Four years ago, when news first broke that Albert Pujols was signing with the Angels, I was overcome with a strange sense of relief. I knew deep down that the Cardinals had dodged a bullet and still had a good chance of being competitive for years to come. Pujols was an aging star whose value came almost exclusively from his offensive production, and the Cardinals simply could not afford to have that much money tied up in a player who was past his prime.
I had no such reaction yesterday when I found out that Jason Heyward signed with the Cubs. My immediate feelings were a mix of disappointment and hopelessness about the Cardinals' future. (It didn't help that I first saw the news on my Twitter feed while sitting next to a Cubs fan in my Sport Economics class.) Heyward's situation is entirely different than that of Pujols. Heyward entered free agency at age 26 while Pujols was set to turn 32 that offseason. Pujols was coming off a 4.0 fWAR season in 2011, the worst season of his career up to that point, while Heyward just completed a 6.0 fWAR campaign, the second best of his career. In addition, the Cardinals had just won a World Series and boasted one of the best farm systems in baseball. The current Cardinals feature an aging core and are lacking in high-end minor league talent, especially in the upper levels of the system. (Alex Reyes is the lone exception.)
Jason Heyward was such a good fit for the Cardinals because he was likely to give them peak production for multiple years, given his age. He had the ability to help keep the Cardinals competitive while they transitioned to a new core of players. Without Heyward, the Cardinals' roster feels much older, making us wonder how much longer this team can remain competitive.
So where do the Cardinals go from here?
In the immediate future, the Cardinals still figure to in the playoff hunt. As I pointed out on Monday, the Cardinals 2016 Steamer projections currently have them at around 86 wins, which would put them in the hunt for a wild card spot. At the time I wrote that post, the Cardinals were still within striking distance of the Cubs, at least on paper. Since that point, the Cubs have signed Ben Zobrist and Jason Heyward and traded Starlin Castro to the Yankees for Adam Warren. Steamer now has the Cubs projected to be 12 games better than the Cardinals, with a true talent level just below 100 wins. As currently constructed, the Cardinals will need a lot of things to go their way if they have any chance of catching the Cubs and winning the NL Central for a fourth year in a row.
The Cardinals could start to close the gap by signing one of the remaining free agent position players. They have already been linked to names like Chris Davis, Alex Gordon, and Dexter Fowler, and in theory, they could be a fit for other outfielders like Yoenis Cespedes or Justin Upton. Gordon, Cespedes, and Upton all project to be better than all of the Cardinals' current outfield options (Matt Holliday, Randal Grichuk, Stephen Piscotty, and Tommy Pham), but not by a large margin.
The Cardinals could also look to spend money on a starting pitcher, even though John Mozeliak has publicly stated that he is comfortable with Tyler Lyons, Tim Cooney, and Marco Gonzales filling the fifth spot in the rotation. Johnny Cueto would represent the biggest free agent upgrade, and his agent has talked openly about Cueto being a great fit for the Cardinals. However, the Cardinals have not yet shown the same level of interest in Cueto, even though his role in the 2010 Cardinals-Reds brawl appears to be a non-issue for the them, according to Jenifer Langosch of MLB.com. The Cardinals have shown interest in mid-rotation options like Wei-Yin Chen and Mike Leake, although neither of these players offers an enormous upgrade over the team's in-house options. They could also take a gamble on a high-upside injury risk like Cliff Lee, who would only require a one-year commitment.
Unfortunately for the Cardinals, there are not very many ways that they can upgrade in a major way now that Heyward is gone. They cannot spread their money around to three or four good players and get the same value that they would have gotten from Heyward, because their roster does not have this many holes to fill. The Cardinals have plenty of league-average regulars and quality depth options. What they lack is high-end talent.
With that being said, there are still ways that the Cardinals can find value on the free agent market. Our own Craig Edwards described Alex Gordon as a value buy in free agency, and Dave Cameron included Wei-Yin Chen on his list of free agent bargains. (Jason Heyward was at the top of his list.) If the Cardinals were able to get both of these players, they could potentially be well-positioned to win a wild card spot and be within striking distance of the Cubs for 2016 without having to spend an outrageous amount of money.
These kinds of moves would improve the team in the short-term, but they could potentially put the Cardinals in a tricky situation as early as 2017. The Cardinals could be paying eight-figure salaries to as many as eight players on the wrong side of 30 that year (depending on what they decide to do with options for Matt Holliday and Jaime Garcia), and with enough age-based decline, it would not be too difficult to see them out of the playoff picture entirely. In fact, the Cardinals are facing the prospect of being behind the Cubs for many years to come. Six of the Cubs' everyday position players are currently 26 or younger, and they are all under team control long-term. The Cardinals can try to spend money on some of the top remaining free agents, but if they are not careful, they could end up with an old expensive roster which would set them back even further.
What is clear is that the failure to sign Jason Heyward puts the Cardinals in a very tricky situation going forward. Not only did they miss out on an opportunity to fill a spot in their lineup with an elite position player entering the prime of his career, but they also allowed such a player to sign with their biggest division rival. Heyward was far and away the best fit for the Cardinals given their short-term and long-term outlook, and his departure may signal the end of the Cardinals' extended run of success.