Morning, all. How are you? Me, I’m in the middle of unpacking and putting up Christmas decorations, and as always at this time of year I’m questioning why a person needs so many things to put up. I also ask that same question whenever it comes time to take the decorations down, but those two occurrences are always far enough apart that I forget in between. I feel like if I only left the stuff up for like, a month, rather than starting almost right after Halloween (I’m actually running late this year, thanks to an extra-busy day job recently), and refusing to acquiesce to the dark of winter until about the second week of January, that I might not find the effort worth the reward. Instead, I usually get about seven weeks, maybe eight, of decorations and lights and the whole nine yards, and it mostly seems worth it. Except for the packing and unpacking part. Which still makes me question my sanity.
Anyhow, baseball! The offseason is upon us, though in a way that’s barely noticeable, given that so little has happened so far. Hey, Aledmys Diaz got traded again! For a Triple A starter in the Astros’ farm system, though. So, you know. Not super exciting. (Though I do still have a soft spot for Aledmys Diaz the hitter, and occasionally wonder if the Cardinals couldn’t have turned him into a utility player, rather than simply shipping him off to Canada after one disastrous season.)
For the most part, this offseason has so far been the realm of free agent discussions, and with good reason. There is a greater concentration of free agent talent hitting the market this offseason than there has been in a very long time, particularly when you examine the very top of said market. Given the Cardinals’ need for high-end talent, a free agent market with some of the highest-end talent available is going to pretty obviously lead to lots of discussion about who to sign, what to sign who for, and where we meet for the riot if signings do not take place.
But I think we all understand that free agency is not the only way to improve a club. There has been plenty of back and forth on the merits of a trade for Paul Goldschmidt, either as part of a tandem with Zack Greinke or solo, now that the Diamondbacks appear ready to rebuild. The news about the Mariners potentially heading into a teardown led to a brief flurry of James Paxton and Jean Segura consideration. Those aren’t the only trade ideas floating around out there, obviously; just the most pressing.
I think there’s also a healthy understanding that the Cardinals, even if they make a big splash signing a top name, will probably still have some work to do. They have a roster still clogged with depth pieces and average players, useful guys who don’t rise to the level of meriting a starting job, and promising future assets whose clocks forced the club’s hand before they perhaps would have wished. The Redbird roster is going to need some further pruning and shaping, and that will almost certainly mean seeing some more trades made which either consolidate multiple players into just one roster spot, or else trade off near talent for talent further of, a la Oscar Mercado for Chance Capel and Jhon Torres this past July.
So with all that in mind, I thought it might be worth going through the trade chips the Cardinals possess, why they qualify as trade chips, how valuable they might be, and how likely it would seem they are moved. We’ll start with the big league roster, and then move on to some high-minors talent. I’m not going down into the farm system much, since virtually every player in the minors is a trade chip to a greater or lesser extent, and there’s not much to be learned from stating that Evan Kruczynski could end up as part of a trade package. We all get that, I’m sure.
For the record, I think many of these players are exceedingly unlikely to be moved, and I will state as such when discussing them. But there are permutations of the offseason in which I could see the Cards moving even some of these rather large names, and so I will include the players here.
The scenario for the Cardinals moving Carlos Martinez is essentially something along the lines of what the Pirates did with Gerritt Cole, only with greater value. If the Cards believe they’ve essentially gotten the best they can expect from Carlos, and he simply isn’t developing any more in the organisation, I could see them taking him and his exceedingly valuable contract and trying to flip it for either a future bounty or a present impact talent at another position of greater need.
To me, moving Martinez makes essentially zero sense, given his near-elite performance most of the time, his relative youth, and his very friendly contract. Martinez makes $11.5 million per year for the next three years, and then has two team options tacked on at the end, at 17 and 18 million dollars, respectively. That’s five years of club control for less than $70 million total. Carlos basically needs to pitch like a 1.5 win pitcher to be worth his salary, and even in his basically lost season of 2018 he was worth right around two wins.
Value wise, Martinez is maybe the biggest bullet the Cards possess, which is why it’s possible to see something happening. Carlos is the one player on the roster who could easily bring back a top fifteen overall prospect in return all on his own, and probably a little more besides. If you want to get your hands on a Kyle Tucker or Victor Robles to build around, Martinez is the guy you put on the market. Still, this feels like a bigger step back than I would expect the Cardinals to take, and envisioning a rotation without El Gallo for the next five years is personally pretty depressing for me.
The second in our series of, “Well, no, it won’t happen, but what this column presupposes is...what if it did?” type players, Matt Carpenter was the Cardinals’ best player in 2018, has been their most consistently productive hitter over the past half-decade, and is really very underappreciated by a fanbase that seems to not understand both how good Carpenter really is and the fact that if you need a better best player, that doesn’t mean it’s your current best player’s fault.
Carpenter is coming off a five win season in 2018, has produced a wRC+ above 135 in three of the last four seasons, and has two more years of club control on his contract at a total cost of $33 million. (2020 is a team option.) The downside for Carpenter? He’ll be 33 years old in 2019, is not the most athletic player anymore, and really fits best as a first baseman. He was fine defensively at third this past year, but physically first is probably his best bet to contribute with the glove, particularly if one thinks the demands of third base on his right shoulder could put him at greater injury risk.
Carpenter is a very, very valuable trade piece, but is also probably too important to the Cards’ near-term contention to actually be moved. In reality, the only way I could honestly see Carpenter becoming a trade chip is in the case of something like a Paul Goldschmidt deal, in which the Cards acquire a long-term first base solution, and then perhaps pivot to a younger, more athletic option at third as well. But unless multiple things change on the Cardinals’ roster, I think Carpenter remains too important to move.
Ah, yes. Kolten Wong. One of the more debated — and debatable — players on the Cards’ roster, Wong is coming off the best overall season of his career, has three more years of club control on his contract (for less than $30 million total), and will play the 2019 season at 28 years old. Moving Kolten now would essentially be attempting to sell high on a player who has been very inconsistent to this point in his career, but it’s possible you’d also be selling a player just as he’s really breaking out. Tough to say, really.
Either way, Wong’s contract, youth, and defense make him a very valuable player, and he’s another one I would put in the category of only moving if another opportunity or solution presents itself. I’ve argued in the past for acquiring Jurickson Profar, and that’s the sort of solution I mean, though Profar is probably more of a lateral move than a clear upgrade. Andy Young isn’t proven enough yet for me to want to move Wong in his favour, and the free agent market doesn’t really present any clear upgrades on Wong. Maybe a Segura trade with Segura moving to second instead of third, depending on other moves?
Bottom line is, Kolten Wong is still young, still cheap, and pretty good. I think you might be able to replace his production, and maybe even come up with a slight upgrade depending, but there aren’t any clear, easy moves that would represent big upgrades on him, meaning that using Wong as a trade piece would probably have to be part of a larger series of moves. It doesn’t seem likely, but as we’ve discussed here before, tough decisions are going to have to be made to upgrade this club, and if Wong represents the best path to another top of the rotation starter or a middle of the order bat, I could see him being used as the centerpiece of a package. For instance, if the Indians decided to move Carlos Carrasco, I could see Wong going there, Jose Ramirez taking over third full time, and the Indians rolling with the best defensive infield in baseball for the next couple years.
Now here we have a true trade chip, probably the best one the Cardinals currently possess. Over the past two seasons, Martinez has proven himself to be one of the better right-handed hitters in the National League. He’s projected for a 117 wRC+ in 2019, which honestly feels a little low to me. The problem is, Cafecito has also proven himself a defensive liability at pretty much any position, and while having a bad defender on the bench isn’t the end of the world, by any means, it feels like Martinez’s best value would be to an AL club, where he could collect 600 plate appearances while not having to play the field every day.
In light of just how much outfield depth the Cardinals have, it seems to me that Martinez has to be put on the trading block this offseason. Oakland will likely let Khris Davis walk, it seems, so they feel like an obvious landing spot. There are others, though; most clubs would benefit from a ~120 wRC+ hitter coming in, particularly if they have the DH available to them. Of all the players on this list, Martinez feels like the most likely to actually be moved, simply because he represents such a good value, with four years of club control left, but such a bad fit for the Cardinals in particular.
Jedd Gyorko is a very useful baseball player. He’s going to give you roughly 450 plate appearances, will have around a 110 wRC+, and will play very solid defense at third base. He gets a lot of credit for being versatile enough to move around, and he probably still does have that ability going for him, but he’s good enough at third I don’t really see a reason to move him to other positions very often, unless you’re already locked down with a star at the hot corner.
Gyorko is entering the final guaranteed year of his contract, but has a 2020 option for $13 million that seems like a fairly easy decision to pick up for most clubs. He’s not cheap, exactly, making the same $13 million each of the next two years, but in a market that’s bringing $8-10 million per marginal win, it’s also not expensive. The primary reason I could see Gyorko being moved this offseason is because of how he fits into the picture of other upgrades the Cardinals may be pursuing. Josh Donaldson coming in? Gyorko’s right-handed bat at third is no longer necessary. Trade for Paul Goldschmidt? Matt Carpenter is likely taking over at third, and Gyorko becomes a very expensive luxury as a part-time player. Rockies get crazy and decide to move Nolan Arenado? See Josh Donaldson above. There’s a decent chance the Cards’ attempts to improve this offseason may include a corner infielder, and if that is the case then Gyorko is likely the odd man out, while still having solid value to lots of other clubs.
I’ll be honest: I don’t see Tyler O’Neill being moved, pretty much no matter what else happens this offseason. Even in the case of a Bryce Harper signing, which would push O’Neill to at least fourth if not fifth outfielder status (depending on what happens with Dexter Fowler, who I’m not including in this column because I feel like he’s something other than a traditional ‘trade chip’ at this point), I think the Cardinals believe too much in mini-Judge to move him just yet. After all, Marcell Ozuna is only under contract for 2019, meaning O’Neill would likely be in line to replace the outgoing Ozuna if Harper were to be ensconced in a starting job. Now, if the Cards were to both sign Harper and decide to extend Ozuna, at that point O’Neill might very well be a trade chip next offseason. However, that seems exceedingly unlikely due to financials, and at the very least I expect O’Neill to be held onto as a contingency.
On the other hand, if O’Neill were to be placed on the trade block, he would have a lot of value. I get there are Cardinal fans who think because he struck out 40% of the time in his first 140 plate appearances that he’s a bust, but those people are not to be trusted. The fact is, O’Neill put up a 170 wRC+ in Triple A at age 22, and he did not do so based on an absurd BABIP or anything. He also appears to be a plus defender in the corners, and a passable center fielder. Somehow O’Neill is flying under the radar for this fanbase as a potential future star, but there is plenty of reason to believe he’ll be an indispensable piece of the Cardinals’ future as soon as midseason 2019.
Carson Kelly/Andrew Knizner
Okay, I’m cheating a bit by sticking these two together, I admit, but it really does feel as if their fates are inextricably linked at this point. Yadier Molina is under contract for two more years, and will remain the incumbent starter during that time, I have to believe. Thus, having two major league ready catchers sitting at Triple A would seem to be a hugely inefficient use of resources.
Now, to be fair, I expect Kelly to be Molina’s backup in 2019. Yes, yes, I know the Cards have had a weird habit of signing terrible backup catchers, possibly as a result of Molina himself preferring a game planning partner over an actual quality player, but I have to believe that ends as Yadi comes to the final leg of his magnificent career. Prideful he may be, but the Cardinals have to recognise they need to be planning for life after Yadier, and that means figuring out who the heir apparent really is.
The good news is both Knizner and Kelly should have very good value on the trade market, as big league ready catchers with any sort of offensive upside are a pretty rare commodity. Kelly hasn’t shown much at the major league level yet, obviously, but we’re also talking about less than 140 plate appearances, stretched out over parts of three seasons, while he’s produced above-average slash lines in Triple A each of the past two years. Meanwhile, Knizner has done nothing but produce in his minor league career, and while he lacks the defensive reputation of Kelly, I’ve seen him behind the plate and believe he’s just fine. Both catchers fit a high-contact rubric, so if the Cardinals are indeed prioritising contact rate they would each seem to be fine options going forward.
As things stand now, and understanding franchise preferences, I believe Kelly will move into the backup role at the big league level, and Knizner will probably be part of some trade for a high end talent this offseason. Again, I could see Cleveland having some interest, given that Yan Gomes is 30, Noah Naylor is only 18, and Roberto Perez really doesn’t belong on a big league field. Jeremy Martinez would probably be fine as minor league catching depth, or perhaps some journeyman type comes in on a minor league deal. Regardless of the direction the Cards ultimately decide to go, having both Kelly and Knizner available is certainly not a bad thing, but it seems like there’s more value in moving one of them, rather than keeping both as a backup plan you hope never to use.
We’re heading back into pitching territory now, and Hudson is probably the most valuable minor league pitcher the Cards have at the moment. I say that not because I believe he’s major league ready — I think he needs more time at Triple A as a starter, trying to hone his command and offspeed stuff — but because he has an elite fastball, has six years of club control left, and has shown an ability to work in either a starting or relief capacity. A club that didn’t need Hudson immediately, I have to believe, would pay dearly for the chance to try and finish developing him into something special. Perhaps the Orioles, who still have intriguing relief assets on their roster, would be such a team.
On the other hand, Hudon is arguably too interesting to trade, given he has the raw stuff to possibly develop into a mid-rotation or better pitcher, and the Cardinals have gone through a lot of pitching depth the last couple years. Still, I could see Hudson being sacrificed for the present, even if the organisation would probably have to hold their collective nose to do so.
If Hudson is the most valuable pitcher in the Cards’ system right now, Reyes remains the most exciting to dream on for the next ten years. For my money, though, I have no belief Reyes holds up anywhere near that long, and I would absolutely be dangling his name on the market on the off chance some club still wants to give me a haul for the chance to hope he stays healthy. I don’t really see that happening, honestly; at this point Reyes is such a damaged asset you probably have to hold on to him in the hopes he rebounds, rather than selling so low as to basically waste the asset, but he would absolutely be available to any club wanting to take the chance if I were the GM, so long as they were willing to buy him at premium asset prices, rather than, “Yeah, just 10K miles, but two accidents already,” prices.
Since I don’t see a club paying that, I don’t think Reyes is moved.
Austin Gomber/Daniel Poncedeleon
Again, I’m cheating by sticking these two together, but I see them as somewhat entwined. The fact Gomber is left-handed probably gives him an advantage in staying with the organisation, as there is seemingly a perpetual need for lefty relievers in the Cardinals’ bullpen no matter what, but even so I’m not sure he fits as well in relief as he does starting. And if that’s the case, Gomber might be more valuable to a club that badly needs to shore up the back of its rotation, rather than shuttling to and from Memphis for the Cardinals in 2019.
Poncedeleon, on the other hand, I see being a better fit for the bullpen than as a starter. Yes, he has enough pitches to start, but I think cutter-heavy Poncedeleon could be a very good 7th/8th inning setup guy, and I think I would try him in that role before I moved him. Still, in both Poncedeleon and Gomber’s cases, you have major league-ready starting pitchers without a clear path to a rotation spot with their current organisation. Yes, you always need more than five starters, but just as with the catcher discussion of Knizner and Kelly, there may be more value in moving an asset for a position of need than there is in only utilising some small percentage of a player’s possible utility.
I’ve written before about believing the Cardinals may want to consider moving on from Michael Wacha, given he’s entering his final year of club control and is not so irreplaceable as to be a necessity. That said, moving Wacha now would probably be selling low on his value, so it seems unlikely the Cards would do so. Then again, you really only have one more opportunity to cash in his chip, at the trade deadline, and even if he’s pitching well by that point you’re talking about selling two months of his services. It’s a catch-22, really, having an asset that’s already probably undervalued but also comes with a ticking clock.
Mikolas was one of the real revelations of the Cards’ 2018 season, a $15 million bet on a Japanese track record that paid off like a Mega Millions ticket. That being said, he’s only under contract for 2019, and if the Cardinals cannot find a way to get him extended it might make sense to put him on the trade market at the height of his value.
If Mikolas were to go on the trade market, I would have to think he’d be pretty valuable. He’s projected for 2.7 wins next season, with a price tag of just $7.5 million. That’s not top ten prospect in baseball surplus value, but you’re still talking about $20 millionish. Maybe a bit more, actually, if teams feel like the projections are lagging a bit on Mikolas’s actual quality, which I do.
In all likelihood, though, Mikolas is too valuable to a contending Cardinal club to consider moving, even if they cannot work out a deal to keep him in red beyond the upcoming season. A team staring down a rebuild could afford to move a Miles Mikolas; the Cardinals likely cannot.
Helsley is in a tough spot for me to see him hitting the market, as he missed much of the 2018 season with a sore shoulder, but was seen coming into the year as a rising star. He’s still got big stuff, which some team may want to take a chance on, but the durability question has to put him in a high-risk category. He’s essentially Alex Reyes lite at this point, in term of this column, and brings a lot of the same complications in terms of valuation and negotiation. If Helsley had had a totally successful 2018, maybe he’d be a big bullet the Cards might spend for a first or second year third baseman from some in-between team. But as it stands, I’m not sure any teams will buy him as a premium prospect, and I’d be hesitant to move him as damaged goods. (This sounds familiar, doesn’t it?)
All the Rest
As I said, I don’t want to get too far into the weeds here — particularly considering how long this thing has already become — in terms of bringing up tons of minor league names and the like. But players like Adolis Garcia, Randy Arozarena, and Max Schrock fall into this category for me. Guys who are close to the big leagues, but probably present as very marginal players. (I’m personally still more optimistic on Schrock and Arozarena than the consensus, but that doesn’t change the consensus.) There are players lower in the system who are probably better trade chips, such as Elehuris Montero if the Cards were looking to pick up a premium reliever with multiple years of control left or something like that, but I’m not digging down into the lower levels. The Triple and Double A guys, though, of Justin Williams’s stature, are what I’m talking about here with All the Rest.
The thing is, we can see that right now the Cards are facing a roster crunch heading into the Rule V draft, and what that says to me is that a couple of the players in this category really need to be spent. Losing these kinds of players for nothing isn’t the end of the world, obviously, but it’s still an issue if you’re not being able to protect all your marginal talents from being poached.
To me, Adolis Garcia is an obvious candidate to be moved to the Orioles or the Padres or the Rangers or some other bad team that could take a chance on a superior athlete figuring things out. He’d be a very attractive fourth outfielder, I would think, but the Cardinals are already looking at Tyler O’Neill probably not having a starting job, and if he can’t crack the starting lineup Adolis Garcia is more or less buried in your organisation. Justin Williams is in a similar spot for me, even though his left-handedness gives him an advantage.
Bottom line, the Cardinals have collected a surplus of useful but marginal talent at the upper levels, extremely visible in that crazy Memphis Redbirds club we talked about yesterday. It’s great to have backups, and backups for your backups, but at some point in time you’re collecting talent you don’t really have a use for. The Cards need to find some way to turn some of that surplus into pieces they need more, either through volume for quality trades or simply grabbing players who aren’t outfielders or catchers.
You may notice that at no point in this column did I discuss Paul DeJong, or Jack Flaherty, or Jordan Hicks. There’s a reason for that. In the cases of DeJong and Flaherty, I feel those players are so valuable as to be essentially untouchable. Obviously, no player is truly untouchable outside of Mike Trout, but for me I can’t really see any deal that would actually convince me to move either of those players. Now, in the case of Hicks, I don’t feel he’s so valuable as to be untouchable (in fact, I would personally at least float his name, because I think he has an extremely short shelf life), but I think the Cardinals see him as too valuable to move. And that’s a fair viewpoint; Hicks is so uniquely talented there are very few comparisons one can make for him. And so, I think Hicks is in the basically off-limits category, at least as far as the Cardinals themselves are concerned.
All of this definitely does raise the spectre once again, though, of the question: who are the Cardinals’ core players? I think DeJong and Flaherty certainly qualify as part of the core, but the next 3.5 win season put up by either one will be the first. Harrison Bader is, I think, probably in the same category of players too valuable to move currently, but he’s also at fairly high risk for regression, I believe.
Anyhow, if one were forced to project trades for the Cardinals this offseason, I’d say one of the Gomber/Poncedeleon group is dealt. One of Kelly/Knizner (I lean Knizner), gets moved. Two players from the All the Rest category are traded. I think Jose Martinez is traded, most likely for a high end relief arm. And I’ll say Jedd Gyorko is moved as part of a general realignment. I don’t think I see any of the starting pitchers being moved, even John Gant, who I debated heavily about putting on here but ultimately decided he makes more sense on the roster than off. If anything, the Cards might add a starter to the middle or top of the rotation, which could free up one of the back-end guys to be moved, I suppose, but I don’t see a move happening with Martinez-Mikolas-Flaherty so long as the club believes it has a real shot at contention.
I also think this exercise reveals something else about the Cardinals that we probably already knew. They have lots and lots of parts, but nearly all those parts come with some question about how well they fit, or some caveat about health, or something else. In trying to contend every single year, the Cards have collected a ton of talent, but most of what they have are still somewhat flawed players. It’s what happens when you neither shop at the top of the market nor sell off to try and gain elite assets for the future. Still, that’s not a bad thing; a cobbled together good team is still a good team, after all. But this throws into greater relief just how necessary it is for the Cards to solidify the center of the roster this offseason, so they can treat these complementary players as complementary, rather than trying to stack so many of them together that they create a core through sheer volume.