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The demand for corner-outfielders this winter

The Cards biggest weakness is in right-field. Who else could be looking for help there?

Atlanta Braves v Miami Marlins Photo by Joe Skipper/Getty Images

It’s still another three weeks of non-Cardinal baseball before the real offseason action gets underway. This is, in some ways, my favorite part of the offseason: a time when one can imagine all of the possible routes their favorite team can take. As such, we at VEB are trying to cover those possibilities, and map out our own favorite ideas.

According to the projections, on the position player side, right-field is the team’s biggest weakness:

350 of Matt Carpenter’s 644 plate appearances are projected to come at third base. That both makes third the Cardinals strongest position and makes first base look weak. I personally don’t think that’ll be the case.

There are right-fielders out there. Justin Upton is expected to opt-out of his current deal, and I wrote about him twice recently. J.D. Martinez - who I wrote about Saturday -will also reach free agency.

The biggest name on the market isn’t a free agent. Giancarlo Stanton is a star on a Marlins team that probably won’t see the postseason soon, and new executive Derek Jeter has already talked of making “unpopular decisions” regarding the new team’s direction and Stanton. While we’re on the topic of the Marlins, Christian Yelich wouldn’t be a bad acquisition either.

What I wanted to find out today was what other teams could be looking at acquiring those players. This doesn’t only concern teams that could compete with the Cards for the above four players. It also could tell us who might be interested in Stephen Piscotty or one of the team’s many outfield prospects inhabiting the upper half of the minors and/or the Cardinals 40-man roster, should the team acquire someone else.

To analyze each team we will look at 5 things:

  1. how weak the team profiles in their corner-outfield spots.
  2. how that weakness compares to the team’s other weaknesses.
  3. the team’s ability to add payroll
  4. the team’s ability to deal from the farm
  5. the team’s competitive position

To start things off, we’ll again reference the projections. Here’s how each team’s right-field situation currently projects:

This doesn’t include impending free agent departures, so this considers Martinez as a Diamondback. Looking at the back-end of the list, no contenders are atrocious in right-field, though the Dbacks would be without Martinez. The Rockies are the next contender with right looking like a weak spot, but they expect around a win in production next year.

We’ll do the same for left-field:

Go Tommy Pham! Yeah, left-field is a little low on elite talent, but Pham helps the Cards to the best left-field projection. The Angels are in second, but that’s thanks to the departing Justin Upton. The Mariners, Rockies and Nationals stand as contenders who currently project for weak left-field situations. The Giants and Mets had poor 2017’s, but could make win-now moves in an attempt to compete again in 2018.

To grade a team’s farm system, I looked back at my attempt to rank each organizations’ collection of top prospects using the midseason top 100 lists. Such a method ignores those prospects that didn’t make a top 100 list who still contribute value to a team’s farm system, so this isn’t perfect. I think it’s useful for showing what team’s have prospects they could trade though. Here’s a chart from that article:

The Giants, Dbacks, Angels, and Mariners are not going to have the trade chips to acquire Stanton or Yelich. If they want to acquire a really good corner-outfielder, they’ll have to use cash. The Blue Jays and Nationals however could deal from the farm to fill a corner-outfield hole.

That’s just according to the scouts though. At this point in MLB, all 30 teams recognize the importance of stats. To represent the stats-side of evaluating prospects, here is KATOH’s top 100 list (and accompanying projected WAR in their first six seasons) grouped by team:

Again, the Angels, Diamondbacks, Mariners, and Giants look unlikely to make a deal. The Blue Jays still look good, but the Nats picture looks a little less solid. For the team’s involved, KATOH’s rankings don’t differ too much from the public scouts.

At this point, we’ll look at this on a team-by-team basis:

The Blue Jays

The Blue Jays don’t place too horribly in right and left field, but that doesn’t count the fact that they already declined Jose Bautista’s option. They say they are “open to any possible way we can make our team better,” so despite looking like the fourth or fifth best team in their division, it seems like they’re gearing up for a run in 2018.

Thanks to the irreplaceable Cot’s baseball contracts at Baseball Prospectus, we know the Blue Jays are coming off a record-setting $163.4M Opening Day payroll in 2017, $35M more than their previous high. We also they have nearly $90M in guarantees, with Josh Donaldson set to probably make more than $20M in his fourth and final trip through the arbitration system as a Super 2.

They had four other players in arbitration this year who made a combined $11.25M this year and will be due raises for next year, and five additional players entering arbitration, lead by Kevin Pillar. The Blue Jays have the money and the farm to add, and corner-outfield is a weak spot. Second base and shortstop also project as replacement level holes too though. With a rebuild seemingly around the corner, it’s not clear just how determined the Blue Jays are to add. They also may instead try to spread their available resources to fill the multiple holes they have.

The Mariners

The M’s have tried their best to push themselves into relevancy. Their opening day payroll since 2015 has went from $123M to $142M to $154M, each a record-setting year. They already have $110M guaranteed in 2018, along with six players continuing arbitration who made a combined $18.5M in 2017, and two players entering arbitration.

Left-field is a hole, but they have another in center, and signing a good free agent pitcher would be a big upgrade over their current back of the rotation. The Mariners top prospect - Kyle Lewis - is an outfielder, though he only played at High-A this year. Perhaps his presence means the Mariners just look for a stop gap in left while improving the rotation.

The Angels

Not too long ago, the Angels were held back by big contracts to under-performing players like Albert Pujols, Josh Hamilton, C.J. Wilson, and Jered Weaver. They had some of the highest revenues but didn’t want to pay the competitive balance tax, and adding talent was difficult with an empty farm and those four chewing up payroll space.

Albert’s still there, but the others aren’t. A team’s payroll when considering the competitive balance tax is the summation of each player under contract’s annual average salary, rather than what those players actually made that year. By that measure, the Angels have only $88.2M in player committed to 2018 so far, compared to a threshold of $197M.

That doesn’t count three players who will continue arbitration after making $12M last year, and 8 players entering arbitration. Even so, the Angels have the best player in baseball and the best defender in baseball, and should be looking to put whatever they can around them. The team isn’t that great even with Mike Trout and Andrelton Simmons, but they don’t strike me as forward enough to trade those two to jump-start a rebuild. The only other thing to do for them is throw money at the current situation.

They probably don’t have the prospects to get Stanton or Yelich, but they have no reason not be involved in the bidding for Justin Upton or J.D. Martinez. If Upton leaves, he would create their biggest hole.

The Nationals

Following three fringey American League Wild Card contenders, the Nationals are first great team we’ve seen so far. 2017’s $164M Opening Day payroll was a record, though in 2015 and 2016 ended their year around the same figure. They currently have $129M guaranteed in 2018 salaries, though it’s only $119M in competitive balance tax terms. Anthony Rendon and Tanner Roark combined for $10M in 2017 salaries and will continue arbitration. They’ll be joined by Michael Taylor.

There’s definitely money for an upgrade somewhere, just in terms of getting the payroll back to the 2017 level. That’s not accounting for the team pushing payroll farther in what could be the team’s last with Bryce Harper. As mentioned, the team also has an average farm system from which to deal from if it wants. The two combined means the team conceivably could add Stanton, though that would probably end any efforts to re-sign their own superstar right-fielder.

The Giants

The Giants had a truly awful 2017, and project as below average in 2018. As mentioned they have no farm to deal from, and they already have $155.3M in guaranteed salaries going forward, along with five raises for five players who made $7.5M in arbitration next year, and two more entering arbitration. Left-field looks like a disaster for the Giants at the moment, though they also project as below replacement level at third.

They have the money to make a big move at third or in the outfield and still be a little below the competitive balance tax threshold, but is it worth it to them? After such a poor 2017, is it even delaying the inevitable? Even though they’re not shy about spending, I just can’t see them making big win-now moves right now.

The Rockies

The team that plays its home games mere blocks from my current address made the playoffs for the first time since 2009, and may look to build on that momentum. As part of an expectation of spending more, they had a record $127M Opening Day payroll in 2017, but only have $63.75M on the books for 2018. Greg Holland is expected to decline his player option, and the team only had two arbitration cases last year (Charlie Blackmon and D.J. LeMahieu, and only two relievers (Chad Bettis and Chris Rusin) entering arbitration.

They ranked near the middle in terms of farm system, so the Rockies could conceivably deal for Stanton. Not that it wouldn’t be surprising, but it could happen. And wouldn’t it be cool to see Stanton chase 73 hitting at Coor’s field half the year? It’s a match made in heaven.

The Rockies have significant holes at first and in right, with the shell of Carlos Gonzales departing. That’s with Ian Desmond slotted primarily in left, who could move back to first if needed. It makes sense for them to take a long look at the corner-outfield market, and be involved.

The Diamondbacks

We’ve made it to the final team, the Diamondbacks. They have only $60.3M invested in next year’s team thus far, and have already been the highest bidder for J.D. Martinez’s services once. They entered last year with just $93M in payroll, but they’ve stretched it as far as $115M in season-ending payroll in 2016.

They have a total of 12 arbitration cases, nine of which are continuing arbitration and made a combined $24.3M in 2016. It seems like the right time for the Diamondbacks to spend, considering the empty farm system, and the fact that they have one of the best hitters in the game in his prime in Paul Goldschmidt. You also probably didn’t forget they have one of the best pitchers in the game in Zack Greinke heading up a strong rotation.

In other words, this is the time for the Dbacks to stretch their payroll, if they’re going to. If Martinez departs, right-field will join second-base as significant holes on the 2018 Diamondbacks. They don’t have a farm to deal from, but they can probably afford to bring back J.D.

So, where does that leave us? In general, the teams listed here don’t really have strong farms, so its hard to see them trading for Stanton, Yelich, or any other strong outfielder. The Rockies, Blue Jays, and Nationals are the exceptions.

The Blue Jays probably don’t take on a contract when they seem so close to needing to rebuild. They have several holes to fill anyway, so the chances of a big upgrade in one specific spot seems unlikely. The Nationals may not want to take on Stanton’s contract unless they’ve already given up on re-signing Harper. And even so, Stanton could require parting with top outfield prospect Victor Robles, who could instead fill the void. As for the Rockies, well who knows. They’ve always seemed like a hard front office to read.

In other words, the Cardinals may be in the best position of any other team to acquire Stanton. They have the money and prospects to absorb the cost. Their biggest hole is in right. His addition wouldn’t quite put them on par with the Cubs, but still would have a huge affect on their playoff hopes in 2018.

Many teams have the ability to spend, a sign of the current state of MLB. The Nationals, Angels, and Giants have a need and can afford to sign Martinez or Upton, but the Diamondbacks, Rockies, Blue Jays, and Mariners can too. The Blue Jays may not want to, and the Mariners might spend on the rotation instead, but that still leaves a lot of suitors for the big name outfielders on the market. The teams that traded for Upton and Martinez could try hard to retain them.

The same may not be the case for Stanton, where the Cards may be the team best positioned to acquire him. It could make for an interesting winter.