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Guns or Butter? Money or Talent?

The Cardinals have a lot of resources at their disposal right now. Not infinite, of course, but still a remarkable amount. How should they spend those resources now that Plan A is off the board?

Toronto Blue Jays v Boston Red Sox Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Sort of feels like things are coming to a head, doesn’t it?

You know, I have a bit of a history around these parts for having my columns fall into some unfortunate timing. It seems like an inordinate number of the trades, signings, and whatever other moves they make have fallen on my days to post over the years. Typically, I write up some time-consuming article, a draft report or some other long-winded soliloquy on whatever topic has caught my attention for the moment, and then a couple hours later, news breaks of the Cards making a move. The first few times it happened it was funny, the next few times I found it irritating to have my work shoved aside and overshadowed, and then eventually I actually matured enough to just take it in stride, and it became funny again.

Personally, I’m kind of hoping my semi-magical ability to make news happen by publishing my work holds true today, and we get some kind of movement. It feels like things are moving toward actual events actually happening in actual reality, with some sort of tipping point coming soon, and I’ll be glad to once again be the guy whose column is lost entirely in the shuffle if it means we get some real news, and some sort of movement in this maddeningly slow hot stove season.

Actually, to that end, I’ve been thinking about the Cardinals and their offseason in the wake of Giancarlo Stanton landing in the Bronx, and what the best way forward is at this point.

First off, losing out on Stanton isn’t the end of the world, nor is it the end of the possibility the Cards have a very successful, productive offseason. What missing out on Stanton does represent, however, is the potential for a one-move offseason to also be considered a major success. Stanton’s fit in right field for the Cardinals represented probably the only way one single move could potentially bring the Redbirds a three, four, maybe even five win upgrade in a single large stroke. Now, a five win upgrade is probably at the very edges of what Stanton could have represented, but it wasn’t completely out of the question. And that’s what you lose by losing out on Giancarlo: the potential that one position could give you the kind of bump that the club saw in right field from 2014 to 2015, when Jason Heyward replaced the ghost of Allen Craig, the initial struggles of Oscar Taveras, and the actual pretty goodness of Randal Grichuk.

In order to get that same kind of upgrade now, the Cardinals probably have to make a couple moves. Now, I’m not going so far as I’ve seen a fair number of posters at various places go, wherein they seem to think that every move, no matter how good an acquisition it represents, has to be part of a series of giant moves to ever be views as anything but a cop out. The fandom this offseason seems to have lost sight of the fact the Cardinals are already a pretty good team (though admittedly only pretty good, with plenty of room for improvement), and that it’s really, really hard to pull off one blockbuster, much less a series of them that sees the club picking up multiple all-star players. I’m not saying the Cardinals now have to trade for Chris Archer and Josh Donaldson and Roberto Osuna and Christian Yelich for it to be a successful offseason. And if you thing I’m being hyperbolic, just look around the interwebs a bit. Cardinal Nation is sorely lacking in perspective these days, it seems.

However, I will say that if the Cards want to gain the kind of 4-5 win impact that it was possible Stanton could bring, it’s almost certain they’ll have to make more than one move to get there. As things stand right now, the Cardinals are probably something 85-86 win team. They won 83 last year, and the underlying stats suggest they’re a handful of games better than that with neutral sequencing-slash-less ill-timed relief blowups. Pythagoras has them at 87, BaseRuns at 88. And that feels about right. The components of the 2017 Cardinals were always a handful of games better than the product we actually saw on the field many nights. Call it bad luck, call it sloppy fundamentals, call it poor timing, call it underperforming. Whatever you like, really; the fact is, the Redbirds shot themselves in the collective foot more often than most teams this past year.

So with that in mind, and considering the couple roster moves that have already been made, I’d say this is a club with a true talent projection of right around that 84-87 window they’ve been stuck in the last couple years. They’ve gotten to that pretty-good-but-not-good-enough-to-not-need-some-favourable-bounces place by being solid everywhere, but lacking high-end talent. We know this; I’m not breaking new ground here. Now, I will say that I think the team we saw in the second half last year, once some of the deadwood had been cleared off the roster, is probably on the high side of that window, and if not a playoff team then at least very close to being one. And I will further say that there is, I believe, a way one could look at this current roster even without more upgrades and believe they have what it takes to be a contender.

If, for instance, Tommy Pham and Jose Martinez are both in fact the players we saw them to be in the second half of 2017 (seriously, just go look at both of their plate discipline splits from the second half; it’s absurd how good they each were), Carlos Martinez builds on the improvements he made last year and manages to get his home run rate back down under control with the help of Mike Maddux, and Matt Carpenter rebounds to put up his 2017 season numbers except without the shoulder injury potentially depressing his quality of contact numbers, then one could see the Cardinals being substantially better than this past season’s iteration. That is quite a large number of ‘ifs’, though, and it’s probably best not to put yourself in the position of needing that many things to go right to see a marked improvement.

So if we peg the Cardinals as something like an 85-86 win team on paper, then what we’re looking for is...about five wins. Get up to that 90-91 true talent level, where a four-game shortfall still gets you to 86-87 wins and a very good shot at a wildcard spot, and a four-game windfall gets you into the 95 win range and a potential division title. Would it be nice to see a Cardinal club in 2018 with a projection of 95+ wins? Sure it would. That’s just not very realistic, though. The Redbirds would have to be willing to do some pretty extreme things to push it to that level, and by pretty extreme I mean potentially foolish.

But let’s look for five wins. Stanton might have gotten you five, as I said, but more reasonably was probably 3-4 on his own. Looking around at the rest of the market, though, it probably takes two moves (at least), to get those five wins.

And here’s where I think we can really start breaking down the moves into two categories. One, we have money moves. And two, we have talent moves.

Now what I mean by money moves and talent moves is this: there are team improvements you can make by spending money, and there are team upgrades you can make by spending talent. On the extreme side of money moves we have free agent signings. They cost money, but there’s no talent being given up. In certain cases there are potential draft picks being surrendered, but that’s not really talent yet. There is an opportunity cost there, sure, but draft picks as a whole are of small enough value relative to free agent contracts as to be a somewhat secondary (or even tertiary), consideration.

On the other extreme, you would have something like trading for a star player who is also pre-arbitration. The 0-3 star is almost never, ever moved, though, so to be fair it’s hard to ever really have a pure talent move.

Which is fine, because in reality nearly every move made is going to fall somewhere on a spectrum. Free agents require only money, yes, but there’s an opportunity cost in filling a roster spot where you might maybe discover a diamond in the rough from your own system. Still, those are basically just money, while every trade (the type of upgrade we seem to mostly be talking about this offseason), comes with it’s own set of sliders, where we adjust that money to talent ratio.

For instance, if we take Marcell Ozuna, the outfielder seemingly most likely to be a Cardinal in the near future, we have a player with two years of control left, arbitration eligible without any sort of cost certainty (other than escalating, basically), but still undervalued by quite a bit relative to his talent. In his case, we have a pretty solid balance of money and talent, because the Marlins are looking to dump him before he gets any more expensive, but are also aware of the surplus value he’ll offer even at a salary they want to move. Thus, he’ll require a substantial investment of talent to acquire, and then a fairly hefty amount of money to pay.

Contrast that with the recent Giancarlo Stanton trade, which was tilted heavily, heavily toward money and away from talent. Now, the Marlins got a couple decent pieces in return for Stanton, but the Yankees didn’t give up anything close to equivalent player value, because they contributed most of their side’s value by taking on $265 million that the Marlins badly needed to get out from under.

On the other hand, we have Christian Yelich, the third of the holy triumvirate of Marlin outfielders. Yelich’s deal is ridiculously team friendly; a team could have him for potentially five more years at a cost of just over $58 million. For a player who’s been a pretty consistent 4+ win contributor year after year, that’s a hell of a deal. The team trying to acquire Yelich would not contribute much to the balance sheet in terms of money; rather, everything you would give the Marlins would have to be talent. Even Miami can afford that contract, after all.

So Yelich is a talent move. Stanton was a money move. Ozuna is somewhere in the middle.

The reason I’m going down this rabbit hole is because I think we can categorise the trade possibilities left on the market — as well as the free agent signings — as either money or talent moves. And, more importantly, I think we can construct some realistic scenarios for the Cardinals to make the pair of upgrades it looks like they need if we take a sober look at their situation.

Said sober look, to me, suggests that the Cardinals have the resources to make two big moves this offseason, and that the ideal combination would probably be one money move, and one talent move. They’re far enough away from the luxury tax threshold that they could probably make more than one big-money move, but I think we’ve seen this club is conservative enough with payroll they aren’t going to push it that hard. Rather than spend this year ahead of Wainwright’s contract falling off the books next offseason, they’ll wait until that money is actually freed up before they consider spending it. Yes, that knowledge is slightly frustrating. No, I don’t think there is anything we can do about it.

Likewise, the Cards’ farm system is so deep they probably could make multiple talent moves, but just like with the spending, it’s hard to see this organisation empty the system to such an extent they don’t feel comfortable with, say, 35 players for their 25 man roster. We’ve seen the obsession with depth and raising the floor; even trying to force their collective mind into a different track I simply don’t believe Johnny Mo and Co. could conceivably do something like move five or six of their top ten prospects in one offseason and leave the roster so vulnerable.

But one from each camp? Well that seems doable. So where would some of the more notable potential moves fall on the spectrum?

Chris Archer, who would be an amazing pickup, falls way, way over to the talent side of things. The Rays might be in such bad straights that moving him seems a good idea to them, but probably not because they simply can’t afford his contract. He’s just so valuable that a team such as Tampa, always on the lookout for their next below-market winning play, might consider him too attractive to the rest of baseball not to move, when their window appears to maybe be a couple years out. Any Archer deal would require Alex Reyes be involved, though, as well as probably Carson Kelly, and maybe the firstborns of a pretty sizable chunk of the fanbase.

Yu Darvish, on the other hand, is entirely a money move. There’s some risk to his profile, being 31 years old and having already been through Tommy John surgery, but he would require only cash, which is an infinitely more common commodity in baseball right now than talent.

J.D. Martinez is obviously cash only as well, which makes him somewhat attractive, but the limits to his game are so well-defined that I personally see better moves elsewhere. Still, if you were to pull off a move like Archer, and still felt like the offense needed some more oomph, Kong could be the way to go without completely devastating the system.

Alex Colome will be arbitration eligible for the first time this offseason, which means he’ll start making some real money, but he’s still quite cheap. Thus, the talent return would have to be fairly substantial. (Side note: I’m very conflicted on Colome; the part of me that hates the notion of needing an Established Closer thinks he’s too mediocre a pitcher to pay top dollar for, while the part of me that thinks it’s not a bad thing to have a guy designated as the Closer, while your actual best pitcher is used more flexibly, isn’t nearly so down on the idea.) We can debate what ‘fairly substantial’ should or should not mean for a reliever whose K rate fell to barely over 20% this season, but he isn’t going to be available for Patrick Wisdom and Connor Jones.

Josh Donaldson and Manny Machado are interesting cases, in that both are far, far more valuable than their salaries, and thus fall into the talent move category, yet the fact each is only coming over for a single season limits the amount of upside a team can reasonably expect. Machado you’re absolutely going to be bidding on this time next year; Donaldson I think might be more amenable to a long-term extension due to his circumstances. That’s purely my gut feeling, though; I could be totally off base.

So through this prism of money and talent, with the Cardinals probably able to do one of each, we can construct a hypothetical path to the upgrade they need. For instance, if the Cards wanted to go all-in on a trade for Chris Archer and Alex Colome, that would cost them an enormous amount of resources in terms of talent. However, after spending that talent, they would have a solid reliever just entering arbitration and an ace-level starter on one of the most team-friendly contracts in all of baseball. At that point, you have to feel like you’ve got run prevention pretty well locked down between Carlos, Archer, and whatever group of young starters you didn’t have to trade away to get Archer. If you still wanted an offensive upgrade, you might be pushed into the J.D. Kong sweepstakes in order to avoid further denuding the farm system.

One could also call up Yu Darvish, give him a giant contract, and then head over to the Marlins’ suite to make them an offer they literally cannot refuse on Christian Yelich. Darvish ups the payroll but costs no prospects, while Yelich hurts to acquire but helps keep the payroll under control for the next five years.

And this is why, as sad as it makes me to say it, I don’t know that either Donaldson or Machado are especially good fits for the Cards to try and acquire this offseason. Both of them, due to the circumstances of their contracts, would require an outlay of talent now, and a huge outlay of cash later. I’m not sure the Redbirds want to put themselves in a situation where they have to pay with the talent now, and then face the uncertainty of ponying up some unknown amount of money a year from now. One-year rentals do not a core player make, and core players is what the Cards are in search of this offseason, it seems.

Now, I will say that I could see a way the Cardinals could decide Donaldson was worth the investment of talent, if they both thought they could extend him and also managed to move some of the current roster for further talent to spend. If Stephen Piscotty goes to the A’s for a couple of non-40 man pitching prospects, then maybe those players just slide right into a Donaldson package, and the club doesn’t feel the pinch of the talent cost so much that they despair at the money cost.

So what would be my preferred course of action, you ask? I would throw all the talent at the Rays, Reyes/Kelly/Sierra/all the pitchers I get from Oakland for Piscotty, in order to try and get Archer. Then move current roster talent like Grichuk/Gyorko/Wong (not all three necessarily; just creating an example), to Toronto, whatever they need to feel like they’re getting better over the next three seasons, and then make the full-court press to extend Donaldson for huge but not record-setting dollars over the next five years. I know, I just said Donaldson isn’t a great fit for the structure of what I think the Cardinals have the ammunition to accomplish. But damn it, I really want Josh Donaldson in red.

Failing that, I’m going the Darvish/Yelich route, putting an offer on the table for the Marlins, then just adding pitching prospects until they holler uncle and agree just to get me to go away. Honestly, as likely as I think the move is to be Ozuna, I’m not super thrilled about it. He’s a Boras client and not signing an extension, which means that while we’re not going to be doing this all over again next year, it’s still only two seasons, which is better than one, yes, but not enough better for me. He also feels really risky still, but that’s entirely a feeling.

Obviously, there will probably be a couple smaller moves made as well the rest of this offseason by the Redbirds, but as we stand now, I think the resources are there for two big moves. Do those two big moves get the Cardinals to the same place they could have gotten with the one big move for Giancarlo? I suppose we’ll never know now, but for all of our sakes I certainly hope so.

So: talent? or money? Or a little bit of both?