Something happened! The Cardinals have traded for Marcell Ozuna, and managed to do it without parting with any of their top three pitching prospects (or Carson Kelly). It’s not Giancarlo Stanton, but it’s a start. Ozuna is a good player. He had a five-win season last year. There are some reasons to doubt he’ll be quite that good again, but he’ll project for a better 2018 than any other Cardinal position player. The Cardinals are better with him than without him — his acquisition raised FanGraphs’ current projection of the 2018 Cardinals from 86 wins to 88 — and that’s good. Hooray!
That’s a guarded and conditional hooray, though. Ozuna and some relievers is, to put it plainly, not enough. 88 wins suggests that Cardinals would be strong wild card contenders, but with the Cubs presently projected for 93 wins and presumably not done improving themselves, the Cardinals have an opportunity to become legitimate contenders for the NL Central crown again. They have the prospects — the prospects exchanged for Ozuna were solid, but they were only a small dent in the system’s great depth — and, as Craig wrote after the trade, they still have plenty of payroll space to put into play. The team now needs to not rest on its laurels, and instead push aggressively ahead to figure out how to use these assets to become a real force again in the National League.
A few avenues have received most of the discussion so far. Prospect wealth could be converted into a big trade with the Rays for Chris Archer, or they could add some payroll (and a little more prospect value) into the equation and try for Evan Longoria and/or Alex Colome as well. A smaller prospect hit but bigger payroll one might land a year of Manny Machado. Ditto Josh Donaldson, though it increasingly appears he’s not available. You know all this already.
So here’s a potential major addition, of similar scope to those well-trod paths, that’s received somewhat less discussion in Cardinals media: take Zack Greinke from the Diamondbacks.
This hasn’t been an overlooked option for lack of people looking; I’m not some especially creative thinker over here. It’s been overlooked because, until a couple days ago, nobody would have expected Arizona to be willing to move Greinke at all. They were quite good in 2017, winning a Wild Card spot, and Greinke was their ace. He had a five-win season. 32 starts, 202 innings, 3.20 ERA, strong W-L record if that’s your thing. After a blip in 2016, Greinke went right back to being Zack Greinke, Awesome Pitcher. Why would a team presumably trying to contend again trade that guy?
I don’t know the answer. I think it’s weird, too. But apparently they’re talking about it, actively, with the Rangers. I don’t know if it was their idea or Texas’s; some sources have speculated that Arizona is motivated to shed Greinke’s salary in order to better afford a huge offer to J.D. Martinez (who spent the end of the season in Arizona, pounding the bejeezus out of the ball and no doubt winning admirers among management). Still, it doesn’t sound like Arizona is being especially reasonable about the whole thing — not yet.
The rumors contend that Arizona doesn’t view a potential trade as a salary dump a la the Giancarlo Stanton affair. If that’s the case, they’re unlikely to be able to get anything done. Greinke has four years and $138.5M left on his contract. He’ll pitch next year at age 34. If you pencil out his projected production given his age, typical aging, and a four-win level of talent in 2018, you actually get something fairly close to $138 million — a little less, probably, but the contract doesn’t look disastrously underwater. Still, at his age it’s hard to imagine Greinke getting that much money on the open market.
That being the case, if Arizona truly wants to move him they’ll have to accept what the Marlins ultimately accepted when moving Stanton: you’re only getting talent back commensurate with the amount of salary you retain. Keep $50M in salary, get $50M in prospect value. We know how it would go; we just spent a month agonizing over trade negotiations structured that exact way.
Here is where this gets interesting for the Cardinals. Assuming Stephen Piscotty is traded (which seems all but done as of this writing), the Cards can add something like $25M to the 2018 payroll before putting themselves at risk of incurring the luxury tax (they wouldn’t hit the tax at that level, but would start to eat into needed cushion left for things like in-season additions). Greinke will make $34M next year. Too much, right?
Well, sort of. Payment of $10M of the salary itself is deferred until after the contract ends. The actual cost to the Cardinals in 2018 drops to a more manageable $24M. This makes Greinke look more affordable than at first glance, but the tax issue is still problematic: deferred salary still counts against the present year’s CBT calculation, albeit at a slight discount. That’s a mark against the deal; it wouldn’t take them over the tax threshold, but it would reduce their cushion before hitting it, and thus their in-season flexibility. The Cardinals could take all of Greinke’s salary and make it work, though it’s reasonable to question if they would.
So what would a Greinke trade look like, ideally? The Cardinals would likely want the Diamondbacks to eat enough salary to eliminate these CBT concerns. That means $5-10M a year. Let’s say it’s 10: that leaves Arizona retaining $40M, and the Cardinals taking Greinke on a 4/98.5 contract. Those are big payments, but worthwhile for a pitcher of Greinke’s caliber.
The Cardinals would, in this scenario, be required to send back around $40M in prospect value — maybe slightly more to shake an ace loose. What’s that look like? Conveniently, it looks a lot like something we just saw: the package exchanged for Marcell Ozuna. Using the indispensable tables Ben Markham put together last year, and the prospect grades listed here, we can estimate a prospect value of roughly $45M that went over for Ozuna. An equivalent group would be, say, Jose Adolis Garcia, Jack Flaherty, Austin Gomber, and a throw-in.
After this trade, the Cardinals’ 2018 payroll would be around $170M: higher than ever, but well within what they can afford and with adequate room for deadline moves. Their rotation (with projected WAR totals) would be Greinke (4), Carlos Martinez (4), Michael Wacha (3), Luke Weaver (3), and a combo of Adam Wainwright, Miles Mikolas, and Alex Reyes (2-3?). Last year the NL’s best SP group put up 19 fWAR. Just the Cardinals’ top five would project for around 16, and they would receive quality starter innings from more than their top five. With Greinke, this would be one of the best rotations in baseball.
Greinke trade concepts are a little off the wall. Old pitchers aren’t necessarily more injury-prone than younger ones, but Greinke’s old, and time eventually comes for every player. It’s not clear whether the Diamondbacks are even serious about moving him. It’s not clear the finances could be made to work. But as you look out on the post-Ozuna landscape and wonder what the next move might be, don’t forget that weird moves happen sometimes. It’s weird that he’s even a topic of discussion, and it would take a weird trade to make a fit. But once you get past the weird stuff, it could actually be a great way for the Cardinals to upgrade.