It’s an interesting roster the Cardinals have put together this season; the issue the club has had the past couple years upgrading a group of almost entirely good-but-not-great players seems like it will be present again, in spades. The good news is that the roster, from a distance, looks like it might be good enough not to really need all that much upgrading. The bad news is that we’ve likely got another season ahead of trying to determine the exact inflection point where the cost of an upgrade and the marginal utility of said upgrade meet.
On the pitching side, the only really concerning roster spot is that of Adam Wainwright, who didn’t look physically sound in his first start of the season. The issue with Waino isn’t really even a lack of quality; well, it is a lack of quality stuff, but not because he’s just bad. Wainwright’s roster spot is far more fraught, potentially more perilous, a maelstrom of loyalty, age, respect, sentiment, urgency, and the simple realities of age, all whirling together to create a difficult situation for the manager and organisation to deal with. It’s easy from the outside to simply declare you must go with the best option for any given situation, sentiment be damned; it’s much harder when the relationships are real, and the player has been so very important to both the franchise and its fans. We’ve seen plenty of other organisations struggle with these farewell tour situations; how much more dangerous is it trying to serve a legend while winning potentially rests on such a thin edge?
Now, it’s possible the Cardinals get to midseason and, once again, find they could use some small bit of bullpen help. You wouldn’t necessarily expect them to need any more relief help, considering how many arms they’re currently throwing at the ‘pen, and how much depth they have behind those guys, but the bullpen seems to be an almost bottomless hole many years, simply absorbing all the arms you try to fill it with and never getting full. But a relief addition should be small peanuts, all things considered. You go and find the most Zach Dukeish guy on the market, and you move your best Charlie Tilson for him. Done.
No, what I’m talking about is the big upgrade, should it prove necessary. You know who I’m talking about. I’m talking about the offensive centerpiece to go with Marcell Ozuna that the Cardinals couldn’t quite make happen this offseason. Not for lack of trying; they seem to have all but tried to go all James Madison on the Blue Jays and demand a no-transfer doctrine on the subject of Josh Donaldson. We all get why Donaldson would be the target, right? It seems a near fait accompli that Manny Machado will be a Yankee, and the Rockies don’t appear to have any interest in moving Nolan Arenado. Donaldson would fit the Cards’ plans geographically (as in, he’s from the part of the country closer to St. Louis than a coast), would fit their window of near- to mid-term contention while simultaneously being too old to demand a contract so long as to be crippling, and would very much represent the kind of offensive engine this lineup cries out for. Jedd Gyorko is a very nice player; Josh Donaldson elevates a very good OBP-heavy lineup to elite status.
There’s an issue here, though, which has only arisen this season. Namely, Jose Martinez is looking more and more like the real thing, and the sort of thing you have to make room for in the lineup. Which, of course, forces Matt Carpenter over to third base, which then means you’re playing a very bad third baseman at third base (no, Carpenter doesn’t look as awkward throwing this year; no, he’s still not really cut out for a position where arm strength is a premium), and what appears to be a pretty bad first baseman at first base. There is a potential breaking point approaching for the Cardinals at the corners, I think; they’re going to have to figure out what exact arrangement of Carpenter and Martinez gives them the best roster, and potentially decide if either player would actually be more valuable in a trade than playing for the Cards. Maybe there’s room for everyone, but so long as the National League remains non-DH’d, you’re going to have some tough playing time decisions.
But enough about the Cards’ roster for right now. There will be plenty of time over the next couple months to talk about whether Matt Carpenter and Jose Martinez can comfortably coexist on a roster with basically no outfield openings. For now, let’s just all agree that, if the Cardinals were to make one more really big roster upgrade this year at the trade deadline, it is very likely to be at third base.
Which brings us to the actual subject of this post. And no, this wasn’t meant to be one of those monumentally long introductions of the subject; I am struggling mightily to actually write this column. What you’ve read so far has been deleted and rewritten piecemeal several times over, which is essentially the polar opposite of the way I normally write. Usually I sit down, either think of something to write about or just start typing on the idea I’m already thinking of, and it just pours out. I go back at the very end and read it to make sure there aren’t any glaring mistakes, typos, or things that immediately cry out for better writing, but I don’t plan ahead. I don’t do drafts, I don’t really make revisions, and normally these ~2000 word columns you see from me take a couple hours total from conception to publishing. I don’t say that as a way to brag; I wish I were more capable of constructing articles, laying them out ahead of time and building them like research papers, but that’s not how my brain works. Writing for me is more like digging up something that’s already there; I don’t know what is actually below the surface, but when I haul it up it’s already formed, complete in shape, and I’m usually a little surprised at what the thing actually looks like.
The real downside of having this kind of process is that when a column doesn’t want to come, it absolutely bedevils me. I don’t build, and thus have no rational way of working on the construction. If whatever it is fights me, refusing to offer the easy in I normally find, I often end up with monumentally long pieces that never really coalesce, in which all the ideas I had just sort of jumble up, never sorting themselves out into a coherent narrative, and I end up hitting publish on something that’s overlong, unwieldy, and not at all what I actually meant to say. This article you’re currently reading, and the very meta digression you’re reading at this exact moment regarding how hard a time I’m having actually giving birth to this bastard, is giving me fits trying to actually fit the fucker into words. Sports writing should not be this difficult, and it’s too early in the morning to start drinking. So I shall attempt to power through, and ignore the voice in the back of my head arguing that this piece may very well be dead in the water already, because I can’t fucking get it to work.
Anyhow, Josh Donaldson has been the presumptive trade target of the Cardinals for awhile, based on the sheer amount of smoke we can see on the matter. The Redbirds do not, ever, allow so much of their intentions to leak out into the public sphere. The only other player I can recall so openly targeted in the John Mozeliak era, honestly, is Matt Holliday, who they were equally open in pursuing. Their attempt to trade for Giancarlo Stanton this offseason was very public, of course, but that was just one offseason, and a unique situation. Their admiration for Holliday was a known thing for a couple years before a deal was consumated, and Donaldson feels like a similar situation. The Mozeliak front office plays everything close to the vest, and when they don’t, it’s worth taking note of.
There is, however, a potential snag in the Cards’ plan to nab Josh Donaldson at the deadline this year to serve as a new middle of the order fixture. Namely, the Toronto Blue Jays made enough moves this offseason that they look to be pretty good. Not great, necessarily, but pretty good. And there’s another thing: while the Blue Jays play in the same division as two behemoths in the Yankees and Red Sox, both of which would appear to be superior to Toronto on paper, thus pushing the Jays into second wild card contention against the likes of the Angels and Twins, the Yankees, in case you haven’t noticed, are off to a bad start. Sure, it’s just 5-6, hardly a record dooming them to also-ran status, but the Blue Jays have gotten off to a hot start of their own at 8-4. Again, the difference in those records is only two and a half games, easily made up over the course of a season, but that’s 2.5 games the Jays have already banked over the supposedly superior team. It’s not nothing, is what I’m saying, and makes it much more likely Toronto will be in contention at the deadline. And if they’re in contention, it would seem very hard to see them moving Donaldson.
So what’s a club looking for a medium-term big upgrade to do? Well, you pivot, of course. And there’s another team in the far North (Northwest, actually), with a top-flight third baseman on their roster. That team is the Seattle Mariners, the player is Kyle Seager, and their situation is, to put it lightly, much less encouraging than that of the Blue Jays.
I was listening to the Effectively Wild season preview podcast regarding the Mariners a couple weeks ago, and Meg Rowley was on to discuss the M’s. Now, Ms. Rowley seems to be a delightful person in general, which made it rather sad to listen to her discussing her club of choice, and to realise just how bad the Mariners’ situation is.
The long and short of the Seattle situation is this: the Mariners are, roughly, a .500ish ballclub. They’ve started the season 5-4, were projected to finish with 80-81 wins this year, and are basically still projected for about that. The good news is that .500 isn’t really that far away from contention in the current baseball environment, given the two wild cards and all that. The bad news is that in this very specific year, .500 might actually be a long way from contention.
The Mariners play in the same division as the Houston Astros, who actually project to win 100 games, which is a stunning total given how conservative projections usually are. There are worlds where Seattle overachieves and gets from 81 wins to 88, but it’s awfully, awfully difficult to see that roster somehow winning 95+ to get into contention for the division. So the division, probably out of the question. They also play in the same division as the Angels, whose newest bolt from the blue of brilliant luck brought them Shohei Otani. The Angels projected for 88 wins; Otani looks good enough I might bump that a couple wins already. So there could be two 90+ win teams in Seattle’s own division already.
The Red Sox, Yankees, and seemingly now the Blue Jays will be competing for the East all season. Both New York and Boston project for 93+ wins, and the Blue Jays projected for 88, which probably goes up a touch when we consider their hot start. So you’ve got two more 90+ win teams there, with a third maybe pushing 90. Five teams from the AL will make the playoffs; we have five that should be around 90 or more without even looking at the Central. The Mariners, with their .500 projection and abysmal farm system, would seem to be well and truly screwed. If you wanted a perfect illustration of what the ‘treadmill of mediocrity’ would look like for a baseball team, the Seattle Mariners are essentially what you’re looking for. They’re not bad enough to be in asset acquisition mode, but they have virtually no chance of really competing with the teams at the top of the heap.
With all that being said, if I were in charge of the Seattle Mariners, I would immediately embark on a rebuild. Now, it’s easy for me to sit here from my seat of Cardinal fandom, where we never, ever rebuild and we’re never, ever really bad (83 wins last year was enough to force local police to begin patrolling bridges pretty much nonstop, hoping to prevent jumpers). It’s easy to condemn some other team’s fans to a miserable, protracted teardown and rebuild when you’re not in that position yourself. But in the case of the Mariners, I really do believe if they bit the bullet and did it now, they could save themselves a whole lot of time in terms of the misery. Ripping apart a .500 team is a drastic step, but they have just enough assets, and just little enough hope for the future as it stands now, that I think it’s the right thing to do.
The Mariners have a handful of really good assets they could move right now to not just kickstart their rebuild, but to basically accomplish the bulk of it in short order. Mitch Haniger looks like a solidly average to above corner outfield on a league minimum deal. He’s 27, plays very solid right field defense, and is an above-average bat. He’s sort of Stephen Piscottyish, really, with maybe a touch more athleticism. They traded for Dee Gordon this offseason and converted him to center field; so far, it appears to be a smart experiment, if not a slam dunk. I’m not sure how valuable Gordon is on the market, so I’ll leave him out of this trade bucket for the moment.
James Paxton has turned into one of the most intriguing power arms in all baseball, worth 4.6 wins in just 136 innings last season. He’s off to a rough start this year (just two games), and hasn’t been able to stay fully healthy, but when he’s on the mound he is a beast. If a club were looking for an actual, honest to god Andrew Miller Type, the kind of reliever you could imagine using for 3-6 outs a couple times a week and getting to ~100 innings for the season, Paxton might be the number one candidate in baseball right now. He was also arbitration eligible for the first time this season, meaning you’ve got a couple more years of relatively cheap control of an elite arm. Big time value.
It would be tough to deal away Mike Zunino right now, what with how valuable he’s been the past two years, but if you want to make a competitive team omelette, you have to break a few eggs. Zunino was a 3.6 win player last year, and is making just $3 million this season. Big value.
The bad news for the M’s in trying to tear down is the fact there appears to be basically no chance they get out from under the Felix Hernandez and Robinson Cano deals. King Felix is still only 32, somehow, but the magnificent pitcher he was from 2006-’14 appears to be gone, and not coming back. He’s owed close to $30 million this year and next, with a weird injury-claused option for 2020. No team is going to take that contract unless you’re sending value along with him, and that’s now what we’re trying to do if we’re the Mariners. Cano, meanwhile, is still a very strong player, having been worth 17.6 fWAR in the four seasons he’s spent in a Seattle uniform, but he’s 35 years old currently and is signed through 2023. That will be his age 40 season. Still producing currently or no, I just don’t see a club willing to take on five more years after this of Cano’s $24 million/year contract.
Still, we’ve already looked at three very solid assets to move, all of which could bring back at least one top 100 prospect, and probably more than that in the case of all but Haniger. (He should, as well, but it’s a little tougher to tease out just what the industry thinks of him.) They also have a very good late-inning relief option in Edwin Diaz who should be at least as valuable as, say, Dominic Leone, so there’s another really good asset.
And then we have Seager, who is really the centerpiece of any rebuild scenario one can envision for the Mariners. Paxton is awesome but unreliable, Haniger still a bit of a ‘tweener, Zunino comes with huge contact concerns in spite of his power and defense. Kyle Seager, though, comes with no such question marks. He is very, very good, and signed to a very, very good contract.
Since taking over full-time at third base for the Mariners in 2012, Seager has been worth 25.5 wins above replacement. Admittedly, that’s not the elite, MVP-level production of a Josh Donaldson, but I’ll take 4.2 wins a year all day every day. He would probably be the Cardinals’ best position player right off the bat, or at least top three. He’s 30 years old, which isn’t exactly young in this current era of baseball aging curves, but that’s still two years younger than Donaldson. He’s been a solidly above-average defender at the hot corner, and carries a career 116 wRC+. He’s not flashy, but he’s damned good all the same. He’s played over 150 games each of the last six seasons. Take Jedd Gyorko, make him ~30% better and also incredibly durable, and you basically have Kyle Seager.
The contract is also a huge part of Seager’s value. He’s signed through 2021, with a $15 million team option for 2022. He makes $18.5 million this year, then 19, 19, and 18 the next three. Basically, you would be locking yourself into one of the most quietly productive players in all of baseball for the next three years after this, with an option on his age 34 season. It’s hard to find a better contractual situation on the market.
There is also, it must be said, reason to believe there might be a little more offensive upside in Seager’s profile. He’s always been a fly ball hitter, but prior to the 2017 season he seemed to adjust his swing to try and get even more balls into the air; his fly ball rate last year was 51.6%, one of the higher rates in baseball. The problem? Seager plays in Seattle, one of the most brutal hitting environments in the game, and all those fly balls didn’t actually improve his production the way one might have expected. We have wRC+, of course, which adjusts for context, but it’s also possible that simple park effects do not capture the full impact of Safeco Field on a left-handed fly ball hitter. In a less power-suppressing environment, Seager might have significantly more upside. (He ran a below league-average HR/FB rate last year, in spite of good exit velocities.) Even if he doesn’t, though, he’s been a solidly above-average bat throughout his career.
Now, it’s very tough to parse out just how willing the Mariners would be to trade away their best player and embark on this kind of full teardown. I don’t know how much of a stomach for rebuilding ownership has in Seattle. But when you look at the level of assets the M’s possess, compared to how tough a road they appear to have to contention, it isn’t quite the White Sox of two years ago, but it’s not that far away.
So would the Cardinals be well served by going after Seager if the Mariners do, indeed, fall out of contention this year and decide they need to rebuild their organisation? The simple answer is yes. The complicated answer is also yes, but with the caveat you would essentially have to decide to move either Matt Carpenter or Jose Martinez as well for some other quality asset.
The price would, by necessity, be high; Seattle would absolutely be able to hold out for the best package possible for such a valuable commodity. The Cards and Mariners have already proven very comfortable dealing with each other, so I wouldn’t worry about the front offices not meshing well. But what would the cost be?
Well, I would assume such a package would have to start with Alex Reyes or Jack Flaherty. Personally, I’m slightly more inclined to keep Flaherty at this point; Reyes still has the higher ceiling, but it’s closer than you think, and Flaherty is very much a major league starting pitcher at this point. Reyes is a bit more of a wild card. Still, he has huge value, and the wave of pitching talent washing up to St. Louis has made him, if not expendable, then at least movable, I believe.
Carson Kelly would be a very good second centerpiece for a club also potentially moving its young catcher as part of the teardown. Kelly is stuck in limbo here, but in Seattle minus Zunino he would have a clear path to playing time and a spot as the long-term answer at catcher. Plus, he’s from the Portland area, so there would be a local-ish story tie in that might feel good as the losses pile up.
Beyond the starting point of Reyes and Kelly, it’s tough to pin down just how much more value to add. Tyler O’Neill would seem to be the most tradeable asset, but the Mariners just traded him away last season. They might not feel he’s a good fit for their park, or just not like him that well. At the very least, trading for a player you sent away less than a year earlier feels like bad PR, so maybe he’s a no-go.
The Mariners seem to have settled on elite outfield defense as one of their core competencies, which is perhaps not surprising given the realities of their ballpark. Adolis Garcia or Randy Arozarena both fit the bill, with Oscar Mercado more of a hitting question mark. Probably one of Garcia or Arozarena would have to be included.
That’s still a little light, though, if we’re looking for a package no other team would be willing to top. Probably you need another solid arm, Hudson or Helsley, maybe Gomber would be enough to get it done. It would be a steep price to pay, Reyes/Kelly/Garcia/Helsley, but solving third base at a near-all star level for the next several years would be a big deal. Whether or not the actual upgrade would be large enough to justify gutting the system to that extent is a slightly tougher question to answer.
There’s one other interesting idea to consider: if the Cardinals really wanted to expand the deal out and make it a blockbuster, they could try to acquire both Seager and Paxton, possible converting Paxton into that all-world bullpen weapon teams seem to be dreaming of at the moment. In that scenario, I would expect you might have to move Kolten Wong as part of the deal, as his contract is friendly enough he’s very valuable, even if he’s somewhat frustrating as a player. I’d still go Reyes/Kelly/Adolis Garcia, but you’d probably have to add Wong and then maybe even swap in whatever trade value you could get from Matt Carpenter on top of the package. Bring Max Schrock up to replace Wong, slot Seager in as the regular third baseman, and send everything you could get for Carpenter along with your best pitching prospect, top catching prospect, and one of your two best outfield prospects (plus Wong), to Seattle in return. I don’t know how much better such a team would be, but it’s certainly a grand idea.
In the end, this is, of course, all hypothetical, as we don’t really know what’s going to happen with the Seattle Mariners. But we do know that the Cardinals tried very hard this offseason to acquire a major upgrade at third base, and while having both Carpenter and Jose Martinez in the lineup at the same time is a boon for the offense, third remains the spot one could most easily see a franchise cornerstone upgrade being made. The Blue Jays look to me as if they’re going to hang in this season to the point they won’t be moving the guy the Cards seem to covet the most. If the Mariners were to fall out of the race and decide to change course, there will be a feeding frenzy of teams flocking to pick the carcass clean. The Redbirds are in as good a position as any team in baseball to offer a package of talent that would have to appeal to a club staring down a painful and potentially very long rebuild.
If the Mariners were willing to bite the bullet now and rip the bandage off quickly, they could conceivably get ~50-60% of a rebuild done with just the assets they have on the roster right now, I believe. I don’t know if they will, but they’re probably the club that bears the most watching, as their future would seem to be balanced on a knife edge. If they fall, there could potentially be a windfall of players hitting the market this year.