clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Free Agent Focus: Three Second-Tier Options

New, 142 comments

Taking a look at three players on the free agent market this offseason, and what sort of fit each might have on the Cardinals of 2019.

League Championship Series - Boston Red Sox v Houston Astros - Game Three Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

Up to this point, most of the focus has been on the big stuff. The big fish, the big plans, going big or going home. And it’s easy to see why, really; the Cardinals are in the situation they’re in largely because they lack a big-ticket item or two to help concentrate some value on their roster. In theory, there are limitless ways to build a roster; in practice, there seems to be an upper limit on the level of diffuseness one can have. Twenty-five two-win players would net you 50 WAR, certainly, but there are not 25 full seasons’ worth of playing time to spread around. Somewhere on your roster it seems as if you have to have some concentration of value in order to be more than just solid.

So sure, the big names with the big statlines and the big pricetags attached are going to get the majority of the attention here. Bryce Harper has become an object of editorial obsession around these parts lately. Manny Machado has certainly had his own share of ink spilled on his behalf, though admittedly less, largely because the more one sees of Machado the more it becomes apparent he’s a bit of a Monet, as Cher from Clueless would likely tell us. Speaking of, you know what movie holds up remarkably well when you come across the DVD and queue it up the other night? Clueless. Just saying. Still really good.

Patrick Corbin, coming off his star turn in the desert, has gotten plenty of attention, despite some very obvious health concerns and some almost certainly unrepeatable aspects to his career season. Josh Donaldson, still a top-tier performer when on the field, has made plenty of people’s offseason wishlists in spite of two seasons in a row spent struggling with similar calf injuries, which has to be at least a yellow or orangeish sort of flag, one would think.

But the top tier isn’t all there is to the free agent market. In fact, even in a year like this, with a crazy concentration of amazing talent, the top-tier guys represent still a relatively small slice of the available players. We would all do well to remember that, which is why columns like this one exist. To wit, today I’m going to present three free agents who could provide interesting fits and interesting upgrades for the Cardinals, along with some pros and cons that each of these players bring along with them. I’ll try to do more of these in the near future, as well, as the hot stove begins to heat up properly.

Marwin Gonzalez, UTI

6’1”, 205 lbs; Bats/Throws: Switch/Right

Age During 2019 Season: 30

2018 stats: 552 PA, .247/.324/.409, 104 wRC+, 9.6% BB, 22.8% K, 1.6 fWAR

Pros:

  • unmatched versatility in this year’s FA class
  • played all four IF spots and LF extensively in 2018
  • switch-hitter
  • posted BB rates of at least 9.5% each of the last two seasons
  • only one season removed from career-best 144 wRC+ and 4.0 WAR season
  • did not receive a qualifying offer, thus is free of draft pick compensation

Cons:

  • 30 years old
  • ISO fell over 60 points from 2017 to ‘18
  • appears to be an horrific baserunner most years (-2.7 runs in 2018)
  • very stretched at shortstop
  • 2017 looks like a huge outlier, but is still priced in to his market

Okay, here’s the deal: Marwin Gonzalez right now is being positioned and viewed as sort of a poor man’s Ben Zobrist of a few years ago. There’s a clear difference in quality, as Zobrist put up some near-MVP level numbers for the Rays in his late 20s as a do-everything super utility player, but Gonzalez offers a lot of that same versatility. And if a team were confident that 2017 season wasn’t a fluke, but more an upper level performance that could be replicated, Gonzalez could very well represent a huge engine of value for an acquiring club.

The problem is, that four-win season Gonzalez dropped in 2017 does look pretty fluky in a lot of ways. It was, by far, the highest power production of his career; here are Gonzalez’s isolated slugging totals since 2014, when he became a pretty good utility guy for the ‘Stros: .123, .163, .147, .226, .162. Not tough to spot the outlier there. He also took a huge step forward in terms of plate discipline, more than doubling his walk rate from 2016 to ‘17, but he did maintain those gains this year, so a 9-10% BB rate seems a fair expectation. But that 2017 explosion was also fueled by a lower strikeout rate (19.2%), and a higher BABIP (.343), than what has been typical for Gonzalez, which would suggest we maybe shouldn’t buy on him replicating the whole of his production from that season again.

If the Cardinals were to buy on Gonzalez, they would essentially be hoping that moving from their own utility player they hope might push toward Marwin 2017 heights one day, Yairo Munoz, to the more accomplished, polished utility guy who has already achieved those heights might add a couple wins to the ledger. I’m personally a believer Munoz could be a high-quality super utility guy down the road somewhere, but if 2018 is all there is, then he’s never going to add a whole lot to the club. If that’s the case, a Marwin Gonzalez addition could make all the sense in the world. On the other hand, if one believes there are more fly balls and thus more power, not to mention more consistent, less mistake-prone defense in Yairo’s future, then going from the cheap 24 year old to the expensive 30 year old who does much of the same job seems like a lot of effort and expense for only a moderate upgrade.

In the end, I think Gonzalez is closer to the 2018 version of himself than the 2017 breakout star. That’s a fine player, to be sure, but not one I feel represents a big enough upgrade for a club like the Cardinals to make it worth pursuing him for a 1-2 win likely boost over sophomore season Munoz.

Dallas Keuchel, LHP

6’3”, 205 lbs; Bats/Throws: Left/Left

Age During 2019 Season: 31

2018 Stats: 34 GS, 204.2 IP, 3.74 ERA, 3.69 FIP, 2.6 bWAR, 53.7% GB, 10.9% K-BB%

Pros:

  • left-handed, which the Cardinals lack in their rotation
  • has not had an FIP- above 100 since 2013
  • has thrown 200 innings three of the last five seasons
  • outstanding fielder, similar to Mike Leake
  • groundball-heavy approach could play well in front of a potentially plus infield defense
  • velocity has held remarkably steady, showing no indication of physical decline
  • still excellent at avoiding walks (6.6% BB rate in 2018)

Cons:

  • 31 years old as a pitcher
  • K rate slipped below 20% in 2018 (17.5%, to be exact)
  • comes with qualifying offer attached, and thus will cost a draft pick
  • breaking ball was far less effective in 2018, leading to the strikeout falloff
  • no longer gets as many swinging strikes outside the zone

Dallas Keuchel is, in certain ways, the exact opposite of Patrick Corbin, the other free-agent lefty on the market who’s sucking up a lot of the oxygen. Whereas Corbin leaned more heavily than ever on his breaking ball, largely throwing it out of the zone and getting tons of swings and misses, Keuchel found his own attempts to generate chase swings largely ineffective in 2018, and relied more on his assortment of fastballs to attack hitters inside the zone. Cobrin has always been heavily flyball oriented, while Keuchel has been one of the more extreme groundballers in the game over the past half-decade. Corbin is getting all the attention and press this offseason, while Keuchel seems a bit of an afterthought despite anchoring the Astros’ rotation throughout their rise to prominence, if not necessarily during their recent run of dominance.

Keuchel didn’t have the greatest 2018, though it was the healthiest season he’s had in a couple years after pitching through a sore shoulder in 2016 and a foot injury in ‘17. He took the ball every fifth day, delivered solid performances, but lacked the kind of spectacular outings he had occasionally put up in the past. His groundball rate was maybe the most concerning indicator, as it fell from a superhuman 66.8% in 2017 to a still very good but not as ridiculous 53.7% this past year.

Keuchel appears to have a very low-stress arm action, and if I were betting on pitcher durability I would buy him going forward. He needs to rework his repertoire a touch, I think; maybe bringing back the big curveball he threw early in career might give him a new toy to generate some swings and misses. Jaime Garcia, a remarkably similar pitcher, had plenty of success here in St. Louis utilising the curve as a chase pitch.

It’s worrisome that Keuchel saw his strikeout rate fall so much in 2018, but he remains one of the game’s elite contact managers, and he’s capable of rolling up high groundball totals with the best of them. I have a tough time figuring out where I think his contract is going to end up this offseason, but if he would come on a medium-sized four year deal I could see it benefitting the Cardinals hugely to build in some more consistent, reliable performance to a rotation that has plenty of upside but also quite a lot of risk.

It is also worth pointing out that, depending on how things pan out for the Cardinals this offseason, they could have arguably one of the best infield defenses in the National League next season. For a guy whose game is getting grounders, the middle infield combo of Kolten Wong and Paul DeJong could make a huge difference in his overall performance.

A.J. Pollock, OF

6’1”, 195 lbs; Bats/Throws: Right/Right

Age During 2019 Season: 31

2018 Stats: 460 PA, .257/.316/.484, 110 wRC+, 2.5 fWAR, +6 DRS in CF

Pros:

  • plus centerfielder, could be great in right
  • highest ISO of career in 2018 (.228)
  • is over 4 wins per 600 plate appearances in career rate
  • outstanding baserunner (+3.9 runs in 2018)
  • has 20/20 upside every season
  • no real platoon split

Cons:

  • cannot stay healthy; less than 1000 total plate appearances from 2016-’18
  • has seen contact rate decline sharply since 2015 breakout
  • arm strength a significant concern
  • qualifying offer attached
  • no real platoon split

I think most of the people reading this column right now are pretty well aware of the story with A.J. Pollock. Maybe the general baseball fan is a little fuzzy on who Pollock is, or just how good he really is, but the sort of person who reads VEB in their spare time is, generally, pretty well educated in the ins and outs of the game, I find. Thus, you are probably aware of A.J. Pollock as an entity, and probably aware he’s about as Mike Trout-lite a player as you’re going to find in the game.

Actually, here’s a better comparison, one that hits closer to home: A.J. Pollock is basically Tommy Pham. Good at everything on a baseball field, not usually able to stay on the field consistently. In 2015, Pollock put up one of the best seasons of any National League center fielder over the past decade, posting a near-seven win season based on a 130 wRC+ and outstanding center field defense. He hit 20 homers that year, stole 39 bases, and struck out just over 13% of the time. A.J. Pollock, in that moment, looked like one of the most special players in all of baseball.

Unfortunately, that was three full seasons in the past now, and Pollock has only played about one and a half seasons in that time. He missed nearly all of 2016, then pushed to right around 460 plate appearances in both 2017 and ‘18. A.J. Pollock, incredibly special baseball player, has basically been a part-time guy since being an MVP candidate.

The good news is that most of the tools and skills Pollock showed in his breakout are still there, if in a slightly different configuration at this point. He made less contact this past year than ever, but also hit for significantly more power. In 2015 he was an all-around threat with outstanding on-base skills; in 2018 he was more of a power-speed guy, like a better version of Randal Grichuk.

I think it’s very likely at this point that the player Pollock was in 2015 isn’t coming back, but that doesn’t mean he’s not still a very attractive free agent option. He likely won’t give you a full season, but ~450 PAs and ~2.5 wins is fantastic production all the same. Unfortunately, as a right-handed hitter he doesn’t present a natural fit for the Cardinals as any sort of platoon option with what they have in house, nor does he beat up on left-handed pitching to the point he would justify an additional investment in a left-handed hitter to try and Frankenstein together some sort of right field monster.

As good as Pollock is, I don’t see him as a particularly great fit for the Cardinals. I have a feeling some team that values his center field defense more highly than the Cards probably would (given they already have an all-world glove option in center), will push hard to bring him in to play the premium spot, whereas he would represent a bet on a corner conversion pushing him to greater heights in St. Louis. He’s still a very good hitter, but no longer the same kind of dynamo as in 2014-2015. Combine those question marks with the obvious big question of how much he’ll be able to play over the course of any multi-year contract, and I can’t help but think Pollock really comes with more questions than answers as far as what he would bring to the Cardinals.

In summation on these players, I honestly see Dallas Keuchel as the best fit for the Cards, though even in that case I personally would prefer the upside of Yusei Kikuchi if it were my money to spend. Pollock has enough question marks I don’t see him presenting a slam-dunk solution in the outfield, while Marwin Gonzalez brings an intriguing multi-dimensional game to the table, but may not be a big enough upgrade for the cost over what the Cards likely see as their own future super utility player, either in the person of Yairo Munoz or their minor league options of a similar stripe, such as Andy Young or Tommy Edman or Kramer Robertson or Michael Perri. I’m not saying those guys are all going to be good, or even make it to the big leagues; I’m saying over the course of the contract Marwin Gonzalez is likely to get at age 30 I’ll bet the Cardinals believe they have their own breakout player somewhere in the organisation.

Keuchel, on the other hand, presents an immediate source of innings and performance, helping to stabilise and extend the Cardinal rotation, particularly if they were to decide to move on from Michael Wacha’s uncertainty in the relatively near future. No pitcher is a guarantee of health, of course, but Keuchel has given the Astros about 950 innings over the past five seasons, and they’ve been near-uniformly excellent. Buying over-30 pitching is still a risk, though, and as I said, I would personally rather bet on the upside of Kikuchi, but that does admittedly feel like much more of a risk than the dependable stream of grounders that comes from the hand of Dallas Keuchel.

And, of course, it must be said that exercises like this illustrate once again just how hard it is to significantly upgrade a roster like that of the Cardinals, and why so many people are convinced it’s important for the Redbirds to make that one truly huge investment this offseason, to bring in and lock down a premium producer for the near to mid-term future.

If the Cardinals were to sign Dallas Keuchel this offseason, I would probably be excited. If he were their biggest move, though, then I would feel as if the front office failed to deliver the upgrade they were searching for.