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Can the Cardinals take advantage of the Cold Stove?

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Maybe it’s time to zig while everybody else zags.

World Series - Los Angeles Dodgers v Houston Astros - Game Five Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

The Cardinals have had a busy offseason. Relative to most of the rest of the league, they’ve had an extremely busy offseason. That’s because outside of a handful of buyers and sellers, most teams in MLB have spent the winter sitting on their hands.

You know this already, but to recap: we’re about three weeks from pitchers and catchers reporting for Spring Training. Yet just one of MLBTR’s top ten free agents has signed a contract for 2018 (not counting Masahiro Tanaka, who signed an extension after the publication of that column). Some downmarket players have had better luck — particularly relief pitchers — but negotiations for the big guns, such as they are, have been painfully slow.

There’s no shortage of think-pieces out there offering potential explanations. (Though if you want to read another one that I thought was particularly good, try this from Talking Chop). For what it’s worth, I think we’re dealing with a confluence of a few major factors:

1a. Everybody (including the traditional huge spenders) is focused on staying under the $197M CBT threshold for 2018 if possible, in order to minimize the luxury tax penalties that will be incurred by the winners of next year’s Machado/Harper/Kershaw/etc. free agent extravaganza.

1b. There’s a significant talent gap between baseball’s haves and have-nots right now. Most of the teams at the top are also comfortably at the top, which combined with 1a takes them out of the market for expensive 2018 additions. Most of the teams at the bottom realize they have no reason to make major 2018 investments in the first place.

2. Talent evaluation across MLB front offices has converged over the last decade, and we may be reaching the end state where teams really don’t have significant disagreements about player value anymore. If that’s the case, then one should expect all the major free agents to be sitting on several similar offers, waiting fruitlessly for somebody to come over the top with an increased bid.

3. Scott Boras is repping practically everybody this year, is notoriously willing to wait the market out, and seems to have dramatically overpromised some things to at least some clients (see Martinez, J.D., in re $200 million).

Reasons and implications aside, the ice-cold 2017-18 offseason is what it is. Nobody would have guessed it would play out this way, but here we are.

Is there a way the Cardinals can turn it to their advantage?

*****

The Cardinals’ plan for the offseason was clear from the get-go: consolidate talent into at least one impact player, add rotation depth, and shore up the bullpen. With Marcell Ozuna, Miles Mikolas, Luke Gregerson, and now Dominic Leone, they have done those things. With Josh Donaldson seemingly not on the market as of this moment, Manny Machado or Chris Archer seemingly not available for anything anybody is willing to surrender, and other potential trade targets not clearly on the table either, it’s possible that the Cardinals are simply done. If so, there’s a reasonable case to be made that they had a nice offseason, given the limited players available via trade.

Still, their projected Opening Day payroll is just $144 million, which is slightly less than last year. They could afford a major free agent. Guys like Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas aren’t really upgrades, though. Guys like J.D. Martinez and Lorenzo Cain could be, but then you have to find a home for Dexter Fowler and his contract. And John Mozeliak reportedly has already assured Fowler that they’re not looking to trade him, so that option seems to be out.

That leaves pitching. The Cardinals have been frequently connected to the top reliever options in rumors, although their recent decision to pass on Addison Reed on a perfectly reasonable two-year contract calls their true desire to sign another free-agent closer candidate into question. Regarding starting pitchers, Derrick Goold provided a window into the team’s thinking (or his best guess at it) way back in November:

QUESTION: What type of starting pitcher do you think the Cardinals may try to sign in free agency?

GOOLD: Not one of the top-tier pitchers, unless the market craters for a guy like Jake Arrieta, and there isn’t any expectation of that at this point. Alex Cobb has come up. Makes some sense. I’ve mentioned Andrew Cashner in past chats.

Goold’s prediction has thus far come true, as the Mikolas signing showed a preference for a value-oriented addition of depth, rather than paying market prices for upside.

In an ordinary offseason, I would say so far so good. Big-name free agent starting pitchers are notoriously high risk; for every Max Scherzer there’s a David Price and Jordan Zimmermann. The Cards’ great strength in recent years has been their homegrown pitching pipeline, and they once again have a number of youngsters who look ready to step up. It’s a good model, and — in an ordinary offseason — I wouldn’t blame them for following it.

This has not been an ordinary offseason. And here is where it gets interesting for the Cards. This year there are two premium SP options: Yu Darvish and Jake Arrieta. At the start of the offseason, FanGraphs median crowdsourced contract projections gave Darvish 5 years and $125M, and Arrieta 5/110. In an ordinary offseason, those two would have quickly signed deals of those approximate sizes weeks ago. But they haven’t.

Neither pitcher’s market has exactly “cratered,” to use Goold’s term, but the passage of time only strengthens teams’ hands as player anxiety increases. With apologies to Scott Boras, there’s plenty of evidence that waiting out the market works much better for teams than for players: this neat bit of research by Max Rieper at Royals Review confirms that players signing before January 1 beat their FanGraphs crowd estimate on average, but players waiting until the new year receive an average of 25% less than the crowd’s estimate. Applying the 25% rule to Darvish and Arrieta reduces their estimated contracts to something like 4/92 and 4/85, respectively.

If the Cardinals could sign Yu Darvish for four years and $92 million, they absolutely should, right? Or if that’s equal to several other offers, 4/100 or 5/110?

Alex Reyes, Luke Weaver, and Jack Flaherty are great talents and great values. That also makes them great trade chips, though. Signing Darvish for $25M annually (I’ll leave Arrieta out of it because the erosion of his stuff terrifies me) takes the Cardinals’ payroll to about $170M, which leaves them sufficient room under the CBT line to add a contract like Donaldson’s midseason — and with Adam Wainwright’s contract off the books in a year, they would have adequate flexibility going forward. It gives them a ~4 win pitcher right now, which is a ~2-win improvement over the current projections for the fifth rotation spot. And it frees up some of the organization’s best young assets for use in a major trade.

There’s an added benefit from a game theory perspective, too: the Cubs and Brewers are both known to be after Darvish. At worst, the Cardinals can price-enforce on their division rivals by making him a serious offer. And at best, they could actually sign him, achieving the double benefit of strengthening themselves while reducing their rivals’ options.

If you’d asked me two months ago if I’d be in favor of the Cards signing Yu Darvish, I’d have said no. As a rule I almost never like contracts for big-name starting pitchers; David Price was an exception and look how that has gone. But this offseason has been so extreme that at some point, there must be value to be found. The league is zigging, and the Cardinals should give serious thought to zagging. If nobody is going to act like they want these guys, the Cardinals should just take them.