Paul Goldschmidt is a Cardinal. It just feels nice to type. Really rolls off the tongue, too. But I’m not here to rehash the terms of the deal or the haul of youngsters heading to the desert. I’m here to talk about windows. Boy, do we have a window.
The Goldschmidt deal can’t be brought up without his one year of control and the lack of extension negotiations being mentioned. Rightfully so - the organization picked up a perennial down-ballot MVP candidate, but he’s only guaranteed to be a Cardinals through 2019. The rest of the offseason needs to be laser focused on maximizing what is potentially just a one year window.
Now don’t take me to mean that the pre-Goldschmidt Cardinals weren’t a playoff contender. It was a playoff-caliber team, sure. You could expect a high-80’s win total, and in a good year, a wildcard berth. It was a high-floor team, deep but dangerously close to the ceiling, at the mercy of the randomness we call baseball. The Goldschmidt Cardinals immediately feel like something more, like a slam-dunk wildcard team. I’m not okay with that. Let’s plug the holes, trim the fat, spend some money - let’s turn this team into a division winner.
So what moves are on the table to get the most out of 2019? Well for context, the team is currently projected at 87-wins per FanGraphs. With Goldschmidt’s $14.5M salary, the club is $13M short of last year’s payroll and $53M short of the tax threshold. The farm system is still middle of the pack, with enough ammunition to pull in a big fish on the trade market if that’s the route you want to take. The front office improved the roster while maintaining payroll and prospect flexibility. Let’s explore maximizing the 2019 window. Tomorrow, Ben Clemens will explore routes for extending the window beyond 2019.
Of all the areas of the roster, this is the one with the least room for upgrade post-Goldschmidt acquisition. Goldschmidt-Wong-DeJong-Carpenter across the infield is dangerous. There are, however, some payroll commitments and depth that can be consolidated to facilitate moves elsewhere.
The most extraneous infielder has to be Jose Martinez, I’d think. Pre-Goldschmidt there was an argument to be made to squeeze in at-bats for Martinez at first base and at the outfield corners. Now with Goldschmidt anchoring first, Carpenter sliding over to third, and the existing outfield logjam for kicks, at-bats are hard to come by. Move Cafecito to an AL club looking for a DH and part-time first baseman. Get a bullpen piece in return or prospects that will help in acquiring a bullpen piece later on.
Next let’s look at Jedd Gyorko. He's owed $8M this year with a $13M option for 2020. He’s been worth 6.1 fWAR over the last three seasons, mashes lefties, and has the versatility to play all over the diamond. I like Gyorko tho $8M super-sub, but if his contract is moved to make payroll room for other upgrades I can live with that.
Yairo Munoz is the last name we need to touch on. He was near replacement level in 2018, but showed flashes and plays every infield spot and the corner outfield. With or without Gyorko, he’s worthy trotting out in a bench role.
Woof. The Goldschmidt trade improved the roster but left an outfield conundrum to unpack. The good news is that two of the three outfield spots are spoken for, with Marcell Ozuna manning left and Harrison Bader patrolling center. Ozuna wasn’t the player many hoped we were getting from Miami, but he still posted 2.7 fWAR with a bum shoulder. You’ve gotta believe some positive regression is in play for 2019. Bader’s defense and base running alone warrant a full-time trial, with a bat somewhere around league average.
Right field is still a thorn in the clubs side. Bryce Harper is still such an obvious addition that we won’t talk about him. O’Neill probably deserves a trial, but it’s hard to be comfortable with a team trying to maximize a one-year window betting on a 23 year old that struck out 40% of the time in the big leagues. Fowler has to have SOME positive regression in the tank, but more likely than not he’s a $14.5M bench player. Find a way to move this contract, sign a right fielder, and let O’Neills power play off the bench.
Beyond Harper, Michael Brantley is a viable but not overly exciting near-short term option. He’s left handed (check), has excellent contact skills and can probably be had for something like 3 years/$45 million. He’s also 31, has had recent durability concerns, and typically plays left field. Other similar options include A.J. Pollock and Andrew McCutchen. Pollock provides more defensive value and the possibility of a higher ceiling, but hasn’t played in more than 113 games since 2015. McCutchen isn’t a star anymore, but he’s still a ~120 wRC+ hitter with enough athleticism in the tank to net value on the bases and with the glove. They’re right handed, however, and won’t provide the coveted lineup balance that has been so trendy in Cardinal’s circles this offseason. Both can concievably be had for Fowler-like money.
We probably sold low on Luke Weaver in terms of overall value, but he was more than worth nabbing Goldschmidt. Now it’s a matter of filling those 25 starts. Martinez-Mikolas-Wacha-Flaherty provide a high-quality starting point, but at Wacha and Martinez struggled to stay healthy in 2018. Flaherty could be an emerging frontline starter, but betting on that to happen in 2019 isn’t something I want to anchor my rotation on. Some combination of Gomber, Poncedeleon, Hudson or possibly Helsley could fill in as the #5, and most likely would do it at a league average rate. If we’re sticking with the group as is, any injury attrition at the top of the rotation could snowball into a disaster rather quickly. We need to find a starter on the market and rely on the Memphis squad as depth options.
As a quick aside, you’ll notice that I didn’t include Alex Reyes or Adam Wainwright above. Reyes is very much a wildcard and I don’t think anyone feels comfortable projecting what he’ll do in 2019. Fangraphs has him projected for 18 starts and 1.4 fWAR currently, but I don’t trust the projection machines as much with a prospect coming off two years of lost time. Wainwright has a rosy Fangraphs projection as well, pegged for 128 innings (18 starts) and 1.4 fWAR. We’ll revisit these two when we get to the bullpen. In the meantime, let’s find a starter.
The market is remarkably well-suited for team looking for a short-term upgrade. Charlie Morton and J.A. Happ both represent starters riding late-career peaks that could be had on shorter deals. MLBTR has them both projected to garner contracts in the $16M AAV range.
Morton or Happ would add meat to the middle of the rotation, but how about top-tier options? What about the real, caps-lock hammering “UPGRADEZ”? Rumor has it that Cleveland is open for business. Carlos Carracci was just inked to an extension, but both Corey Kluber and Trevor Bauer are both being dangled. Kluber or Bauer represent the best upgrade option not named Harper. The only question is whether the Cardinals have the buying power to get a deal done. The lack of a sure-fire package headliner appears to be the biggest obstacle. O’Neill, even though Cleveland needs outfield help, feels a little light to be centerpiece. Reyes is probably a non-starter because of his recent injuries, in spite of his blue-chip prospect pedigree. Honestly I’d package both to co-headline a deal for three years of Kluber, but not for two years of Bauer.
Yusei Kikucki is worth a look as well after his recent posting. He’s left handed, throws gas, and has been successful in Japan. While successful, he hasn’t been as successful as recent crossover stars, and represents more near-term risk relative to his potential price tag than other options. I’d like the signing as a long-term play rather than a near-term press.
One option that hasn’t generated much buzz is Madison Bumgarner. If the Giants are serious about looking to the future, Bumgarner might be moved with one year left on his deal. He isn’t an ace anymore, but represents a bet with a safe floor, a high ceiling, and a more reasonable price tag. Just keep him away from any dirt bikes. Oh yeah, we’d also have two Pitchers Who Rake™ on the roster.
Herein lies the wellspring of all 2018 frustrations. Admittedly I’m of the bullpen construction school that champions lots of low-cost, high upside bets in hopes that natural reliever volatility nets a productive ‘pen. This option is out of style with many, given how badly it blew up in our face in 2018. Did we know that an implosion was possible? Sure. Will everything go wrong two years in a row? Probably not.
I’m bullish on the 2019 bullpen, sans improvements. Hicks and Hudson appear to be bonfire ground ball monsters with the stuff to see an uptick in strikeouts. Luke Gregorson and Dominic Leone are still around, for whatever thats worth, an have high-strikeout upside. Brett Cecil’s contract will keep him around in hopes of a rebound, most likely. Wainwright and Reyes will likely fit in the pen someway, somehow. Wainwright makes sense as a long man and a healthy Reyes on an innings limit might be a high-octane multi-inning monster. John Brebbia shouldn’t be discounted, and could ride his late-season form to a productive 2019. Webb, Gallegos, and Mayers will be kicking around in Memphis should the need arise. All risky bets, but pooled together it’s be unlikely that we see an encore of the 2018 disaster.
With those arms pooled together to form the base of the bullpen, I’m still going after a free-agent reliever. Yeah, I know I just said I prefer not to spend a lot on relievers, but the current market is so saturated with options that it’s worth taking a swing at one. Kimbrel is the best option, but will also command a premium price tag. Robertson represents a durable, seemingly loss-volatile option, but is entering his mid-30’s. Miller and Britton were both once top-tier lefties but are coming off of down 2018 campaigns. Familia was still productive in 2018, but his shoulder ailment makes me thinks he’s more the 2017-2018 version going forward than the hammer he was in 2015-2016. Ottavino seems to have reinvented himself and could be worth a look, but as of now it seems that another contender will overpay for his services in hopes to catch his potential peak years. Regardless of all the warts, the bullpen represents an area ripe for large-scale improvement and is worth making a big bet on.
What is there to write here? Yadi will continue to be Yadi, and Francisco Pena will continue to be the league’s most underused backup catcher. Knizner is waiting in the wings should Yadi go down for an extended period. Not at all worried about this one.
Overall, Goldschmidt was a fantastic start to opening a competitive window for 2019. But, as Tanner Puckett wrote yesterday, the offseason cannot stop here.
Public Service Announcement: Do something nice for a Diamondbacks fan today. Yesterday, I had two different friends from Phoenix express their grief over the trade. We all know what it feels like to see a franchise cornerstone, another top-of-the-league first baseman no less, ship off for another city. It sucks. So buy that desert dweller in your office a coffee. Hold a door open. Just do something human for a fanbase saying goodbyes to their most beloved player, because maybe somebody did something nice for you after Albert left.