Have you had your helping of hot Paul Goldschmidt content yet this fine Saturday? If not, you’re in luck- it’s time for another look into team-building given the Cardinals’ newest acquisition. Today, however, I don’t want to talk about 2019. Andrew St. John covered ways the team can maximize 2019 yesterday. Instead, I want to address the perception that the team has created a one-year contention window. Look, yeah, having a player as good as Goldschmidt incentivizes you to go for it right now. The team projects to be almost as good as the Cubs already, and it would be irresponsible not to try to win the division next year. We know far more about the 2019 roster than we do about any future year, and it’s worth maximizing talent in that year of certainty.
Just because Goldschmidt is a free agent after 2019, however, doesn’t mean the Cardinals’ window closes there. Because they paid a reasonably low price to acquire him, the team can contend in 2020 with the pieces it has on hand. To illustrate this point, I’m going to consider four possible versions of the 2020 team- one with Bryce Harper and Goldschmidt both on the team, one with neither, and one each for keeping one of the two. In each case, I’ll run through the team’s payroll commitments and players before suggesting some moves the Cardinals could make to complement those players. In each case, I’m using John LaRue’s excellent payroll matrix. I’m going to stop short of projecting win totals or playoff odds or anything like that, because that would veer even further into wishcasting than I’m comfortable with, and this is coming from a guy whose first article here pegged Luke Weaver as an effective number three starter. Instead, I’ll just give a rough run-down of the roster, and qualitatively how I think that looks for the team.
Star Power- Retain Harper and Goldschmidt
This is the best possible outcome for contending in 2020 (obviously). The infield looks stellar. Goldschmidt, Carpenter, and DeJong provide enviable offense, while Kolten Wong’s defense and streaky offense combine to form an above-average second baseman. The outfield is the much-dreamed-of all-bro outfield, with Harper and Tyler O’Neill manning the corners while Harrison Bader patrols center. This lineup is going to do damage; Yadier Molina and Bader are probably the two worst hitters, and they make up for it in other ways- Bader with his all-world defense and Molina because he’s a catcher, which comes with a significantly lower bar for offense. Depending on how Bader and O’Neill develop, this could very well be the best set of position players in the National League.
It’s a good thing, too, because the pitching is nothing to write home about. The staff is highlighted by Jack Flaherty and Carlos Martinez. After that, it’s kind of a mess. John Gant and Austin Gomber are next in line. Daniel Poncedeleon and Dakota Hudson need to prove they can start in the majors, but they’re in line for some opportunities. Alex Reyes might be permanently bullpen-bound at this point, but if he’s back to starting he’ll definitely get a chance here. The bullpen doesn’t lose anyone, but given how many pitchers will be promoted to the rotation, it could probably use some shoring up- it looks dangerously thin after Hicks, Brebbia, and Leone.
Let’s tackle money. I assume the Cardinals will pick up Matt Carpenter’s option while declining team options on Jedd Gyorko and Luke Gregerson. In this scenario, I assume the team will extend qualifying offers to Miles Mikolas and Marcell Ozuna before allowing them to leave, recouping some valuable draft picks. Finally, let’s assume Bryce Harper is making $32 million a year and that Goldschmidt signs a 6-year, $132 million deal. This seems to be about market value after applying a standard aging curve, so let’s assume he doesn’t give the team an extension discount. This puts the 2020 payroll at $166 million. That doesn’t leave a ton of room to add, but the team could probably manage about $20 million dollars more of spending without any danger of approaching the luxury tax.
One of my first orders of business in this hypothetical would be resigning Michael Wacha. While Wacha will enter free agency at age 29, he’ll hardly be a headliner of next year’s class. His career numbers look shockingly close to Lance Lynn’s- Wacha has compiled a 3.77 ERA (3.68 FIP) with a 20.9 K% and a 7.9 BB%. Lynn is nearly a doppelganger- a 3.57 ERA (3.67 FIP), 22.4 K%, and 9.2 BB%. While Lynn was a year older going into free agency, he didn’t have nearly the chronic injury problems surrounding Wacha. A three-year, $36 million deal would suit both sides nicely. This leaves the Cardinals payroll room to add a back-end starter or a few reliever lottery tickets, as John Mozeliak is wont to do. The team could look to extend Miles Mikolas instead, but I expect Mikolas to command a 4-year, $80 million deal- the Cardinals would need to let Wacha go and commit to expanding the payroll to levels they’ve never previously hit to fit Mikolas into their plans. In a dream world with Harper and Goldschmidt, I think I’m fine economizing a bit on pitching.
There’s one more move this iteration of the Cardinals should make. With a slugging first baseman who can field and a slugging right fielder who can somewhat field on the team, there’s much less need for a slugging 1B/OF who absolutely can’t field. Jose Martinez already feels destined for an AL team this offseason, but the Cardinals should certainly move him in this scenario. If they can acquire a serviceable high-leverage reliever, I’d make that trade immediately in this world.
This version of the Cardinals is a serious contender in 2020. They have a young and talented outfield and middle infield, and are aging (though great) at the corners and at catcher. Additionally, the pitching staff is pretty seriously top-heavy. By 2021, Molina’s and Carpenter’s contracts will expire, and Andrew Knizner and Nolan Gorman/Elehuris Montero might be ready to cover a significant portion of their production. This adds a little payroll breathing room, but buying pitching in free agency is a dangerous game. Overall, this Cardinals team is a high-risk, high-reward proposition. Their stars are absolutely amazing, but their lack of pitching depth is extremely un-Cardinals.
Goldy Standard- Miss on Harper, keep Goldschmidt
This, to my mind, is the most likely outcome. Goldschmidt is on the Cardinals, right this second. He is, right? I better go check really quickly, just to make sure this isn’t a dream. Okay- yes. Paul Goldschmidt is on the Cardinals! In any case, one thing you may know about Bryce Harper is that he isn’t currently on the Cardinals. There are enough strong contenders for his services that assuming he signs with the team is presumptuous. If he doesn’t sign in St. Louis, though, the team is going to have space on the payroll going forward, and an extension for Goldschmidt seems like a tailor-made opportunity to use that room.
In this scenario, the infield remains the same in 2020; Goldschmidt, Wong, DeJong, and Carpenter. Goldschmidt signs his same 6-year, $132 million extension. Without Harper, though, the outfield springs a serious leak when Marcell Ozuna becomes a free agent after next year. Without further acquisitions, we’re looking at an outfield of O’Neill/Bader/Fowler, which feels very under-powered unless Fowler makes a strong recovery from his 2018 form.
Lastly, the pitching staff is exactly the same as above. In fact, the pitching staff is the same in all four iterations before we make any new acquisitions, so I’ll just run through the starters quickly here- Flaherty, Martinez, Gomber, Gant, and some question marks. The bullpen is the same as well. Just as above, the Cardinals are thin on the pitching side of things. This time, however, they’ll need to invest a bit more in the staff to compete.
Just as before, I assume the Cardinals will exercise Carpenter’s option while allowing Gyorko and Gregerson to hit free agency. This leaves the team with $134 million committed for 2020; and decisions to make about Marcell Ozuna, Miles Mikolas, and Michael Wacha. As I see it, Wacha makes sense on the same deal as above no matter what the team wants to do here. Three years at $12 million a year should do it, and the Cardinals will be happy solidifying the rotation with a proven third starter. That leads to a major decision point- Mikolas or Ozuna? I actually expect both to command similar deals in free agency, at least in terms of annual cost- I’ve penciled Mikolas in for four years and Ozuna in for five years, each at $20 million a year.
Porque no los dos, you ask? Well, it’s certainly not out of the realm of possibility, but it feels a little odd to me. Signing both of them takes the Cardinals up to a $186 million payroll with no external additions to the team. While the payroll figures to tick back down in 2021 with Molina’s retirement, I think it would take a World Series championship to convince the Cardinals to run up to an all-time high payroll just to keep the same team around. So, which of the two doors does the team pick? For me, it depends heavily on what happens on the player development front in the next year. Does one of Dylan Carlson or Randy Arozarena knock the doors off of their minor league assignments? If so, the team might want to let Ozuna walk and let one of the kids spell Fowler in right field. Did Austin Gomber and Dakota Hudson really figure things out? I suppose the team could balk a little bit at guaranteeing the back end of Mikolas’ contract.
This team might be the most likely future outcome, but it’s also the one I’m least certain about. The infield is great. The defense is questionable, with studs up the middle of the diamond but Carpenter and Fowler making things confusing. The offense is feast or famine- Carpenter, Goldschmidt, and DeJong are a formidable top of the order, but a 6-7-8 of Wong, Fowler, and Bader isn’t scaring anyone (Molina bats fifth obviously). If you want Ozuna instead of Mikolas, the offense is definitely an asset, but the downgrade from Bryce Harper to Marcell Ozuna is real, and the pitching in this case is the same as in the Harper/Goldschmidt universe above.
All that said, I’d be excited about this team’s future prospects. Its two main weaknesses are pitching and outfield depth, two things the front office has been producing out of thin air for almost a decade. There’s certainly a lull in upper-minors pitching right now, but I wouldn’t bet against this team fabricating some. Similarly, no single one of the outfield prospects looks like a sure thing, but I have faith in the Cardinals’ ability to turn a green apple and two bolts of blue cloth into a 2-WAR outfielder at this point. Were I the team, I’d lean towards keeping Mikolas in this scenario. He won’t be cheap, but I’m more worried about the pitching depth than getting some warm bodies to play the outfield. I’d also keep Jose Martinez- this is an unpopular opinion, but I don’t exactly get why we HAVE to maximize his value this offseason. If the value is there, go for it, but in the event we don’t sign Harper, I like leaving Jose around to soak up some outfield and first base at-bats, as well as provide valuable insurance if some of the outfield turns out worse than we expect.
Let’s not harp on this one- Bryce Harper without Paul Goldschmidt
Look, this one isn’t happening. If the team goes out and flexes the payroll muscle to sign Harper, it doesn’t make sense not to contend as hard as possible for the next five years. Goldschmidt is going to be on the team all year, he’s going to enjoy winning a ton of games, and the Cardinals are going to want to pair as many stars as possible with Harper in the fold. Still, though, it could theoretically happen, so let’s quickly run through how it would look.
The all-bro outfield remains incredible. Harper, Bader, and O’Neill are just fun to think about as a trio. They’d also be one of the highest-upside outfields in the majors. Not that they wouldn’t be volatile, but if Harrison Bader can miraculously improve to a 120-ish wRC+ hitter, he’s an absolute stud. Bryce Harper has had a 10-ish win season. Tyler O’Neill is a hilariously buff Canadian. There’s a lot to like here. The infield is a little bit more mysterious. Matt Carpenter probably shifts back to first base with Goldschmidt gone. The double play duo of Wong and DeJong will obviously still be in place. In 2020 specifically, the Cardinals would have several options at third base, assuming the youngsters aren’t quite ready yet. First, they could pick up Jedd Gyorko’s option. I don’t find this incredibly likely, as $13 million is a lot for his skillset in this market, when the Todd Fraziers of the world are signing 2-year, $17 million deals. They could also bring Gyorko back on a slightly cheaper deal- maybe Frazier’s 2/17 deal. Even if they choose not to, however, they’ve got options. Todd Frazier himself will be a free agent next year, though he’ll likely stay in the New York area after limiting his last contract negotiations to the Mets and Yankees. David Freese is available if the team wants to recapture the magic. If Carpenter slides across the diamond to third, Justin Smoak and Jose Abreu could play first. Realistically, there will be a lot of bit part options the team can sign to fill out the infield.
The pitching staff is the pitching staff- let’s get to the contract situation. In this version of the team, $144 million has been committed before we get to the free agents who are leaving. Goldschmidt is gone, and there’s no need for the team to retain Ozuna, so the team figures to reap two competitive balance picks for them. Now, they could realistically pivot and sign Mikolas and Wacha both, bumping the salary up to $176 million. This seems pretty reasonable to me- with the outfield stacked and the infield addressable via a cheap pickup, I’d like to spend the balance of the money on pitching, and the non-Cardinal 2020 class gets mighty thin after Chris Sale and Justin Verlander. Gerrit Cole will also be a free agent, but I think the Astros figure to lock him up, and I’m not sure he’d be very into a return to the NL Central anyway.
This is a pretty intriguing team, though teams with Bryce Harper are intriguing without having to try very hard. Depending on O’Neill and Bader’s development, the offense could be formidable, or it could be a notch below formidable. The pitching could go either way- there’s enough room to take a few swings at mid-tier relievers, something you don’t need to tell the front office twice. Still, though, I think this permutation of the team is suboptimal. It retains a lot of the risk of a Harper-and-Goldschmidt combination- a lot of money gets tied up in long-term contracts, Miles Mikolas might not be the answer as a front-line starter, and there’s just not a lot of payroll flexibility going forward. If I’m spending a lot to lock up talent, give me Goldschmidt. I think this scenario is quite unlikely.
DOOOOOOOOOOOM- No one stays
Be honest- this is the section you came to this article to read. Bryce Harper doesn’t sign with the Cardinals. Paul Goldschmidt talks a good game but takes a big check from the Yankees. How doomed are the Cardinals?
Well, honestly, I don’t think this scenario is all that bad. We’ve already covered what happens in a Goldschmidt-less infield- there are a ton of options to consider, all of whom offer pretty reasonable bang for the buck. The team could also call up whatever corner infielder they performed their devil magic on in the 2019 offseason, or give Jose Martinez some burn at first base. The outfield, in this scenario, almost certainly includes Marcell Ozuna, as the team is going to be very low on payroll and light on impact players. Dexter Fowler, as always, is a man on the outside, but his contract hurts a lot less in a team without huge commitments to Harper and Goldschmidt.
The reason I’m not too saddened by a world where we go into 2020 with neither Harper nor Goldschmidt is simple- payroll room for pitching. Let’s go back to the payroll matrix, but add in $8 million for a Jedd Gyorko reunion and $20 million for Marcell Ozuna. That puts the team at just under $140 million in payroll, leaving something like $45 million dollars to spend on pitching while remaining comfortably below the tax line. Want to see how Chris Sale looks in red? Well, he wears red on the Red Sox, dummy, but the Cardinals could also afford to sign him. Charlie Morton might already be on the team in this scenario- if the Cardinals have room to spend money this year and don’t sign Harper, Morton seems like a nice way to push some chips in. Imagine a 2020 rotation of Sale, Flaherty, Martinez, Morton, and Reyes. That’s fire right there. The lineup is essentially this year’s Cardinals lineup plus prospects and aging- a totally respectable hitting team. While losing Weaver sets the pitching back slightly, the sheer amount of money coming off the books in the next three years will keep allowing the Cardinals to spend to replace pitching losses.
This fourth scenario comes with a caveat- the Cardinals have to spend to realize it. That’s the case in the other scenarios as well, but given that the other three all involve signing a star, the spending is a given. There’s basically no way to sign Harper and Goldschmidt and not run a big payroll. The team could be great in 2020 with some spending, but there’s a world where they run a $150 million payroll, run this year’s team back with Charlie Morton, and see where the dice fall. The reason I’m comfortable with the 2020 Cardinals even if Goldschmidt leaves is because there’s dry powder to replace him. If the powder remains dry, yeah, that’s an uninspiring pitching staff to go with a competent bunch of hitters.
Whew- that’s 3000 words doing various permutations of which superstars I hope to root for. You’re human- you probably don’t want to read all of it. Let me sum it up for you. Because of the way their payroll commitments shake out, the Cardinals could just barely fit in Harper and an extension to Goldschmidt. If they do, they’ll be a hitting-and-defense team with a thin but serviceable pitching staff. If they end up with one of Harper or Goldschmidt (and it’d be Goldshmidt, realistically), they will free up enough room to keep either Mikolas or Ozuna, as well as make a few more moves around the edges. This Cardinals team would be pretty balanced- deeper pitching staff than the Harper/Goldschmidt team, but a less explosive offense. Finally, if the team misses on both Goldschmidt and Harper, they’ll head into 2020 with a huge war chest and a burning desire to add a star player. Ozuna is very likely to resign with the team in this scenario. I’d spend the money on pitching, but I could be convinced to look at Nolan Arenado as well.
One last thing, mostly not contained in the writeups above. The meat of the Cardinals’ minor league system should come online around 2021. Nolan Gorman figures to be ready. Elehuris Montero might not be far behind. WIth Molina retired, Andrew Knizner will get his chance. Regardless of which stars the team retains, the next infusion of young talent is going to make the team look very different in three years. Look, 2019 is going to be awesome. I’m not quite ready to replace my Tommy Pham jersey yet, but I’m willing to let Goldschmidt convince me. Don’t forget about 2020 and beyond, though. The team is set up to compete in those years too- almost like some kind of company that produces winning seasons. I, for one, am excited.