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Grading the Cardinals’ off-season

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A look at the all of the Cardinals’ off-season decisions condensed to a single grade

Atlanta Braves v St Louis Cardinals Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images

Finally, opening day is in our eyesight. Soon, baseball players are going to be doing baseball things, and it’ll count in the standings. First off, I want to thank our dedicated readers for spending their off-season here at VEB. It’s easy to have other interests when baseball’s not in-season, and even so, there’s a lot of different places you can go to get coverage of the Cardinals. We like to think of ourselves as the best destination for said coverage, but still, we appreciate everyone who feels similarly. We spent a lot of time covering the Cards’ moves this winter, and while we get paid either way, I personally love all the feedback I can get. Even when you guys completely disagree with me, that’s a way better response than crickets. So thank you for being there with us through the winter.

In the next couple weeks, we’ll be presenting previews of the 2017 season. Going forward, our focus is going to be on the season at hand. First though, I wanted to look back and grade how GM John Mozeliak and his front office did over the last five months. That seemed like the right way to close out the off-season. Below, I will assign a letter grade to the major things that the Cardinals did (or didn’t do), as well as assign a number indicating the level of importance of that decision. Then, using the GPA system that I’m sure everyone here knows and loves, we’ll come to single grade for the Cardinals’ off-season. A C will indicate average. I hope you enjoy it.

Signing Dexter Fowler ($82.5M/5 years): B-, importance: 5

Finding an outfielder was the number one goal of the off-season, at least in terms of putting talent on the field in 2017. Yoenis Cespedes and Fowler headlined an outfield free agent market a little short on impact players. Adam Eaton was traded for a large prospect cost that was fair, but also would have crushed the Cardinals’ farm system, and the Pirates held on to Andrew McCutchen, reportedly due to a very high asking price. I wrote about Fowler at the beginning of the off-season. I also wrote about how Cespedes wasn’t worth what he would get paid, and when I dove deep into Adam Eaton’s profile, I came away with the impression that Fowler was the better bet. After Eaton was traded, I went full-on in support of signing Fowler, and it seems the Cardinals had a similar reaction, signing him shortly after the Eaton trade.

Originally, I had the Fowler deal at a C+, because the specifics of the deal just aren’t that great. He went for a lot more than what analysts thought he would get going into the off-season. John Mozeliak would probably agree with that, as he himself described it as an “over the top” offer. Still, the outfield was priority number one, the Cards’ didn’t lose any prospects, and their long-term payroll picture is strong enough that this signing shouldn’t prevent any future moves. He didn’t have much to work with, but he pulled it off. You got to love it when a team decides to throw cash at the problem instead of prospects.

Extending Carlos Martinez ($51M/5 years): A, importance: 4

This, for me, was the highlight of the off-season. Carlos isn’t only a young and talented pitcher, he’s the team’s best projected player. For a team full of average to slightly above average players, Carlos has a sky-high ceiling. Entering arbitration for the first time, this was probably the Cardinals’ last chance to extend Carlos at a rate much lower than what he would expect in free agency. It was also neat for me personally, because it was for almost the exact same terms that I laid out in January for what Carlos should sign for. Overall, the team secured up to four free agent years at a fraction of what a star pitcher could earn over that time frame.

Martinez should now head a rotation set to receive a tidal wave of pitching prospects over the next few years. Also, while the younger players have been the more productive part of the Cardinals’ game, the older players like Adam Wainwright and Yadier Molina are still the faces of the franchise. A long-term extension was probably the last piece needed for Carlos to become that new face, and a photogenic one at that.

Signing Brett Cecil ($30.5M/4 years): B, importance: 4

Cecil wasn’t one of the “Big three” elite relievers on the market, but he was in the next tier below. He’s 3/4th the pitcher Mark Melancon is, and he cost half as much. He’s half the pitcher Aroldis Chapman and Kenley Jansen are, but cost a third as much. He’s two to three times better than Mike Dunn, who got 2/3rds the commitment Cecil received. For impact relief help, Cecil came at the best value. This isn’t as important as the Fowler signing, but it’ll help the Cards do as well as they can in close games the next few years.

Not extending Yadier Molina (yet): C, importance: 4

This is a tricky one, as an extension for Molina could be a good thing or a bad thing depending on the guarantee. The best thing for the team would be finding a way to guarantee 2018, without guaranteeing any other years. Molina might have had too strong of a 2016 to make that possible though. That’s why I landed on signing Molina for $22M each in 2017 and 2018. That should be enough cash for Yadi to forgo testing free agency (and risking the chance of a down year hurting his value), while giving Kelly a year in Triple-A, a year as the backup, and a year as the starter.

At the same time though, I really don’t want to see an extension going farther than 2018. If the Cardinals and Yadi had annouced say, a 3 year, $60M deal from 2017-2018, I would have been disappointed, and given a D+ grade. If Kelly has a lousy year and Molina continues to beat father time, the Cardinals can always pony up at that point.

Not signing Edwin Encarnacion ($60M/3 years) or Mark Trumbo ($37.5M/3 years): C+, importance: 3

After signing Fowler and Cecil, the people hadn’t seen enough. Many wanted to see the team sign a slugging first basemen. Edwin Encarnacion went for less than most thought, the impetus to me for avoiding Encarnacion was always that Craig found that players like him age terribly. Add on that the Cards’ pitching staff was the most ground-ball heavy in the game, the fact that he spent over half his time at DH the last two years, and the fact that Matt Carpenter is better suited for first, and Encarnacion was simply a horrible fit.

As for Mark Trumbo, he’s just not a very good player. For a player whose only source of value is hitting for power, he went to exactly the right team.

Not signing Justin Turner ($64M/4 years) : C-, importance: 3

On the flip side, I was really disappointed that Justin Turner signed for so little. Turner has been the 24th best position player over the last three years, despite not playing full time. Turner would have added extra thump to the lineup without the defensive baggage of moving Carpenter back to a skilled infield spot to accommodate Encarnacion or Trumbo. And before you say he only wanted to play for the Dodgers, well, he at least denies it.

The Jaime Garcia trade ($12M/1 year) : B-:, importance: 3

The Cardinals picked up Garcia’s option apparently just to trade him, and that’s what they did. Of course, the rotation has had his problems, but the Cardinals saved $12M and lost a pitcher that has thrown 522 innings over the last five years. Usually, Jaime’s saving grace has been that he pitches like an ace on a rate basis when he’s healthy, but that wasn’t true last year, as he posted his highest FIP and xFIP since a 16 inning cup of coffee in 2008. At the time, the Cardinals still had seven average to above-average starters. While the remaining rotation options have struggled with health, the team received John Gant in return, who now sets up nicely as the second-best seventh-best starter in the league.

Not dumping Jhonny Peralta’s contract ($10M/1 year) : B-, importance: 3

Peralta was injured for a chunk of the year and below replacement level for the rest. Jedd Gyorko hit 30 bombs in just 438 plate appearances. It would be extremely easy to dump Peralta’s deal somewhere (assuming there was a taker) and call Gyorko the starting third baseman. However, the two project strikingly similar going forward, due to signs of regression coming for Gyorko and a bounce-back for Peralta. At the same time, depth never hurt anybody.

Extending Mike Matheny: D, importance: 3

Ugh. I don’t want to talk about this one much. I’ll just refer you to Craig’s definitive post on why Mike Matheny should be fired, as well as my show of support for hiring Gabe Kapler, currently serving as Director of Player Development for the Dodgers. Most front offices are smart now, and I think a statistical revolution in the clubhouse is the next big place to add value.

Losing Allen Cordoba: D, importance: 2

The Cardinals decided to protect Mike Mayers and Jonathan Broxton instead of Allen Cordoba. At the moment, I think the team should use options on the relievers who got them in order to juggle the bullpen and keep everyone. However, I would have preferred to just cut bait on Broxton before the Rule 5 draft, and keep Cordoba instead. At the very least the team could have traded Cordoba (or a similarly valued prospect) for a relever at the deadline, had they needed to. I assume Mozeliak was betting no one would take a 21 year old in rookie ball, but I guess he didn’t bet on A.J. Preller’s ridiculous thrist for Rule 5 picks.

At the same time though, 21 year olds still in rookie ball rarely pan out. So I can’t rank the importance of this loss that high.

Not signing a reserve outfielder: C-, importance: 2

This is a minor one, but I still think the Cardinals’ outfield depth is a little too thin. Tommy Pham would be a fine 4th outfielder, if not for his excessive injuries. Starter Randal Grichuk has had problems staying healthy. Jose Martinez has just been too average at Triple-A to consider him a viable 5th outfielder. I voiced support for signing Brandon Moss a couple of times, and I’d feel a little better right now if they had. Maybe they think Harrison Bader will be ready at some point. Maybe they think Adams will fill the role I wanted for Moss. Maybe Jose Martinez really is cromulent. But I would bet against those things.

So that’s eleven things we graded the Cardinals on. Another thing I could have included would be how the Cardinals blew past their international amateur spending limits this year. That didn’t really happen this off-season though, so I didn’t include it. However, it’s something that I approve off strongly. I’d like to see them put the icing on the cake by signing Luis Robert.

Here’s all eleven, the grades, their importance, and a resulting overall grade for the Cardinals’ front office:

All in all, my subjective opinions all together average to a 2.7 GPA, a B- average. I think that accurately reflects how I feel about the off-season. It’s not exactly an optimal off-season, but definitely above-average. They filled their only hole, extended their best player, bet on a bounce-back from Peralta, and turned an extra starter with one year left and a $12M salary into six years of John Gant and two lottery picks. They avoided two free agents that could be landmines, but also missed out on Turner. They also left the depth a little thin in the outfield, lost a fringe prospect, and extended a manager with a lot to work on in tactical skills. Now, it’s time to see how the Cardinals do in-seson. After all, that’s what we’re all here for.