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Free Agent Focus: Allen, McCutchen, Grandal

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Three players, all of whom have performed at a high level, none of whom make a great deal of sense for the team to which this blog is dedicated. Sigh.

Divisional Round - New York Yankees v Boston Red Sox - Game Two Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

We are about two weeks out now from the beginning of baseball’s Winter Meetings, that strange annual job fair/fun run (no, seriously; there’s a winter meetings fun run)/horse trading session that dominates, and sometimes even fully defines, the MLB offseason. It’s always tough to say how much business will get done prior to the meetings themselves; I’m personally expecting a quiet run of things from now until the tenth of December, but I could be wrong. Maybe a couple more small trades and the like, but I feel like we’re going to be waiting for the meetings and then see the dam burst all at once.

So anyhow, back to the players.

Cody Allen, RHP

6’1”, 210 lbs; Bats/Throws: Right/Right

Age during 2019 season: 30

2018 Stats: 70 G, 67 IP, 4.70 ERA, 4.56 FIP, 27.7% K, 11.4% BB

Pros:

  • Consistent late-inning presence
  • Has thrown at least 67 innings six years in a row
  • No platoon vulnerability to speak of in career
  • No qualifying offer

Cons:

  • Velocity on a downward trend
  • Will get paid for saves
  • Strikeout rate way down in 2018
  • Hit hard by lefties in 2018
  • Serious home run problem in recent years
  • Walk rate spiked in 2018

A couple of years ago, Cody Allen had this sort of ‘best reliever you don’t know about’ kind of thing going on, sort of like Greg Holland a few years before that. Part of it was pitching for Cleveland (particularly before the Indians really took off), part of it was being young enough to not yet be in trade rumours all the time, and part of it was that Allen was one of a group of three dominant relievers in the Cleveland ‘pen, and not even the best one. That honour, of course, went to Andrew Miller, who sucked up a lot of the air in the room as far as the Indians’ bullpen was concerned.

Now, though, as Allen heads into free agency for the first time, he has the feeling of a potential landmine, at least to me, just waiting for some unsuspecting club to come along and sign him to fix the back of their bullpen, only to blow their plans sky-high.

The good with Allen is that he’s been durable and dependable, throwing plenty of innings at a high level. From 2013 to ‘17, he posted sub-3.00 ERAs five years in a row, and saved at least 24 games every year from 2014-’18. He has also, for most of his MLB career, been an absolute strikeout machine, posting K rates above 29% every year from 2013 to 2017, and above 32% four of those five seasons.

The bad is this: Cody Allen in 2018 did not look much like the Cody Allen of previous years, and he looks like a pitcher who could very possibly be right on the edge of a big downturn. His ERA in 2018 jumped up to 4.70, and his peripherals indicate he wasn’t simply the victim of bad luck. His walk rate jumped, his strikeouts dropped, and his home run rate, already problematic in the previous two seasons, climbed to nearly a homer and a half per nine innings. Cody Allen in 2018 was not a good pitcher.

And that’s where we are right now as Allen hits the free agent market. He’ll be looking to cash in on his reputation as a closer for one of the best teams in baseball over the past several years, as well as his performance over most of those seasons, but he’s also dragging the worst season of his career at 29 years old behind him on a chain, and teams are not going to simply ignore that. Basically, you have the entire MLB labour market issue distilled down into this one microcosm of one pitcher. Cody Allen was awesome for the Indians for multiple years, and was paid relative peanuts over that time. Now he’s a free agent, looking to cash in with a big contract, and there’s reason to believe he may be approaching a break point in his career, either a health issue or a complete failure of performance. And there are really no dumb teams right now who are going to look at what he just did in 2018 and wave it off because he racked up all those saves three years ago.

Andrew McCutchen, OF

5’11”, 195 lbs; Bats/Throws: Right/Right

Age during 2019 season: 32

2018 Stats: 682 PA, .255/.368/.424, 120 wRC+, 2.6 WAR, 13.9% BB, 21.3% K

Pros:

  • Still a very solid overall hitter
  • Great on-base skills
  • Defensive metrics liked him in right field last season
  • Hit extremely well down the stretch in New York

Cons:

  • No longer capable of playing center field
  • Big time negative baserunning value in 2018
  • Power has declined

I’ll boil all the cons on the con list above down to just one statement for you: Andrew McCutchen isn’t what he used to be.

That being said, McCutchen still had a relatively successful season in his first go of things away from Pittsburgh. (By the way, it was really unnerving to see him in other uniforms, at least for me.) He didn’t hit especially well in San Francisco, putting up a .772 OPS (113 OPS+), in 568 plate appearances, but then turned on the jets once he was dealt to the Yankees, posting an .892 OPS, good for a 141 OPS+, in his final 114 trips to the plate. His defense graded out fairly well in right field after a couple years of being, by the numbers at least, one of the worst center field defenders in baseball. All in all, he put together a very respectable season, one that netted him 2.6 wins above replacement. Problem is, 2.6 wins used to be about two months’ worth of work for Andrew McCutchen, rather than a full seasons’ worth of playing time.

The offensive numbers for Cutch are a little difficult to peruse, honestly. He played in two such disparate hitting environments that one could just as easily argue his numbers were inflated by Yankee Stadium, or suppressed by AT&T Park. On which side do I come down? I have no idea; I’m just a humble writer, after all. Much smarter people than I will need to break out their very best algorithms to try and solve that particular quandary.

McCutchen really isn’t a very good fit for the Cardinals, specifically, considering how many potential 2-3 win options they likely have in the outfield already, not to mention the fact he is yet another right-handed hitter. The walk rate and general on-base skills McCutchen still brings to the table are attractive without a doubt, but unless Yankee McCutchen was 100% the real McCutchen going forward for the next few years, he’s really not the kind of driving force for the offense the Redbirds are looking for. He’s projected for a 124 wRC+ and 2.6 wins in 2019, which are not at all bad numbers, but those numbers will almost certainly come with a fairly hefty price tag the Cardinals won’t have to pay in order to get production in at least that same neighbourhood.

Really kind of amazing just how few free agents are actually good options for the Cardinals, isn’t it? Particularly considering how terrible a lot of the fanbase seems to think the team John Mozeliak and Michael Girsch have put together is.

Yasmani Grandal, C

6’1”, 235 lbs; Bats/Throws: Switch/Right

Age during 2019 season: 30

2018 Stats: 140 G, 518 PA, .241/.349/.466, 125 wRC+, 13.9% BB, 23.9% K

Pros:

  • One of the best hitting catchers in baseball
  • Switch hitter
  • Extremely durable
  • Capable of playing first base with a bat you don’t actually mind there
  • ‘Hidden’ catching statistics make him look even better

Cons:

  • Abysmal baserunner
  • Qualifying offer attached
  • Will be looking for a big payday
  • Tough fit for Cardinals specifically with Yadier Molina on the team

This one probably seems like an easy ‘no’ as far as potential free agent signings for the Cardinals go, right? Well, it seems like an easy no because it probably is an easy no. However, for the sake of looking at as many options for improvement as possible, I’m going down the road of Grandal.

We all love Yadier Molina, and we all know he’s still really good, and also one of the most prideful players in baseball. However, the reality of the situation is also that Yadi is now 36, will turn 37 in the upcoming season, and has more mileage on his tires than any other catcher in baseball. We also know the Cardinals have a couple of highly thought of catching prospects right now coming up to the big league level, which would seem to point toward an easy future transition. However, we also know neither Carson Kelly nor Andrew Knizner have proven anything yet in the major leagues, and the Redbirds consider now to be a prime window of contention for the franchise.

With all that in mind, it’s useful to at least contemplate, I think, what a timeshare between Molina and someone like Grandal could look like. Again, purely hypothetical, but if Yadi were to agree to something like a near-50/50 split, perhaps 60/40 with Grandal taking some at-bats at first base in addition, what sort of production could the Cards gain from such an arrangement?

As brutal a postseason as Grandal just experienced, he’s been one of the best hitting catchers in baseball since he got to Los Angeles in 2015, posting wRC+ numbers of 116, 121, 102, and 125 over the past four seasons. His defense has long been admired, and the pitch framing data used over at Baseball Prospectus makes him look even better — like a perennial MVP candidate, in fact. He would add an additional left-handed bat to the lineup whenever necessary, as well, allowing something like a Josh Donaldson signing at third to have even a bit more oomph, with Carpenter able to move over and Grandal handle first against particularly tough right-handed pitchers.

Essentially, the argument for Grandal is an argument for a player with just a touch of versatility, who’s so good in so many phases of the game that even when he isn’t doing the thing he’s the very best at he can still help you win. He represents an extremely unlikely avenue for upgrade by the Cardinals; in fact, I’d say he probably represents an option that won’t even be considered. Particularly in light of the fact you’d have to give up a draft pick for a round peg for the square hole you’re trying to fill. But as a free agent option who brings a lot of obvious value, and tons of not-as-obvious value as well, Grandal could be a bargain for some team out there.

And yes, even keeping all that good stuff in mind, he is absolutely not a fit for the Cardinals. But a better question than is he a fit? is: should he be an option? And I don’t know the answer to that second question. Probably not, considering how much easier many or most of the other avenues to improvement are. But then again, if the Cardinals were to decide neither Kelly nor Knizner are part of the future here in St. Louis, then what other solutions might they need to consider?