The biggest question for the Cardinals this offseason is whether or not they will be able to bring back Jason Heyward. Heyward was the Cardinals' most valuable player by fWAR this season, and John Mozeliak has expressed a strong interest in bringing him back, calling him "a tremendous fit on this club."
With that being said, we have not seen much discussion of what the Cardinals might do if Heyward ends up signing somewhere else. Because Heyward is such a great player, he will likely be in high demand this winter, and there is a very real possibility that another team could outbid the Cardinals for his services. If the unthinkable happens and Heyward signs somewhere else, the Cardinals will likely need to adjust their offseason plans considerably.
The good news is that at the moment, the Cardinals do not appear to have any major holes on their roster. Their starting rotation appears to be set, and they have starting-quality players at just about every other position. They could conceivably have a starting outfield of Matt Holliday, Randal Grichuk, and Stephen Piscotty, with Tommy Pham and Jon Jay as backups. They also have starters returning at every position on the infield. The only potential question mark would be first base, but the Cardinals still have Matt Adams and Brandon Moss, who have been starting first basemen in the past and have bounceback potential. They would also have the option of starting Tommy Pham in the outfield and shifting Piscotty to first if Moss and Adams struggle.
Even though the Cardinals do not have any major holes on their roster, I would not be surprised to see them spend a fair amount of money this offseason, even if Heyward signs elsewhere. This may seem contrary to the way the Cardinals have been run under John Mozeliak, but it appears as though the Cardinals have been stockpiling money in recent years and have the ability to make a big splash or two in free agency. Back in March, Forbes listed the Cardinals as the most profitable team in baseball, with an operating income of $73.6 million. Much of this is due to the team's high attendance totals in recent years, but the Cardinals also have excellent local television ratings, which led to their new $1 billion deal with Fox Sports Midwest.
The Cardinals have kept their payroll under control in recent years, in large part due to the contributions of young cost-controlled players. The Cardinals had the top-ranked farm system heading into the 2013 season, and since that point, they have won three straight division titles without major increases in payroll. We heard rumblings about the Cardinals' "payroll muscle" a year ago, but evidently, the Cardinals did not feel the need to flex this muscle last winter. They were reportedly interested in Jon Lester and Max Scherzer, but they did not end up being serious bidders for either player.
Perhaps this is the offseason where that changes. A year ago, Cubs President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein provided the following quote about the Cardinals.
"In reality, they’re a powerhouse. The Cardinals are the standard in a lot of ways. They’ve built an incredibly healthy baseball organization and a thriving, robust business operation and they combine those things really well. I don’t think they’ve reached their potential yet. I think there isn’t a player in baseball that they couldn’t go get if they wanted to. If they sensed a threat and they wanted to put their foot on the gas I think it’s almost unlimited what they could do."
Epstein's Cubs may very well be that threat, as they broke out in a big way this season, winning 97 games. The Pirates do not appear to be going away either. If the Cardinals hope to stay at the top of the division in the coming years, they will likely need to start spending money, especially with their minor league system being rated as just average.
So who could the Cardinals spend money on if they fail to sign Jason Heyward?
If the Cardinals lose out on Heyward and end up looking for another corner outfielder, Cespedes would likely be the best option. He had a career year at the right time, posting a .291/.328/.542 line and a 135 wRC+ in 676 plate appearances. In total, he was worth 6.7 fWAR, more than double his previous career high. There are some Cardinals fans who believe that the team needs more power offensively, and Cespedes would certainly provide that, as he has a .215 career ISO.
My biggest concern with Cespedes is that he will be considerably less valuable going forward than he was in 2015. In his three years prior to 2015, Cespedes was never worth more than 3.3 fWAR in a single season, and he posted wRC+ values of 102 in 2013 and 109 in 2014. Before 2015, Cespedes was arguably an inferior offensive player to Jason Heyward. And while he has been a solid defender in left field (and sometimes center field), he does not come close to providing the same defensive value as Heyward. Cespedes simply had a career year in 2015, and this was mostly due to a slightly above average BABIP (.323) and a jump in home runs. It should also be noted that Cespedes' plate discipline numbers actually got worse in 2015, despite his breakout. His walk rate was a career low 4.9 percent, and his strikeout rate inched up slightly to 20.9 percent.
Because of his career year, Cespedes is a prime candidate to be overpaid this offseason. Going forward, I would expect him to be closer to the player he was from 2012-2014, especially now that he is already 30 year old. Teams also tend to overpay for power, which happens to be Cespedes' best tool. If the Cardinals are priced out of the market for Heyward, I would have to imagine that they will not be inclined to pay the price for Cespedes either.
Like Cespedes, Upton fits the profile of a power-hitting corner outfielder. He is two years younger than Cespedes, but he is otherwise a comparable player, with the one noticeable difference being that Upton is not coming off a career year. He was still very good, hitting .251/.336/.454 (good for a 120 wRC+) in 620 plate appearances. My concern with Upton (and Cespedes, to a lesser extent) is that he would not be a huge upgrade over the Cardinals' in-house options (Piscotty, Grichuk, Pham) the way Jason Heyward is. Upton would also cost the Cardinals their first-round draft pick, which makes him less appealing than Cespedes, who will not receive a qualifying offer due to the fact that he was traded midseason.
Chris Davis is yet another potential power threat the Cardinals could consider this offseason. He is coming off an excellent 5.6 fWAR season in which he posted a 147 wRC+ in 670 plate appearances. He is very much a three true outcomes hitter, as he hits for power (47 HR, .300 ISO in 2015), strikes out a lot (31.0 percent in 2015) and draws his fair share of walks (12.5 percent in 2015). He would be a big improvement at first base, which was the Cardinals' weak spot in 2015, although signing him would likely mean moving Matt Adams and/or Brandon Moss via trade. At 29, Davis' age should not be a major concern, but he was extended a qualifying offer and would cost the Cardinals their first round draft pick.
David Price (or another top-line starter)
While the Cardinals are stacked with quality starting pitching, they could potentially look to add a top-tier starter like David Price, who may very well be the 2015 AL Cy Young Award Winner. The Cardinals have shown interest in Price before, and signing him would keep him away from the Cubs, who are seen as the early favorites to sign him. With that being said, giving long-term contracts to pitchers rarely, if ever, works well for teams, and David Price will likely command over $200 million. There are other excellent starting pitchers on the market this winter as well, including Jordan Zimmermann, Johnny Cueto, and Zack Greinke. Zimmermann and Greinke would cost the Cardinals a draft pick, while Price and Cueto would not, since they were traded midseason.
The other factor to consider is that the Cardinals would not be improving dramatically by adding any of these starters, since whoever they signed would effectively be replacing a 2-3 win starting pitcher. If they wanted, the Cardinals could open up a spot in their rotation by trading a starting pitcher, a move which could also bring back quality minor-league talent. Jaime Garcia and Lance Lynn would probably be the most likely trade candidates in this scenario, simply due to their contract status.
The bench and the bullpen
In this scenario, the Cardinals would stand pat with their starters at each position and strengthen the team with depth. They could add a quality backup at catcher and in the middle infield, which would result in much-needed rest for Yadier Molina, Jhonny Peralta, and Kolten Wong. Perhaps they would be willing to pay the price for someone like Ben Zobrist or Asdrubal Cabrera, who are each good enough to be starters on many teams. They could also strengthen their bullpen with experienced relievers that Mike Matheny would be more willing to trust. These types of moves may not be flashy, but they could do a lot to avoid the fatigue the team experienced at the end of the 2015 season.
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The Cardinals could go a number of different ways this offseason if they do not sign Heyward, but I would argue that there are significant downsides to most of the alternatives presented. In many situations, the Cardinals would be paying (or maybe even overpaying) for players that they may not even need. The Cardinals have been disciplined enough to avoid making these kinds of moves in recent years, but they could shift their strategy if they feel that it is necessary to spend more money in order to stay at the top of an increasingly competitive division.
Ultimately, I still believe that the path of least resistance for the Cardinals would be to sign Jason Heyward and make smaller moves to fill spots on the bench and in the bullpen. Heyward is a tremendous fit for this team, both in 2016 and beyond, and I truly believe that the Cardinals will do what they can to bring him back.