MLB Trade Rumors recently published their annual Top 50 free agents list—and with it comes the early offseason period in which we kick the tires on a bunch of highly unlikely moves.
MLBTR also includes team and contract predictions for each player, with three picked to end up in St. Louis.
35. Adam Wainwright (1 year, $6 million)
32. Yadier Molina (1 year, $10 million)
18. Joc Pederson (2 years, $18 million)
We’ll save Wainwright and Molina for another day, as their situations are obviously layered even beyond the financial fallout of the 2020 season. Instead, I want to focus on Joc Pederson. The 28-year-old checks—on paper, at least—all the boxes you would look for in a Cardinals lineup upgrade.
- Outfielder (although this might be up for debate assuming Kolten Wong departs)
- Power hitter
- Preferably a left-handed hitter
- Wouldn’t require a significant financial commitment
The theory of the case for Pederson is a simple one: when he’s on, he mashes right-handed pitching. His splits are about as extreme as they come; his career wRC+ is 59 against lefties and 128 against righties. His 2020 campaign (88 wRC+ overall) was his worst since his brief 2014 stint in the majors, but there are reasons to believe this may be a blip on the radar. From the aforementioned MLBTR article:
On the other hand, Pederson posted a 132 wRC+ against right-handed pitching from 2015-19, which ranked 21st in all of baseball. Even in his rough 2020 season, Pederson showed 96th percentile exit velocity, 79th percentile hard hit percentage, and 68th percentile barrel rate, so there’s good reason to think he’ll get back to mashing righties.
So Pederson is an ideal platoon candidate. Great, but then the question becomes who he shares at-bats with. Switch-hitter Dylan Carlson’s splits throughout the minors also fare better against righties. (Plus relegating Carlson to the weak side of a platoon at 22 is a criminal offense that I hope would be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.) Tyler O’Neill seems like a natural match with Pederson in left field, but the Pillar of Meat™ has a track record of fairly modest splits that, if anything, slightly favor him vs. righties. Dexter Fowler has a weird splits situation that I’m not sure what to make of. Over the first nine seasons of his career, he ran a wRC+ that was 18 points (123 vs. 105) higher against lefties, but his four years with the Cardinals have seen a 25-point difference (105 vs. 80) in the opposite direction. The only Cardinal outfielder with resounding complementary splits to Pederson is Harrison Bader, with his career wRC+ dropping from 125 to 83 when facing righties. But, as has been mentioned many a time here at VEB, Bader enters 2021 as arguably the best “win now” St. Louis outfielder. (The Steamer and ZiPS projections systems have him and Carlson essentially tied around the 2 WAR mark.) The marginal gains from a Bader/Pederson platoon would be a questionable use of the ever-limited resources the Cardinals front office will have at their disposal.
If, as appears likely, the DH is here to stay in the National League, adding another bat like Pederson makes a bit more sense. Even then, the Cardinals would have five primary options (Pederson, Carlson, Bader, O’Neill, and Fowler, with Lane Thomas, Justin Williams, and Austin Dean waiting in the wings) for four spots. And that assumes DH playing time belongs exclusively to outfielders.
Make no mistake: the Cardinals are undoubtedly a better baseball team with Joc Pederson than without him. But is he a meaningful enough upgrade over their current heap of outfielders to justify being quite possibly their sole free agency splurge? I think he could be, especially in a world where landing Pederson results in the Cardinals moving another outfielder to fill a different need. Given the state of the market, I wouldn’t be surprised in the slightest if someone snags Pederson on a bargain deal, but, realistically, every acquisition this winter is going to carry a steep opportunity cost. This is not the type of offseason where clubs are going to be as willing to get that middle reliever on top of the hitter they just signed. To what extent this will be the case isn’t entirely clear yet. What is clear is that the Cardinals need to bolster their offense if they want to be serious contenders next year. Joc Pederson would bolster said offense.