The Hot Stove is almost here. Teams have a few more days to negotiate with their own free agents, extend qualifying offers and such, but as of Saturday, the free-for-all will begin.
I kept wondering what some of my favorite baseball writers - all former site managers at Viva El Birdos - were thinking about as we head into the offseason. I’m very grateful that they all took time to share their thoughts for a Cardinals offseason roundtable. In this first part of the conversation, we will focus primarily on the offense/lineup.
So without further ado, please join me in welcoming back Ben Humphrey, Craig Edwards, and the man himself, the creator, Larry Borowsky.
Larry Borowsky: a good bit of the off-season already happened back in july and august. through a combination of internal promotions, outside additions and additions-by-subtraction, the cards attacked their two biggest weaknesses (the defense and bullpen) while also getting younger and improving their organizational lefty-righty balance.
Ben Humphrey: For the seventh and final season, the St. Louis Cardinals were not able to win the World Series despite Mike Matheny managing the club during the season. Watching this year’s postseason, it’s hard to fathom Matheny even attempting to keep pace with the Counsels, Coras, or Robertses (for better or worse). The biggest question facing the Cardinals is manager Mike Shildt and how he can meld the teachings of Kissell with the flexible model of player usage that is emerging as a necessity in order for team’s to be competitive in October, if not the regular season.
Craig Edwards: I want to see the Cardinals go big, and that means either Manny Machado or Bryce Harper. Absent that, signing Josh Donaldson plus a pitcher like Patrick Corbin or Clayton Kershaw would be a reasonably good positive alternative. Targeting Yusei Kikichi if he is posted and the Cardinals like what they’ve seen and heard about him. If there is a big trade to be made for a star-level player, then get after it.
Larry: if I were going to make a case for reticence vis-a-vis the offense, it would go like this: the cards improved tremendously once shildt and budaska took over, ranking 3rd in NL scoring (and leading the division) under the new regime. for 2018 as a whole they tied for 5th in runs scored and essentially tied for the division’s best offense (chicago outscored them by 1 run). assume upward regression for Fowler, healthy hand and shoulder for dejong and ozuna (respectively), and natural development for young hitters like o’neill and bader . . . . they surely wouldn’t be worse than top 5, and they might move up a notch or two.
that argument has its merits, but I don’t believe it. i agree w/ the general consensus that what the cards really need --- what they’ve been looking for since oscar taveras died --- is a great hitter who’s still in the first half of his career, a player they can build around. most of their NL rivals have multiples of that, i.e. rizzo/bryant/baez, seager/bellinger, acuna/freeman, soto/rendon. the cards hoped heyward, grichuk, piscotty and ozuna would rise to the occasion, but none was ever really a fit for the role.
bryce harper is a fit. an obvious one. of all the mega-contract players the cards have been enticed by, beginning with pujols, harper makes the most sense. he more directly addresses their needs than albert did back in 2011-12, or jason heyward, david price, giancarlo stanton, yadda yadda yadda. last week harper and boras declared their starting bid to be 10 years / $350 million, and if the cards were to sign him at that figure I’d be thrilled.
Ben: The 2018 Redbird roster was limited and made it difficult for the manager to be flexible. And it’s this inflexibility that the Cardinals must address this winter, just as they did and attempted to do with in-season trades. With more flexible players at the manager’s disposal, they will better be able to leverage and combat platoon advantages during the 2019 season.
The 2018 Cardinals were far too right-handed and the lack of flexibility in the form of viable lefty hitters hurt them. The Cardinals production by splits are in line with MLB as a whole when it comes to performance against right-handed pitchers. Compare their overall numbers, but note the one column where St. Louis was out of whack.
Lefthanded Cardinals hitters took just 28.3% of the club’s PAs against righthanded pitchers. If the club can get one more viable lefty bat or two during the Hot Stove, they increase that percentage share and lift up their overall production by doing so. To the front office’s credit, they identified this need last season and went out and acquired lefthanded hitting prospect, who didn’t help the big-league team in 2018, and Matt Adams, who didn’t really help the big-league team either (despite a platoon advantage that suggested he might).
Nonetheless, they need to revisit the issue during the offseason. Even if they fail to sign Bryce Harper, who hit .250/.396/.508 (.379 wOBA, 137 wRC+) against righties last year, they need to find a lefty swinger with some power for the outfield and perhaps first base.
Larry: i honestly can’t imagine a scenario in which the cardinals sign harper to a contract that we won’t all regret. at a minimum they’ll be bidding against the cubs, dodgers, nationals and giants, all of whom have a much wider margin for error than our club. either the mariners or angels (or both) could get involved. houston might want him. . . . as tantalizing as the fantasy is, i’m letting go of it. can’t see it happening.
all the same caveats apply to Machado, who IMHO doesn’t fit the cards as well as harper in the first place and ergo is even likelier to cross the threshold of price-point indecency.
Craig: Some of what I want the Cardinals to do is based on what I don’t want them to do. Don’t keep wasting money on relievers. Stay away from mid-level free agents in the mold of Dexter Fowler and Mike Leake. That means no Brantley, no Pollock, no Moustakas. In the past, the Cardinals have missed out on Plan A and then turned to Plan B. When it comes to free agents, doing nothing probably would have been better.
Larry: the only other way I can imagine the cards adding a young slugger is by dangling carlos martinez out there. based on recent examples like chris archer, sonny gray and jose quintana, we know what cost-controlled SP1/2s are worth --- basically, two top-100 prospects and change. the yankees seem an obvious fit --- they need the pitching and they’ve got the young talent. would they part with clint frazier? before cmart got hurt, i could easily have imagined it; i’m not so sure it’s a possibility now. if martinez were to generate an offer of this type, the cards would have to consider it. if they pulled the trigger, then obviously they’d need to add more innings via the FA SP market than i postulated above.
but the reality is that organizations who are trying to fill the need the cards are trying to fill must always do it internally. great 20-something hitters rarely change teams, and when they do the cost is almost always exorbitant.
so the most likely / palatable additions we’re left with for 2019 are michael brantley and mike moustakas. those are the only non-harper FAs who interest me. neither is in his 20s, but they both hit left-handed, play a corner, provide passable defense and can hit in the middle of the order. neither is a big platoon liability, but either could pair nicely with an RHB (gyorko / o’neill / munoz/ jmart) should circumstances warrant. they wouldn’t radically transform the lineup but they’d reinforce it where the need is greatest. as long as the commitment in dollars/years is commensurate w/ that, I say bring one or both of ‘em aboard.
josh donaldson is another plausible FA option, but IMHO they have enough right-handed power hitters already. if his price should fall far enough (i.e., a one-year deal with an option) I might be convinced otherwise.
In Part II, we’ll talk more about pitching and defense.