I thought I'd start off today's article with a blind stat comparison. Here are the 2016 Steamer projections for three players relevant to the Cardinals.
As you probably guessed based on the title of this article, player A is free agent first baseman Chris Davis, who will presumably receive a multi-year contract north of $100 million dollars. (The Cardinals have reportedly shown interest in Davis.) Player B is Brandon Moss, who the Cardinals will have under team control for one more year at a salary of around $8 million dollars (according to a projection from MLB Trade Rumors). Player C is Matt Adams, who is entering his first year of arbitration and will make even less than Moss.
Of course, it should be noted that these are only projections, and projection systems can be wrong about certain players. Sometimes, we think we are smarter than projection systems, especially with players who have had an unusual career path. For example, Chris Davis was not a very good Major League player until 2013, when he posted a monster 7.0 fWAR season with a 168 wRC+. After a down year in 2014, which included a 25 game suspension for Adderall, Davis was excellent again in 2015, hitting 47 home runs and posting a 147 wRC+ and 5.6 fWAR.
So who is the real Chris Davis? Do we dismiss his 2014 season as a fluke? Can we truly say that the pre-2013 Chris Davis is gone forever and should not be taken into consideration when projecting his future performance? These are difficult questions to answer, both for human analysts and projection systems. There are times when projection systems seem overly pessimistic on a certain player because they are slow to adjust to new information resulting from an unexpected breakout. Sometimes, though, this pessimism is justified, because many players will revert back to being the player they were for most of their career.
For now, my gut feeling is that Davis will be better than his 2016 projection, but I do not feel overly confident about this, especially given the extreme variation in Davis' performance over the last few years. If the Cardinals are truly interested in signing Davis to play first base, they must be fairly confident that he will be better than their in-house options, especially given the amount of money it will take to sign him.
As shown above, Davis' offensive projection for 2016 is barely better than that of Moss and Adams, and while Davis is projected to be worth at least a win better than the Moss and Adams, this is mostly the result of a difference in projected plate appearances (630 for Davis, 459 for Moss, 445 for Adams). On a rate basis, the difference between Davis and Moss/Adams is not that much, certainly not enough to justify giving Davis a $100+ million dollar contract.
Of course, many people will point to each player's 2015 statistics as evidence that Davis will be a major upgrade over Moss and Adams.
There are many problems with using this sort of approach and focusing on a single season of data. If the best way to project a player's performance was to simply use that player's numbers from the previous season, then there would be no need for projection systems that take into account several season's worth of data, as well as other relevant factors like age and home ballpark. It should also be noted that recent data is weighted heavily in projection systems anyway, since this data typically has the most predictive value.
Projections aside, I think that most of us would agree that Davis will be worse in 2016 than he was in 2015, while Moss and Adams will regress in a positive direction going forward. Davis will probably find it difficult matching one of the best seasons of his career, while Moss and Adams are recovering from injuries and have track records that suggest that they are still capable of being good hitters. Even if we think that the projections are too low on Davis or too high Moss and Adams, we can at least agree that the difference between Davis and Moss/Adams will probably not be as high next season as it was this season.
There is also good reason to be concerned about how Davis will age moving forward. At FanGraphs last week, Dave Cameron included Davis in his list of free agent landmines, noting that the aging curve for batter ISO is unusually steep. If Davis' power declines quickly, he will not have another skill to fall back on, as he is already a below average runner and fielder with bad plate discipline. In other words, Davis may not be a viable option at first base long-term.
With that being said, I still think that first base is one of the few areas where the Cardinals can improve this offseason. The position was a revolving door for the Cardinals the entire season, even after the midseason acquisition of Brandon Moss. If the Cardinals truly feel that they need to find a long-term answer at first base this offseason, I would much rather see them make a run at someone like Freddie Freeman or Joey Votto, who will probably age more gracefully than Davis. Still, I would argue that upgrading first base is the team's third biggest offseason need, after re-signing Jason Heyward and finding a starting pitcher to take Lance Lynn's spot in the rotation.
The Cardinals will already have Matt Adams, Brandon Moss, and Stephen Piscotty available to play first base in 2016, and I think that this trio is capable of providing league average offensive production for the position. (According to FanGraphs, MLB first basemen combined to hit for a 113 wRC+ in 2015). Sticking with their in-house options will also give the Cardinals another opportunity to evaluate Matt Adams and see if he is a viable option at the position after 2016, when Brandon Moss will presumably leave as a free agent.
Chris Davis may be an improvement over the Cardinals' current options, but he would not improve the team enough to justify spending a boatload of money to sign him. If it turns out that his market is weaker than anticipated, then perhaps I would be okay with the Cardinals jumping in and signing Davis to a shorter contract. I find this scenario to be unlikely, though, especially with agent Scott Boras handling the negotiations. Boras has been so successful through the years because he almost always manages to find one team gullible enough to meet his demands. Given the way the Cardinals have operated under John Mozeliak, I would be very surprised if they ended up being that team in the Chris Davis negotiations this winter.