Okay. Well, I consider myself a reasonably optimistic fan, someone who will approach a game with some hope for a win, regardless of the odds. In my series preview on Monday, I said the Mets series was in the danger zone - the Mets had a thrilling series win against the Yankees, the Cards had reached the point where you start to believe in them, which is the point when they have faltered in the 2021 season. And... the Cards completely surprised with a series sweep. I’ll take one of those this weekend against the Padres please and thank you Cards.
I led off with that, because after such an exciting sweep, I was a little apprehensive about my actual topic of the day, which is discussing the rather unique offseason situation the Cards find themselves in. Not necessarily unique in baseball, but unique to the Cards. Because to talk about this is to not talk about the current Cardinals. But then I remembered today is an off day. It’s probably okay to think about the offseason.
There has never been a more terrifying and exciting offseason in my lifetime. I have known how offseasons worked for a little over 10 years - before that, I knew about trades and free agent signings but nothing about the practicalities of how they worked or how much money they had to spend. So it’s possible a previous offseason resembled this upcoming one, I’m just speaking of the John Mozeliak era mostly. Here’s a few reasons why:
- They have something like $40+ million to spend - depending on the budget of course. On paper at least, this seems like the biggest amount to spend the Cards have had in a long, long time. (Adjusted for inflation, it has probably happened before)
- History shows, whatever the budget is, the Cardinals will spend that budget, which means they will sign (or trade for) somebody. They may not have a $170 million budget next year, but their budget will be higher than the $130ish million they currently have, including arbitration guys and Adam Wainwright.
- One could justify doing nothing at the two obvious positions to upgrade - middle infield and SP. The current middle infield will probably be at least average next year with no changes and the starting pitching... well with Wainwright, it has four guys you guarantee spots to plus Matt Liberatore or Jake Woodford.
- The Cardinals have had a relatively weak bullpen, and historically, they have spent money to improve the bullpen, though it’s been a few years by this point.
- There are a lot of starting pitchers on the free agent market who would probably be in the Cardinals’ price range who are also good, which is kind of rare combination!
- This is a historically good free agent class for shortstops, a position that kind of seems like the weakest among the position player group excluding catcher. Which to me says more about how strong the starting position player group looks more than an indictment against our SS, but I digress...
What this effectively means is the offseason is a bit unpredictable. We don’t know the budget. The weakest part of the team, the starters, have multiple somewhat affordable free agent options. The second weakest, the bullpen, is an area of which to avoid the free agent market like the plague and yet the Cards history suggests they may dabble in that market with the money they have available. And of course, you have an emerging guy who used to look like a bench player (Sosa), a player on the decline who used to look like a capable starter (DeJong), and an insane group of free agent SS who are young and great who will demanding long contracts. And that’s not even mentioning the labor problem that may further complicate what the Cards are willing to do because there’s the threat of no season or the season starting late.
Take all that together, mix in a pot, and I truly don’t know what’s going to happen. If they nail this offseason, it could set up a Cardinal run of dominance for the next decade. Or they could fumble at the goal line, and stay in this 85 win zone they have been stuck in for the last six years. I mean as far as a downside, that’s not bad. Here are three thoughts for the offseason.
- I don’t want one of the free agent SS
I don’t think middle infield is the problem. Paul DeJong, much as he’s struggled, still has 1.4 fWAR. And yes I know many of you don’t buy his UZR, that’s fine. He also has an 86 wRC+ with a .221 BABIP. Yes, I know he is responsible for some of that with weak contact, but nobody is a true talent .221 BABIP hitter. DeJong has a career .284 BABIP and has an xwOBA 13 points higher than his actual wOBA. He is probably still an average hitter. Hence why his Depth Charts projection is exactly 100 wRC+.
Edmundo Sosa has 1.6 fWAR in 283 PAs. Tommy Edman has 2 WAR and it would legitimately be like a win higher if he only played 2B this year. Playing in RF has hurt him badly in WAR. And of course, there’s the soon-to-be in the majors Nolan Gorman, who can play 2B. One problem I have with signing a shortstop - Gorman. He would probably not play much at all if we signed a SS in 2022. DeJong would get traded guaranteed. But you’d still have Edman and Sosa for 2B. The Cardinals would not bury Edman especially in this scenario, which would just keep Gorman down longer.
Plus, it feels like you could get pretty good production on this group. The upgrade to Carlos Correa or Corey Seager would be an upgrade no doubt, but you’re looking at like a 2 win upgrade. Is that worth $250+ million?
2. I don’t want to trade DeJong just for the sake of trading him
I’m seeing a lot of comments at how certain they are DeJong is being traded. And I’m a little worried he’s going to be shipped off just to clear room for Sosa. If he’s traded to make room for Seager, yeah by all means trade him. But I think it would be very stupid to hand SS to Sosa full-time. Whether you plan to make DeJong the starter next year or Sosa, the other should be here as a backup plan. One of them becoming an average or better MLB regular feels like a pretty safe bet.
If you can get him for a starting pitcher, then I would be okay with trading him. I just have this gut feeling that’s not what his value is on the open market though. I don’t want to be the Rays and trade Willy Adames for two relievers. DeJong is giving me the exact same vibe as Tyler O’Neill did last offseason, where I was 100 percent positive trading them would result in them breaking out with a different team. I also admit though that, like O’Neill, I wasn’t necessarily convinced not trading them would result in a breakout on the Cards. Of course, we’ve all seen what O’Neill has done, so he did break out with the Cards. But even if DeJong is an average hitter, that’s a very good bench player.
What I’m saying is DeJong has value for the 2022 Cards and I’m not opposed to trading him, but you if you’re trading him, get his full value in return, not whatever the best you can get is.
3. Starters, starters, starters
That’s my plan for the offseason. The position players are fine. Yadi is the weak link, but he’s not going anywhere and the free agent market for catchers is terrible anyway. I wouldn’t be opposed to getting a veteran outfielder who can hit lefties, but the Cards have enough money and resources that getting that guy wouldn’t be the only move.
In my mind, the goal should be to make Matt Liberatore the functional 6th starter. You have four guys who are in the rotation on Opening Day right now. Adam Wainwright, Jack Flaherty, Dakota Hudson, and Miles Mikolas. I would count that group, collectively, as three starters. Enough uncertainty combined among them that you can’t possibly depend on all four to start 2022 healthy.
So, the Cards “need” two more starters. Unless somebody gets hurt while the free agent market is going, it’s probably not realistic to expect two guys to sign with the Cards as free agents, so for the sake of argument, let’s say the plan is A) free agent starter B) traded for starter. For some reason, the name I’m thinking of for B is somebody like Eric Lauer, a kind of borderline MLB starter who’s more MLB ready than any of the prospects and has team control, but somebody who you don’t mind pushing off the rotation if necessary. Of course he’s on the Brewers so I don’t literally mean Eric Lauer. But you get the idea.
But yeah just as an example of the different options the Cards could take, just look at SS. They could make Sosa the starter, DeJong the backup. DeJong the starter, Sosa the backup. A timeshare. Sign a SS, trade DeJong. Sosa the starter, trade DeJong. Or they could do something completely unexpected and trade Sosa, whose value will probably never be higher as he’s still a dude pretty reliant on getting hit a bunch (I think he has some talent at getting hit, but not 31 times per 600 PAs)
In the meantime, let’s hope this season maybe gets a little extra playoff revenue, potentially raise the budget to allow a bigger payroll, and for the Cardinals to beat the Dodgers in a play-in game.