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In Search of the Elusive Big Bat, 2018 Edition

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In what is now becoming an annual tradition, the author looks around to try and find centerpiece-type hitters for the club to acquire.

St Louis Cardinals v Miami Marlins Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images

You know, it’s a good thing that Paul DeJong and Matt Carpenter hit those two home runs last night, or else I would be writing with a much more negative tone this morning than I’m actually going to. Even so, even with a dramatic comeback win serving as a panacea for the frustration of the previous however many innings, it’s tough to entirely overlook the fact we just saw the Cardinal offense put up two of the most pathetic performances you’re ever going to see against an atrocious Marlin club. When Wei-Yin Chen shuts you down, you deserve every bit of scorn you receive. Sorry, that’s just the way it is.

Luckily, of course, the Cardinals did in fact come back, and we can all just share a laugh about that time the Birds nearly got shut down two games in a row by the canker sore on the lip of MLB that is the 2018 Marlins. But even so, and even with all the good feeling brought by a new manager, a new, swashbuckling swagger, and seemingly a new lease on life for the club, there’s a specter that still haunts this team, and really comes into focus in times of struggle, such as the last couple nights. Or even, really, in the Pittsburgh series, when a stunning display of offensive acumen still threatened, on multiple occasions, to sputter and falter, due to the lack of a knockout blow time and time again.

What I’m talking about, of course, is the Cardinals’ continuing search, seemingly endless at this point, for a centerpiece around which their offense can revolve. You know, the elusive, always rumoured, perhaps mythical, Big Bat. That middle of the order presence around which it’s possible to construct an offense that strikes fear into the hearts of opposing pitchers. The kind of bat the Cardinals have struggled, mightily, to find these past several years.

Yes, Matt Carpenter counts as a big bat, particularly this year. But seeing as how he’s entrenched in the leadoff spot (which is fine, considering how vital the number one spot in the lineup is), he’s not driving the offensive engine from the middle of the lineup. Tommy Pham 2017 was the kind of hitter we’re talking about, but of course Tommy 2018 was just not the same player. Matt Holliday was the big bat in the middle in the post-Pujols era, but even Holliday’s last couple years here in St. Louis he was a somewhat diminished hitter. Carlos Beltran had a nice little run in a Cardinal uniform, but of course we’re going back to 2013 for him, and roughly that same time frame when Matt Holliday was still that scary presence in the three hole. He was still a very good hitter in 2014 and ‘15, but truly terrifying Matt Holliday was last seen in that World Series year of 2013.

Basically, from 2014 until the present moment, the Cardinals have been in search of that offensive driver to build around. And if that sounds like a shockingly long time, well, it is a pretty long time. Not coincidentally, that 2014 season was when Allen Craig fell apart, Oscar Taveras died, and Jhonny Peralta had his last great year. The 2013 Cardinals scored 783 runs; the 2014 edition just 619. (No, that’s not a typo.) The 2015 club rebounded slightly on offense, but mostly compiled 100 wins on the back of exquisite run prevention numbers. It is too simplistic, probably, to entirely tie the Cardinals’ decline over the past few years to their lack of consistent production in the middle of the lineup, but I think there’s a decent argument to be made in that direction, at least for a large chunk of their struggles.

The club thought they had acquired that middle of the order driver this past offseason in Marcell Ozuna, but he’s been anything but. The 2017 version of Jose Martinez could be that kind of force, but he’s seen his power backslide this year, and his defensive struggles have made it difficult to keep him in the lineup. Perhaps Tyler O’Neill emerges as a centerpiece bat, but we’ll have to wait and see. Job one is to get him over whatever, erm, groin issue he’s currently dealing with and back on the field consistently.

In case you’re thinking to yourself that this sounds an awful lot like an offseason column, you’re not really wrong. This continued search for a bat to put in the middle of the lineup and build around is going to, once again, be a big focus for the Cardinals this coming offseason. However, we’re also talking about a couple of options that could play into how the rest of 2018 plays out, in the form of evaluation pointed toward 2019.

So in the spirit of hoping we finally, finally see the Cardinals find their Big Bat for the middle of the lineup before Opening Day 2019, here are a few of the more notable candidates for that job, as I see things.

Marcell Ozuna

Ah, starting with the easiest candidate, since he’s the one who’s already here. The path of least resistance, as it were. Ozuna has been an enormous disappointment in 2018 (like a Tino Martinez-sized disappointment), but they guy who socked 37 dingers in 2017 has to still be in there somewhere, right?

....right?

Pros: Ozuna requires you to do nothing. No acquisition cost, no talent outlay, no nothing. Just roll him out there again in 2019 and hope he’s closer to last year’s version than this year.

Cons: This is a supremely uninspiring option, to say the least. Ozuna’s walk rate has cratered this year, falling from 9.4% in 2017 to just 5.8%. His ISO is less than half of what it was last season. He’s always hit too many ground balls, has hit way too many grounders this year, and seems to show little interest in hitting fewer ground balls. Plus, he has what now looks like a chronic shoulder condition that is ruining his throws, and could very well be limiting his power.

If you’re counting on Marcell Ozuna to be your big bat in 2019, you aren’t going to have a big bat in 2019.

Bryce Harper

What was supposed to be one of the biggest free agent pushes ever has hit a snag this season, as Harper has seen his numbers fail to live up to his previous standards, and his defense take a huge step backward. He’ll still be looking for a giant contract, I’m sure, but this is no longer the first half billion dollar player, or the first $400 million player, either. That being said, he’s still one of the most accomplished players through age 25 in baseball history, and offers a rare combination of power and patience that would fit well in the middle of just about any lineup.

Pros: Will play all of 2019 as a 26 year old, meaning you’ll likely get the very best years of his career on any long-term deal. Has a walk rate greater than 17% in three of the last four seasons. Even in this ‘down’ season, will likely eclipse 35 home runs if he remains healthy the rest of the way. The bulk of his issues this year have mostly been BABIP-related, as he’s running a .259. He’s a top 20 hitter in baseball this year by xwOBA, and ‘should’ be slugging .541, as opposed to .496. Is a left-handed hitter, which would help out a Cardinal lineup that skews heavily right-handed.

Cons: Will be hugely expensive even coming off a down season. Would require an additional move to get Marcell Ozuna off the team, seeing as how Tyler O’Neill is more a part of the long-term plans than Ozuna at this point, I have to believe. The walk rate is fantastic, but the strikeouts are up this year as well at a shade over 25%, his highest rate since the 2014 season. Has had some intermittent durability concerns. Defense has taken a big hit this year, it seems. Has a very punchable face. Would cost a draft pick to sign, which may not seem like much, but could cost you next year’s version of Nolan Gorman.

The do-everything Bryce Harper of 2012 and ‘13 is gone, it seems, and what has taken his place is a much more limited player. Even so, there are few bats in the game that can offer a better combination of on-base skills and power. Harper should be good for a .380+ OBP and 35+ homers annually, so long as he stays healthy. If the Cardinals were to sign Harper, he would immediately slot into the middle of the lineup as the club’s most intimidating hitter, and would form 13 of the broiest outfield in all of baseball. The question is whether or not the Cardinals would see him as worth the investment both in terms of money and the work it would take to rearrange things to make room for him.

Manny Machado

The real biggest fish on the market this coming offseason, Machado has been traded already this season, and will be looking to cash in huge after a run with the Dodgers. It feels some days like a fait accompli he’ll end up in pinstripes, but we’ll just have to wait and see.

Pros: Is only slightly older than Harper, and will also play most of 2019 as a 26 year old. As an infielder, is more valuable than Harper, and has cemented himself this year as a truly elite bat with the best season of his career. Is a magnificent third baseman in addition to a beast in the middle of an order. Has been extraordinarily durable the last few years. Was traded this year, so has no draft pick penalty attached.

Cons: You thought Harper was going to be expensive? Machado will actually break records with his contract, and the Cardinals would have to outbid the Yankees, probably the Red Sox, the Phillies, and maybe the Dodgers in order to land this biggest of fish. In other words, probably not going to happen. Is a horrendous shortstop following multiple knee injuries, but still seems really set on being seen as a shortstop. Has had multiple knee injuries, as previously mentioned.

Manny Machado is, essentially, the dream scenario for immediately changing the course of the Cardinal franchise. With him installed at third base next to Paul DeJong, the Cards would immediately boast plus left-side infield defense to go along with elite production from both positions. Machado wouldn’t help the offense be any less right-hand heavy, but with a bat like this it just doesn’t matter. He would cost zero talent to acquire, thus allowing the organisation to leverage all possible resources toward building a club around Machado, which would very likely lead them back to the top of the heap in a hurry.

All that being said, it’s never going to happen.

Nolan Arenado

Arenado is, at this point, basically the same player as Manny Machado, only with a cleaner health record, even better defense, and the question marks that come with being a hitter in Coors Field.

Pros: Is still just 27 years old right now, and has played in more than 155 games three years in a row prior to this one. Is running the highest wRC+ of his career this year at 143. May be a better fielder than Scott Rolen.

Cons: Would require a trade to acquire, and the cost would be steep even for one year. Defensive numbers are down this season, though still quite good. That’s...pretty much it.

If Manny Machado is the dream scenario to immediately reshape the present and future of the Cardinal franchise, Arenado is basically the 1B to Machado’s 1A. The fact it would require a talent outlay to get him makes him a less attractive target, but as a trade-and-extend type acquisition he would be the best get on the market.

The Rockies are in an interesting spot with Arenado and their infield in general right now, as Brendan Rodgers is nearly ready, D.J. LeMahieu is a pending free agent, and they’ve got Ryan McMahon just sort of floating around without a proper home. My personal offer would be Kolten Wong for Arenado straight up this offseason. Wong on a very valuable contract for three more seasons would slot in immediately at second base, giving the Rockies an elite defensive middle infield between he and Trevor Story, or offer them the flexibility to move Story to third if they prefer Rodgers there rather than the hot corner. Rodgers/Story/Wong/McMahon has a real chance to be one of the best defensive infields in baseball, and a solid-average offensive unit as well. Yes, Ian Desmond is still hanging around, but when you sign that contract you just have to wear it for awhile. Meanwhile, the Cardinals would get the best third baseman in the game for a full season to evaluate and try to extend if at all possible.

Josh Donaldson

Ah, everyone’s favourite past offseason target. Problem is, after an injury-abbreviated 2017 season, Donaldson has had a full-blown lost year in 2018, mostly due to recurring calf injuries. Playing on turf cannot be good for a guy with leg problems, but even beyond that it looks like time may be running out on the 32 year old.

Pros: Would seem to be very gettable from the Blue Jays at this point if he proves healthy enough to get back on the field in the next week or so. Posted a wRC+ of at least 147 in four of five seasons prior to this one. (He put up a 130 in 2014.) As stated, getting Donaldson off the turf in Toronto could be good for his health, and maybe there’s a real bounceback in there. After all, 32 isn’t exactly young in baseball years, but it’s not ready for retirement, either. You know who else is 32? Matt ‘MVP’ Carpenter. Was a five win player in just under 500 plate appearances in 2017.

Cons: Do the words ‘chronic injuries’ sound good to you? Defense has been in decline for a couple seasons now, it appears. Dealt with a sore/dead throwing arm earlier this season as well. Strikeout rate this season was over ten percentage points higher than it was in 2016. Is a free agent after this season, meaning any trade made for him would come with some risk of him Heywarding out.

For a long time, it seemed almost inevitable that the Cardinals and Josh Donaldson would end up together. So much talk of ‘mutual interest’, of organisational intrigue. But now Donaldson is 32, will play at 33 in 2019, and has lost nearly an entire season to a recurring calf injury. He’s clearly a player in decline, with the most pressing question being whether he’ll decline slowly and steadily, or if this season represents a cliff off of which he has now fallen. I could still see the Cardinals being interested in picking him up for the rest of this year to evaluate, should the Blue Jays’ asking price be reasonable (which, let’s face it, it really should be, considering Donaldson is still owed a large chunk of change for a non-contending club), but it’s also a very fraught situation.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is just about all the options I see readily available at the current moment. Brian Dozier isn’t what he used to be. Lonnie Chisenhall can’t stay healthy. Andrew McCutchen has the age of Donaldson and the difficulty of fit of Harper. Matt Adams might be interesting as a platoon option at first base, if a reunion would be welcomed by both sides. Wil Myers is an intriguing name, but he’s got health concerns and inconsistent performance on the con side of his ledger.

We had basically this same conversation last year around this time, and the Cardinals’ best efforts to find their guy for the middle of the lineup this offseason led them to the groundball king of Davenport, which means we’re having the conversation again now. They’ll have quite a lot of money coming off the books this offseason; roughly $34 million in salary between Adam Wainwright and Greg Holland will be gone. Even with arbitration raises and the like, they’ll have some spending power should they wish to exercise it.

Let’s just hope I’m not writing this same column again next August.