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Big Bats, Baby!

Looking around baseball, Steve Irwin style (RIP, mate, coming up on eleven years), for the ever-elusive bigus batticus.

MLB: St. Louis Cardinals at Milwaukee Brewers Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

The Cardinals’ on-field position right now is...tenuous, at best. I’m not going to re-litigate the club’s decision to stand pat at the trade deadline; that ship has sailed, and while I think their decision was basically no decision at all, and a terrible decision to make (or not make, I suppose), I will at least give John Mozeliak and Michael Girsch the barest amount of credit for remembering their Hippocrates (or their Thomas Inman, or Auguste Chomel, perhaps), and first doing no harm.

But here’s the thing: those changes the Cardinals refused to make at the deadline this year are coming, whether the organisation wants them to or not. Whether they wish to acknowledge the necessity or not. This overload of quantity and paucity of quality cannot continue. And I don’t even necessarily mean that in the, “It can’t continue if the Cardinals are serious about getting back to the top of the heap,” sort of way. I literally mean that the Redbirds are heading for tough decisions whether they want to make them or not, because the nature of roster limits and playing time availability will, at some point in the near future, begin making those decision for them, if they are utterly unwilling to take the reigns of their own fortunes.

I think it’s fairly well understood at this point that what the Cardinals really need to do over this coming offseason is probably best described as consolidation. They’ve built an absurdly deep farm system, with multiple options at most positions on the field, but are lacking in star power, in concentrated production. The ‘concentrated production’ bit is probably the key, lest we get wrapped up in the notion of what is or is not a Star; having a thousand dollars is a good thing, but if it’s all in singles you’re going to have a tough time fitting it in your wallet.

The real crux of all this consolidation talk is, for the most part, the idea that what the Cardinals really, really need is a Big Bat. And yes, that’s Big Bat with two capital ‘Bs’, said so you can hear them both. We don’t need a big bat; we need a Big Bat. The issue, of course, being that saying you need a Big Bat is much, much easier than actually finding a club with a Big Bat interested in moving him.

So let’s take a look around at some candidates, shall we? Just to get a better feel for the sort of challenge the Cardinals are facing in this particular pursuit. I’m going to mostly focus on third base and corner outfield spots, because those seem the most likely places to get a big offensive centerpiece kind of player. Given that Matt Carpenter probably could move back to third base, if one was willing to accept the defensive downgrade of putting him back on the left side of the infield for a monster slugger, I’ll consider first basemen as well. Not my first priority, though.

Giancarlo Stanton, OF

First off, we have the big one. The obvious answer, and the easy answer. Just go get Giancarlo Stanton, and your problems are solved, El Birdos.

And honestly, at this point that looks like it might actually be true. A couple months ago, I wrote a column looking at how difficult it was going to be for the Cards to find a major upgrade (which, yes, has basically turned into the theme of the 2017 campaign entire), and concluded at the time that Stanton would be a solid upgrade, but probably not a huge one. At the time, he was having a good season, not a great one (his wRC+ at the time was, I think, something like 125 or so), and was on pace to end up at something like ~3.5 wins above replacement. Since then, he has gone on a virtually unprecedented offensive tear, ascended back to the realms of the very best hitters in baseball (current wRC+: 167), and currently sits at a cool 6.1 fWAR on the year.

If the Cardinals really were able to acquire Stanton, stacking Carpenter/Pham/Fowler/Stanton 1-4 in the lineup would essentially score all the runs. Not all the runs the Cardinals would score, mind you; just all. the. runs. I don’t care how big the contract is, or the fact it still looks like it might be underwater at the end; if you can get Giancarlo Stanton this offseason, you do it, and you watch the playoff victories roll in.

The question, of course, is now whether the Marlins and their new ownership group are going to be motivated to move Stanton, or even interested in such a risky endeavour. The thing is, buying a team and then immediately trading away your biggest superstar and best player is not, under any circumstances, going to be all that popular a move. However, the fact remains the Marlins are in bad financial straits — amazing how using the franchise for a series of short-term cash grab tactics didn’t lead to long-term financial strength for Jeffrey Loria et al — and getting out from under this particular monster contract could be necessary. The purchasing group had to take on an enormous amount of debt to get the deal done, the franchise is projected to run operating deficits well into the future, and the new owners may just not be willing to lose as much money as it’s going to take to guide Miami into a better place down the road somewhere. Dealing Giancarlo Stanton would be a bitter, bitter pill, but the Fightin’ Jeters may have to bite the bullet and do so anyway.

Josh Donaldson, 3B

Ah, the other easy answer to the Big Bat question. Donaldson isn’t quite the slam dunk of an acquisition that Stanton is, due to the fact he’s older (he’ll play 2018 at 32, instead of 28), has seen his defense take a turn downward this season (playing on turf in the Rodgers Centre, I believe, might have something to do with that), and plays a position where the Cardinals have a better value proposition on the roster than in right field, where Stephen Piscotty is still trying to rediscover his lost mojo.

There’s also the fact Donaldson is under contract for only the 2018 season, and will likely be very expensive to extend/resign, which may put him beyond the reach of the Blue Jays, whose corporate ownership is always a bit tight with the purse strings.

All that being said, following a calf injury in the spring and a slow start to the season, Donaldson is once again on pace for a season somewhere in the 5.0-5.5 range, even with some missing time in there, and is currently running a 141 wRC+. It doesn’t get much better than Josh Donaldson, and if the Cardinals could leave the Winter Meetings with Donaldson on a new five-year extension for, say, $140-150 million or so, having dealt something like Jedd Gyorko/Carson Kelly/Austin Gomber, you would have to consider the Big Bat question pretty well solved. The fact Donaldson would be 36 at the end of that hypothetical contract is a little scary, but he’s exactly what the middle of this lineup needs.

J.D. Martinez, OF

Now, following the two really obvious answers to the question, we can move on to the slightly less perfect fits, beginning with the guy the Cards didn’t pursue at the deadline this year.

Let’s begin with the good: J.D. Martinez has incredible power. Monstrous, beastly, otherworldly power. He hits baseballs for miles and miles. He also gets on base at a very good clip; his OBP this season is .361, which while not elite is certainly solid and an asset. He strikes out a bit more than you might like, but a 12% walk rate and a bunch of balls hit over the wall, where the vagaries of the BABIP gods cannot affect them, means he’s very productive.

Now for the bad: J.D. Martinez is very bad at all the things in baseball that are not hitting a baseball a very long way. He’s a poor baserunner, an horrific defender at this point, and isn’t going to get any better at either, considering he’ll be 31 next season. Now, that 31 number isn’t scary by itself, but combined with Martinez getting bigger, slower, and less athletic the past few seasons, it’s more concerning than it might be in some other cases.

The contract for Martinez will be, I would imagine, pretty stout, but not franchise-crippling. The real issue is just how much of the value he creates with his bat is going to be given back with his legs and glove.

Justin Upton, OF

Now here’s an interesting name, and an interesting situation. Justin Upton of the Detroit Tigers is currently in the midst of a six year contract that will take him through the 2021 season, which he will play at 34 years old. Upton was brought up in the comments several weeks back, and I actually asked if he was back to being good, because I honestly hadn’t realised what a brilliant bounceback season he’s had this year following a really shitty 2016.

Here’s the situation with Upton: he has an opt-out this offseason, which he may or may not exercise. A couple months ago, it seemed obvious he would stay right where he is, and the Tigers would probably try to trade him somewhere, but as good as Upton has been this season (wRC+ of 140, .280/.364/.549 slash line), and as soft as the free agent class is, there’s a decent chance now he might choose to get out of his deal and try the market again.

If Upton does opt out, he’ll probably be looking for another five or six year deal, at $25+ million a year. At that price, he might be a pass. If, however, Upton decides against opting out, he’s essentially signed for four years and $88.5 million, which is not that bad for a player of his caliber in this market. He’s been a consistent plus defender in both right and left fields in his career (mostly, with a couple down years), and has always been a very good baserunner. He’s sitting at 4.0 wins above replacement right now, and seems to have taken a step forward in his strike zone control this season, especially in terms of what pitches he’s swinging at and hitting.

If Upton opts out, he’s probably worth pursuing, but with reservations. If he doesn’t, however, he’s too good a value not to go after hard. I’m almost always in favour of spending money rather than talent, but when you have the depth of the Cardinals, the need to thin the herd of the Cardinals, and a contract that is so appealing, I say spend the talent in this case.

Miguel Cabrera, 1B

Continuing our run of Tigers and ex-Tigers, we come to one of the former best hitters in baseball, who has suddenly fallen on hard times this season, with the caveat that we mostly saw these hard times coming from a man of Cabrera’s carriage and nagging injuries over the years.

Here’s the thing with Cabrera: Miguel Cabrera has one of the worst contracts in baseball, if not the worst, and if any team in baseball were willing to take said contract off Detroit’s hands, they would probably throw in a couple prospects to help out and then buy everyone funnel cakes. Why funnel cakes? Because funnel cake is probably the only thing that really makes one feel better after ruining your franchise’s future.

So why in the world is Miguel Cabrera even on this list? Well, two reasons. One, mostly just to put into context how disastrous this contract really is; Miguel Cabrera is currently in year two of an eight-year deal that will carry him through 2023, with two options beyond that, the first of which will have to be bought out for $8 million dollars. In this second year of an unnecessary eight year extension, Cabrera is currently running a 97 wRC+, a .153 ISO, and has been worth just 0.3 wins above replacement in 469 plate appearances.

There is, however, a second reason Cabrera appears here, and that is the fact that, up until this season, Miguel Cabrera was still one of the best hitters in baseball. Albert Pujols, his contemporary best right-handed hitter in baseball, hasn’t been a great hitter since 2011, his final season with the Cardinals (although he was surprisingly very good in 2012, which I think we all tend to forget), but as recently as 2016 Miggy was still nearly a 5 win player, and a 152 wRC+ hitter. In fairness, Cabrera is three years younger than Pujols, but even so, at age 33, when Cabrera was putting up that 152 wRC+ and scraping five wins, Albert was playing in 99 games and putting up 0.6 wins for the Angels.

I would bet the Tigers would be willing to pay down anywhere from a third to half of Cabrera’s contract, just to keep from having to pay all of it, and basically ask for nothing in return. That’s how disastrous that contract is. But if a team really could get Miggy for half of his current deal, how much of an offensive turnaround would they have to bet on for him to suddenly become a bargain? The power has not been there at all for Cabrera this season, and the strikeouts are up, but would it really be far fetched for Cabrera to rebound to somewhere between last year’s 152 and this year’s 97? I mean, sure, the baserunning is an utter disaster (he was worth a full -10 runs on the bases last year, and is over seven runs in the red this season), and he can’t really field much anymore, but if a team thought they could get, say, 130 wRC+ Miggy for $18-20 million, would that be worth it?

You know what? No. I I can’t even entertain the notion seriously. It’s hard to even get one’s mind around how bad a situation the Tigers are in with Cabrera.

However, let’s take a moment to appreciate just how unbelievably dominant he has been in his career. Since joining the Tigers in 2008, these are his wRC+ numbers by season: 129, 143, 171, 177, 166, 193, 148, 165, 152. I’ll leave off this year, because it ruins the effect slightly.

Joey Votto, 1B

And here’s the counterpoint to Miguel Cabrera: Joey Votto, who in typically iconoclastic form is seemingly aging backward at this point. Votto will turn 34 years old in about a week and a half, and is currently in the process of having what would be considered a career year, if not for the fact his batting average on balls in play is a ridiculous 49 points below his career average, which brings his numbers down from historically good to just hard to believe good. He also appears to have discovered the fountain of youth, or maybe just a really good diet program.

Joey Votto has a very, very scary contract. He is signed, the same as Miguel Cabrera, through the 2023 season. He also has one option season with a $7 million buyout. Beginning in 2018, Votto will make $25 million each and every year until 2023, when he will be 39 years old. And in current day baseball, paying a 39 year old $25 million seems like about the worst idea anyone could come up with.

Except....well, except for the fact that Votto is not showing any signs of aging. Like, literally none. There’s a very good chance that Joey Votto is going to be worth seven wins this season, and that follows a five win season last year. And a seven and a half win season in 2015. Now, there was the injury-plagued 2014 season as a black mark on his record, but since then he’s been worth 18.2 fWAR in a little under three seasons. When I said Votto seems to be aging backward, I wasn’t really kidding; his 12.0% strikeout rate this season would be far and away the lowest of his career. He’s walking at a 19.3% clip. (Want to know just how good Joey Votto’s plate discipline is? That 19.3% mark would be the third highest of his career.)

He still refuses to hit infield popups; his infield fly rate this year is 0.7%. That’s even more impressive when we consider Votto has apparently joined the fly ball revolution, putting close to 40% of his batted balls this year in the air. The man is an utter freak.

The bad news is that Votto doesn’t appear at all interested in leaving Cincinnati, in spite of the continuous losing of recent seasons (and pretty limited hope in the immediate future). It’s questionable how motivated the Reds would be to move him, but clearing his contract off the books of a smallish market payroll and pulling in young pitching talent would certainly go a long ways in helping them turn their franchise fortunes around, one would think.

Then again, Joey Votto in his mid- to late 30s might literally be the best use of $25 million one can imagine. There’s always the risk of a sudden downturn, of course, but the fact is that of all the older sluggers in the game today, Votto appears pretty easily the best bet going forward.

Kyle Seager, 3B

Now here we’re wandering a bit further afield, into more the realm of hypotheticals, rather than players who either definitely are or definitely should be available. Here we have Kyle Seager, who in 2018 will be 30 years old, and has been the Seattle Mariners’ best player the past few seasons.

Seager is actually having a bit of a down season this year; after his 132 wRC+ campaign a year ago set a new career high in production for the elder Seager, this year he’s slumped to just a 104 wRC+, the result of being just a little bit worse pretty much across the board. He’s dropped a couple percentage points off the walk rate, lost the bump in power he saw last season, and is running a lowish BABIP for the year. All in all, a lot of little things adding up to a fairly big drop off. The good news is, he doesn’t look broken; he’s just having a tough year.

Now, admittedly, Seager doesn’t quite fit the rubric of many of these other guys as a true Big Bat. Rather, he’s a lowercase big bat, who also happens to contribute plenty of value on defense as well. He’s much more well-rounded that some of these other players. That being said, he put up a great season last year, and getting out of Safeco Field might help him offensively in a big way.

The idea of acquiring Seager is also a little different from most of these other guys; Seager is younger than many, and on a very friendly deal. He’s signed through 2021, with a team option for ‘22, and never makes more than $19 million in any single season. Considering he was a 5 win player last year, that’s an amazing contract.

Seager being available is contingent on Seattle deciding they’ve missed their window with the current group, and now have King Felix in his decline phase and a bunch of very average players. The way forward to true contention for the Mariners is very cloudy at the moment, and moving Kyle Seager for a base of players upon which to build could be the best idea for them right now. Their pitching is utterly atrocious, as in they’re running out Sam Gaviglio and the Ghost of Yovani Gallardo (ERA: 5.78), on a fairly regular basis.

Acquiring Seager would be extremely costly in prospects, especially pitching prospects, but he’s a legitimate cornerstone player going forward in all likelihood.

Mike Moustakas, 3B

I wrote specifically about Moustakas a while back; everything I said at that time basically still applies now. The lack on on-base skills troubles me with this new version of Moustakas, but the power is 100% legit, and the contact ability is still a real plus. The knee injury and sudden downturn in defense is worrisome. If a club thought they could get him to approach his offensive game with more patience, he could perhaps find even another higher level to his hitting.

Also, he’s going to be expensive, I think.

Jose Abreu, 1B

The White Sox have sold off pretty much everything not nailed down the last couple years, with the exception of Jose Abreu. (Although if he were nailed down it would make sense, considering how slow he looks anytime I see him on the bases. Cut rim shot.) It makes some sense Abreu is still around, really; his 2016 campaign was very bad, and killed his value pretty dead. No club is going to be clamouring to trade for a first baseman who is a bad baserunner, an okay defender still limited to first base, and is a very solid but not star-level hitter. Basically, Jose Abreu this past offseason was Matt Adams, and we see what level of return Big City brought in trade. (Speaking of Adams, since the beginning of July he’s rocking a .723 OPS, so can we please stop hearing about how the Cardinals gave him away, Bernie? Please? He’s just not that good. Period.)

This season, though, Abreu has actually rebounded very well, posting a 136 wRC+ and showcasing the kind of power we saw from him when he first came over from Cuba. (.237 ISO) The downside is his plate approach is still woefully aggressive, with a 5.5% walk rate that isn’t really putting him on base all that often. He’s still just in arbitration, so we’re not talking about a huge long-term deal with Abreu like we are the Vottos of the world, but he’s also probably a pretty marginal upgrade on Matt Carpenter at first base, if an upgrade at all. It’s also a little concerning when a player is as reliant on the home run for value as he is and plays his home games in a bandbox. Probably it wouldn’t matter that much going to a different stadium, but still. There has to be some level of concern, I would think.

There are other names I could throw out, but we quickly start getting off into the weeds, where the big bats are more hypothetical or hopeful than bona fide. There’s Lucas Duda, who’s always been an extreme fly ball hitter but has gone heavier to the pull side this year than ever before, and pushed his ISO close to .300 as a result. He’s also extremely one-dimensional and sporting a .253 BABIP that might not be unlucky, considering how specific his batted-ball profile is now. There’s Khris Davis of the A’s, on pace for a ~45 homer season and carrying an 11%+ walk rate that helps get him on base at a reasonable clip, but the 30%+ strikeout rate and appalling outfield defense sap him of a remarkable amount of value. Logan Morrison has been a beast for the Rays this year on a cheap free agent deal, having retooled his swing for fly balls, but has never shown anything like this level of production before, and also seems like a real pain in the ass to have on a team. Evan Longoria’s power has taken a powder again. Yonder Alonso has turned back into a pumpkin since being dealt to Seattle.

It’s possible a guy like Duda could turn that A into an E if a club were to pick him up and put him in a starting role again, but there are big question marks with all those players. At some point, the big bat conversation turns into the one-dimensional slugger conversation, and we’re trying to figure out if the market is just undervaluing Chris Carter or not.

There is, I suppose, one more name I should at least mention, although the idea of him moving anytime soon, much less to the Cardinals, is frankly a little absurd, and that’s Manny Machado. If Stanton is the dream offensively, the paradigm of the middle of the order double capitalised Big Bat, then Machado is the Platonic ideal of the franchise cornerstone player, period. Even with a brutal start to the season this year, Machado has rebounded to once again place among the best players in the game. He’s definitely not going to hit the same heights he’s achieved the last two seasons due to that slow start, but he’s still going to be a 4ish win player when it’s all said and done, and is still just barely 25 years old. If the Baltimore Orioles decided they simply cannot sign him and put him on the market, there would be a bidding war the likes of which we very, very rarely see in baseball, and he would be someone’s big prize around which they would hope to build. At least until he left for the Yankees’ dumptruck full of money, that is.

So that’s a pretty good look at what’s out there, and some of the associated pitfalls. It’s not a comprehensive list, of course, and the fact is there are probably two big bats on the market this offseason we don’t even know about yet, because they’ll be some 28 year old journeyman types who changed the launch angle or started walking a bunch or some other thing we just don’t see yet.

But as for the double capital Big Bats, I think I’ve got most of them here. Anybody have a favourite?

Weird final note: do you know that Tommy Pham has lost like half his baserunning value in just a couple days? He was at 5.0 runs like three days ago, and now he’s at 2.3. I know he hit into a bunch of double plays the other night, and got thrown out stealing last night, but that seems like an awfully extreme swing. I wonder if maybe something went wrong with his numbers somehow. Really strange.