Greg Holland, the better idea is probably to take a quantity over quality approach, and try to find some diamonds in the rough. To that end, I looked at reliever upside, to try to find how often more marginal relievers turn into elite ones.
That brings us to right-field. That’s the team’s biggest position player weakness, at least according to the projections. Of course, most teams have much more glaring holes. Betting on Stephen Piscotty and Randal Grichuk is a lot better than most team’s biggest hole. Observe:
This doesn’t include DH, since only half the teams need a DH, and it’s hard for a DH to be very valuable anyway when considering the positional adjustment. The projections still consider impending free agents part of a player’s team, so some teams will have a bigger hole after that changes. That caveat doesn’t affect the Cards, but it also doesn’t affect most of the teams in front of them.
That’s besides the fact that the team possesses a lot of outfield depth. Also, the word “possesses” is 9 letters long, and a majority of the letters are ‘s’. That’s pretty weird. Anyway, it’s not just Grichuk and Piscotty competing for right-field. There’s also Jose Martinez, who just put up an extremely impressive season, drawing comparisons to impending free agent J.D. Martinez.
Harrison Bader also was in the mix this year, but he didn’t hit all that well in 92 plate appearances at the big league level (70 wRC+) and was merely above-average the rest of the year at Triple-A (111 wRC+). Next year is his age 24 season, so it’s easy to dream on upside. But the fact is, players in their mid-20’s on average are already in decline, albeit only slightly. It wouldn’t be surprising if Bader failed to catch on as a regular, and the scouts agree: he only made one top 100 scouting-based midseason prospect list, ranking 99th on MLB prospect pipelines list. The stats were more impressed, ranking him 61st on KATOH’s top 100. I’m not saying failing in his first cup of coffee dooms him, but his upside seems to be something like Randal Grichuk.
That same Randal Grichuk wouldn’t be surprised at all if he was traded. The article references the above players and more (Magneuris Sierra, Tyler O’Neill, and Jose Adolis Garcia) when referencing the Cardinals’ crowded outfield picture. However, while it’s a crowded picture, all of those players have deep flaws, such that it’s hard to imagine any individual player being a long-term fixture in the Cardinals’ lineup.
No, despite the depth, I see the outfield as more of a place to make an addition, not a subtraction. If any of the above outfielders do better than expected, well, Tommy Pham has a storied injury history, and baseball players in general have a hard time staying healthy over the course of a 162 game season. No team has ever had the problem of possessing too many good players anyway.
After all, right-field is where the biggest potential upgrade on the market exists. That’s Giancarlo Stanton of the Marlins, the same team whose new ownership announced a need to cut payroll. Less gargantuan contract terms can be had for more marginal improvements in free agent outfielders J.D. Martinez and Justin Upton. My favorite option though is Lorenzo Cain, who has outperformed all three the last three years and will probably cost less. He could patrol center-field, moving Dexter Fowler to a corner.
If the Cardinals acquire a new outfielder, Grichuk’s feelings about being traded would seem all the more vindicated. Jose Martinez is better than a sixth outfielder at this point, and one of Bader, Sierra, O’Neill, and Garcia should be better than a seventh outfielder. At the same time, a team can only protect 40 players from the upcoming rule 5 draft, and they can’t use all the spots on outfielders.
The problem is, Randal has been a good player himself. Over 1386 career plate appearances, he’s been worth 7.3 WAR. Over 600 plate appearances, that’s a 3.2 WAR per 600 plate appearances rate. Even just going by 2016 and 2017 - both years in which he was apparently bad enough to be demoted - he still played at a 2.3 WAR/600 PA clip. 2017 was his worst year as a hitter, recording just a 94 wRC+, but his base-running and defense brought his overall value right to average.
Grichuk is no stranger to providing value on the bases and in the field. Over his career he’s been worth nearly 6 runs above-average on the bases, and nearly 9 runs above-average in the outfield. On a rate basis, his defense and base-running has been worth 6.3 runs per 600 plate appearances in his career.
While Grichuk bemoans his lack of consistency in the article linked above, his season lines have been remarkably consistent. Since 2015, his walk rate has always been between 5.9% and 6.3%. His K rate has been between 29.5% and 31.4%. Despite that, his above-average contact quality has made him a playable player.
We know what Randal Grichuk is, and while any player can fall off at any time, this is the track record of an MLB-caliber player. A player that would be a starter on most teams, take the right-side of a platoon on most the other teams, and make a great option as a 4th outfielder on the rest.
So in the end, the Cards have a bad projection in right-field largely because the projections are low on Grichuk. The projected 97 wRC+ seems about right, even if his career wRC+ is 108. The problem is they see him as a below-average defender going forward, despite not posting a single below average season in the field in his career.
He’s under control for three more seasons, and projected to earn a paltry $2.8M next year. At the very least, he’s one of the best fourth outfielders in the game, making less than what that role is worth. He’ll make somewhere around $14M-$15M in arbitration over those three years, and he’d probably be worth more than that in 2018 alone if given a full season’s worth of plate appearances.
To be clear, I still think signing Cain or trading for Stanton (or Christian Yelich) is one of the best ways to improve this team. I also think that move would mean the team would have to move some of it’s outfield depth. I don’t however, think the team should be trading Grichuk just to clear up some depth. Even if they add an outfielder, the 2018 Cards could easily require 400 or more plate appearances from their fourth outfielder, and Grichuk would be their best option for that role. If he’s the one traded, hopefully there’s similarly good value coming back the Cards’ way.