clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Is Cody Bellinger the Perfect Target for the Cardinals?

There are rumours out there that a Dodger star might be available for the right price. Let’s consider what that price might be.

World Series - Boston Red Sox v Los Angeles Dodgers - Game Four Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Hey there, you beautiful Cardinal fan you. Can I just say you’re looking especially attractive today? I don’t know what it is about you, but you’re definitely something special. (I’ve decided to fully enter the Wayne Newton phase of my writing career now.)

First off, I’m going to do something I don’t think I’ve ever done before, and just flat-out shill for the organisation. Now, I’m not shilling directly for the Cardinals, but I am going to shill for a wholly-owned subsidiary of same, and thus pretty much jump straight into sellout territory regardless.

See, I was working on the prospect list, and as part of that process I happened to visit the Memphis Redbirds’ website, which is where I spotted on their front page a ticket package offer that’s actually good enough I wanted to share it with someone. Me, I live here in St. Louis (well, close enough, anyway), and Memphis is just too far to go all that often. However, I have been to games at Auto Zone Park in Memphis, and would wholeheartedly recommend going to anyone within driving distance.

So here’s the deal: the ticket package includes tickets to six games, including the St. Louis-Memphis exhibition game at the end of spring training, Memphis’s home opener, the last Friday game of the season, and three other games during the year, all of which have fireworks following the game. Which, hey, may not be a big deal one way or the other, but I like fireworks. So kind of a nice bonus. You also get a Matt Carpenter bobblehead as part of the deal, which is guaranteed to be delivered by Christmas if ordered by the end of the day today.

The ticket packages run from $140-$165, for six games, which is, in my ever so humble opinion, a hell of a deal. Minor league baseball is, in general, a really good viewing experience, and the ballpark in Memphis is maybe the nicest minor league stadium I’ve been to. (Small sample alert.)

So here’s the link if anyone is interested. I’m not being compensated for this or anything; it was just a deal good enough I wanted to share it with any readers who might be within reasonable distance of Memphis. It’s a four-hour drive at best from my driveway to Memphis, so it’s just not feasible, sadly. But, i know we draw in readership from a wide area, so maybe someone here would be interested.

Shilling over.

To this point in the offseason, the primary focus of much of Cardinal fans’ attention has been on the free agent market, and more specifically the Bryce Harper market. Even after the Redbirds made a splash by dealing for Paul Goldschmidt, there’s been a consistent call for the Cards to actually address some longer-term concerns, rather than pick up one-year solutions and then worry about this same question again next offseason.

It makes sense, too, for the focus to be so heavily slanted toward the top of the market. The Cardinals have built a factory that produces 1.5-2.5 win players on an assembly line, but core pieces keep evading them. There are two players who have already accumulated 30 fWAR in their careers, will both play the 2019 season at 26 years old, and are both available right now for anyone willing to meet their contract demands. Demand, meet supply.

However, there has been some recent scuttlebutt surrounding another club on the market that could indicate an even better opportunity for a core player is potentially available, should the Cardinals wish to pursue it. The Dodgers, it seems, are looking to make a deal involving an outfielder. And one of the names floated, at least hypothetically, has been Cody Bellinger.

First off, let’s talk about Bellinger the player. He is 23 years old, and will be for the majority of the 2019 season. (He turns 24 in mid-July.) In two seasons with the Dodgers, he has slugged 64 home runs, posted an overall wRC+ of 128, and accumulated 7.6 wins above replacement (FanGraphs version.) In other words, Cody Bellinger is young, and still cheap, and awesome. So why would the Dodgers want to trade him?

Well, the short answer is: they don’t. Even all the speculation on Twitter that the Dodgers would be willing to part with him is predicated on the idea that L.A. would much prefer to move Yasiel Puig, or Joc Pederson, or even super-prospect Alex Verdugo before Bellinger. Thus, we have to assume that the Dodgers would insist on extracting a heavy price in return for the first baseman-slash-outfielder.

So my question here is this: if a deal could be worked out for Bellinger, would he, or should he, immediately become the number one priority for the Cardinals? I would argue he very much should, even more so than a Harper megadeal or something else similar. Harper has been, to this point in his career, a superior hitter to Bellinger, it’s true. Certainly Harper’s on-base skills are absolutely second to none in the game today. However, Bellinger is an elite runner, has one of the best throwing arms in the game (though Harper’s arm strength has, in the past at least, been seen as a big plus as well), is potentially a 60+ defender in an outfield corner, I believe, and is not that far off from Harper’s offensive level. Bryce may still have the offensive edge, but Bellinger is pretty clearly a more well-rounded player at this point in time, capable of contributing in all facets of the game, rather than being limited to putting up offensive numbers only. (To be fair, Harper has never been so defensively limited before as he appeared to be in 2018, but he is significantly slower than Bellinger, and has not actually rated as an above-average fielder since about 2015 by most metrics. It is worrisome that he seems to have declined so much in the field, at the very least.)

Adding even more to the appeal of Bellinger is the fact he has four, count ‘em, four more years of club control left before he can become a free agent, and won’t even be arbitration eligible until next offseason. Now, I’m not really concerned about the Cardinals trying to save even more money, mind you, but it’s tough to argue that having a star-level player on a below-market deal isn’t an enormous component in building a championship club.

All of which sort of piles on to the twin ideas of the Dodgers asking for the moon in return for Bellinger, as well as the simple baseline question of why they would trade him. There are, however, other forces at work here that suggest the Dodgers are going to have to make some tough decisions at some point in the near future if they want to do the things they want to do and honour the promises it seems they’re making.

See, it wasn’t too long ago that Andrew Friedman, President of Baseball Operations for the Dodgers, was demurring when asked directly about his club’s willingness to go over the luxury tax boundary, right around the same time the L.A. Time published reports that the team’s investors had been apprised they would be staying under the tax threshold for the near future. If that is all true — and, admittedly, we don’t know for certain it is, but there’s smoke here that even the Dodgers aren’t interested in paying a huge tax bill anytime soon — then the Dodgers are going to have some work to do to fit any acquisitions into their financial structure.

Which, again, forces us to wonder why they would deal away a cheap young star if they’re worried about payroll. Patience, grasshopper.

Let us, for a moment, consider the Dodgers’ roster. Their biggest need at this moment is arguably second base, where they have essentially nothing. Chase Utley was bad and is retiring. Logan Forsythe was bad and is now gone. It was reported not long ago the Dodgers were considering trading for Jose Martinez to play at first base, moving Max Muncy to second. Serious question: have you seen Max Muncy? That seems like a bad idea, playing him at the keystone.

What the Dodgers do have a lot of, though, is outfielders. So. Many. Outfielders. And Bellinger, perhaps their best first base option, is also potentially their best option out there as well. They probably don’t want to trade him. But, he might be their best bet to improve their club even further without having to push payroll back up to an uncomfortable place again.

So here, ladies and gentlemen, is my totally imaginary, thought up in the last half hour, never going to happen framework for a Cody Bellinger trade between the Dodgers and Cardinals.

First off, the Dodgers say they like Jose Martinez. So let’s start there. Now, before you jump down into the comments and begin excoriating me for thinking you can get Cody Bellinger for Jose Martinez, hang on a sec. I didn’t say Jose Martinez was the package, or even the biggest piece of the package. But he’s a good place to start if the Dodgers like his bat.

Now we have to stop for a second here and talk about some numbers. As in, the sort of numbers Cody Bellinger is likely to produce. He’s projected to produce a little under 4 wins above replacement in 2019, while being paid peanuts. I don’t have his long-term projections, but let’s assume he’ll be basically this same player for the next four years while he’s under contract. Personally, I think he’s got a six WAR year or two in him, but one does not build formulae on, “I bet he’s real good coupla them years.” So over the course of his four years under club control, we’ll peg him at 16 WAR. If we value wins at roughly $9 million apiece (I don’t know what wins will ultimately go for this offseason, but I think that’s about where we are now.), then he will produce approximately $144 million in (hypothetical) value over those years. Wow. That’s quite a lot.

Unfortunately, I don’t have a great feel for how to estimate arbitration salaries; perhaps someone with a better understanding of where those numbers come from can help out in the comments. Of all the things in the game, arb salaries seem one of the most black-boxy to me, and I never feel like I quite get how much a player will be paid in his arb-eligible years. However, I am fully capable of making wild-ass guesses, and I will try to do so now. If Bellinger maintains his current level of production, as we are assuming by using a flat value curve, then he should approach the highest arb numbers ever, if not break those records by dint of hitting lots of dingers, which are always valued very highly in arbitration. The highest arbitration salaries ever belong to Josh Donaldson and Bryce Harper this past season, at $23 and $21.5 million, respectively. If we peg Bellinger for around a $22 million award in 2022 (which could be low, admittedly), then we’re maybe looking at something like $7, $15, and $22 million? Again, I’m not good at this bit, so someone help me out if possible. Tack on the 600K he’ll get in 2019, and we’re looking at Bellinger bringing home something like $45 million over the next four years, should he go through the full arbitration process, I believe. This is actually a fairly convenient number, since it means we can eyeball his production and posit he’ll be worth somewhere in the neighbourhood of $100 million in excess of his salary. Big round numbers are fun, I find, which by the way is the far less well-known second single from Sir Mix-a-Lot. Very tough to dance to.

So let’s shoot for a 100 million dollar deal, okay? Okay. Glad you agree.

How much is Jose Martinez worth, then, since we’re starting with him? Well, not $100 million, unfortunately, since that would immediately solve our problem, but it’s probably more than you think. Cafecito is projected for 1.8 wins by FanGraphs’ depth chart, but that’s over less than 500 plate appearances. Over a full season, let’s call him a two win player. So we project two wins, build in a little age-related decline since he’s 30, and call him a seven win player over the four years he’s under club control. Actually, we can even bump that to six, in order to be more conservative. I’m personally a little more optimistic, but it doesn’t hurt to err on the side of not being a homer.

As for salary, Martinez will be arbitration eligible next offseason, and I’m guessing will make something like $16 million over the course of his arb years. That’s a 3/5/8 guess, which again, if I’m totally off base let me know. So if we value his wins at $9 million apiece, we get $54 million in value, minus his $16 million in potential salary, with a net gain of $38 million. If our projections on him are more optimistic, maybe he’s worth even more, but let’s go with this.

I mentioned earlier the Dodgers are utterly lacking at second base, and it just so happens the Cardinals have a very solid second baseman under contract for three more seasons. (Well, two plus an option, but it’s affordable enough I’m sure the option will be picked up, either by the Cards themselves or someone else.) Kolten Wong would immediately set the Dodgers up at second for the next few years while their current group is in championship contention, so let’s make him our second piece of the deal.

Here’s the thing about Wong: he’s projected to be a little less than a two and a half win player, but in only 490 plate appearances. Now, that’s a fairly sensible projection, given that Kolten has only once accumulated more than 500 PAs in a single season, but it also kind of messes with our perception of him. He just put up 2.8 wins in 23 of a season, and at 28 should avoid any age-related decline for the next three seasons, one would hope. At the same time, he has been fragile enough to date that maybe you simply don’t count on him to give you a full season. Maybe you believe he’s a 2.5 win player, but only over 450-500 at-bats. It’s tough for me to really peg how good I think Kolten Wong really is, to be honest.

Still, we have to do something here, so let’s project him for, say, seven wins over three years. I could definitely see going higher, but the fact he so rarely makes it through a season unscathed is keeping him down here. So we’ll make it seven. Seven wins, nine million per, and we have another $63 million asset.

The good news here is that we don’t have to guess at what Wong will make; we have concrete figures. From age 28 to 30, Kolten Wong will make a shade over $29 million if his option is picked up. Simple subtraction gives us $34 million in surplus value, and simple addition gives us $72 million total between Wong and Martinez. Which, yes, is a lot, but still well short of our $100 million goal.

And here is where we actually address one of the Dodgers’ biggest needs, beyond second base: payroll. See, one of the things the Dodgers appear really desperate to do is shed Matt Kemp’s salary for 2019, which makes some sense, since he’s making a large amount and not really contributing a whole lot to the cause. Then again, the Dodgers have a lot of money, and are currently okay in terms of the luxury tax, so why would they be that concerned about Kemp?

Well, we can’t say they are for sure, but again we have quite a bit of smoke suggesting they are very serious about moving Kemp’s contract, with one of the primary reasons possibly being their own interest in Bryce Harper. As things stand now, it would require the Dodgers to go way above and beyond what they seem to have told investors they were planning on doing to try and add Harper, who is from Las Vegas and rumoured to have a mild preference for teams out West. If they were able to get off Kemp’s salary, however, which is $21.5 million for 2019, they might be able to swing things a bit more easily.

So the third component of my deal is actually not another player going from the Cardinals to the Dodgers, but taking on one purely for salary relief. I’m not doing anything with Kemp other than cutting him pretty much immediately, either; none of this keeping him on the roster hoping he accidentally slugs .500 for a month like L.A. did last year. I’ll pay the salary and he can go wherever he likes.

Best news yet: adding $21.5 million is the simplest numerical transaction we have had come through so far. So $72 million plus $21 million puts us at 93, which is starting to get into the neighbourhood of where we want to be. Not quite there, but close.

What we need now is just a solid bit of prospect value, without giving up something so irreplaceable that, well, we can’t replace it. Thus, I turn to Dakota Hudson, the Cardinals’ highest-ranked pitching prospect outside of Alex Reyes, who is in the strange position of being so desirable to keep and not desirable enough to acquire, due to the combination of generational stuff and an arm that has now imploded twice. Reyes seems so complicated here as to be unnecessary, and so I’m going with Hudson.

Hudson ranked near the back of top 100 prospect lists last year, and officially made it to the big leagues in 2018, which actually gives his value a little bump. The Point of Pittsburgh numbers have pitchers in the 76-100 range clocking in at about $16 million in value, but a pitcher who makes it to the bigs is a little more valuable than that, since he has already proven he’s a survivor to the major league level. We can quibble with the exact number — I’d put Hudson at $20 million at least — but it’s not that big a deal. We’re dealing with lots of quick and dirty math here anyway, so let’s stick with $16 million. We add that on to our pile, and we come up with $109 million, beating our goal. We have also, in pushing past that surplus value number, solved the Dodgers’ biggest positional need and given them salary flexibility they might be able to use to pursue one of those really big fish on the market if they wanted to, so I feel like I’ve been attentive enough to their needs that I don’t need to overjustify my offer here. (Which sounds suspiciously like my version of pillow talk, yes. Why do you ask?)

So the question is: would Martinez, Wong, Hudson, plus taking on all of Kemp’s salary be enough to pry Bellinger away from the Dodgers? Well, honestly, I don’t know. I think it would be, but I could be wrong. If it’s not enough, I have a hard time believing they’ll move him for basically anything.

The second question is: would this be a good idea? For the Cardinals, I mean. As much of a slam dunk as I think acquiring Bellinger is in general, it’s not obviously a win to make this deal. I am, admittedly, creating a potentially serious problem for myself by trading away a starting second baseman who is very solid in his own right, if not a star. However, I do believe that, on balance, it would be worth creating that potential issue in order to acquire a long-term cornerstone player. Bellinger isn’t really for 2019, or at least not all for 2019; getting him is really paying off in 2020, and 2021, and hopefully beyond, giving the Cardinals a player around whom they can build, not to mention potentially the most athletic outfield in all of baseball beginning in 2020 when Tyler O’Neill joins Harrison Bader and Bellinger to form a group whose slowest sprint speed (Bellinger), comes in at 28.9 feet per second, which is within the top 15% of all players in the game.

Also, I really do believe that I could find a league-average second baseman if I had to. Go make a deal for Profar. Invite Max Schrock to camp and see if 2018 was really just a weird outlier. See what Ramon Urias has. Move Edmundo Sosa to second full time and see if his defense there pushes him to two wins in spite of a weak bat. There are multiple different things the Cardinals could do to fill second base, if the end result was sacrificing a little quality at the keystone to acquire a truly elite building block. (Of course, the Dodgers could do things to find an average second baseman as well, but this deal addresses some other needs for them that I think makes it more advantageous.)

Does this deal happen? Of course not. I’m just a guy tapping away at a bunch of letters on a blog. But there’s been enough talk recently about the Dodgers looking to move players, even potentially one of their very best, that it’s not out of the question to see something like this happening. And if a player like this hits the market, I would expect the Cardinals to be in the thick of the pursuit. The Indians seem to be less interested in moving a starting pitcher now, closing off one more avenue to potentially add an elite player. Maybe the Dodgers’ desire to make a splash without blowing their payroll entirely could open up another.