The Cardinals are in a decent position for next year without making any moves. They have average to above-average players at virtually every position, including all five spots in the rotation. That is rather enviable situation to be in. Couple that with considerable payroll room and an increase in television money both nationally and at home, and the Cardinals are in a very good spot. There are several problems with the team as currently structured, and the best way to work out those issues is to acquire a bonafide star player to raise the ceiling for a team that already has a high floor.
As I discussed last week, the Cardinals are probably already good.
A bunch of average to slightly above average players doesn't seem good, but keep in mind that 2.5 WAR from 8 positions plus one win from the bench puts a team in the top-third of baseball. Even 2-wins from eight players and nothing from the bench keeps a team out of the bottom third. Eight three-win players plus two wins from the bench puts a team in the top five. The Cardinals could take the field right now with the players they have and be competitive. That isn't to say they shouldn't make moves to get better, but let's not pretend like the team needs some sort of massive overhaul.
A lot of average players is one of those good problems to have, but unfortunately, it makes a team very hard to upgrade. The spot the Cardinals sit on the win curve makes every win very valuable, and as a result marginal increases are very important. Doing things like not making extra outs on the basepaths, managing starters and the bullpen appropriately, and handling timeshares are all in this category—little things that add up and can make a difference. Unfortunately, the Cardinals manager has nullified most of these types of advantages and provides little reason to think he will not do the same in the future.
Another way to create those marginal improvements is to take a current player and replace him with a slightly better player. I am less than excited about those type improvements. Much of the focus so far this offseason has been on center fielders as John Mozeliak indicated the same focus for the Cardinals. The idea is to move Randal Grichuk, who was supposed to be the year-long starter in center field last year, to right field where he would be the starter and get a better defensive center fielder. This isn’t a terrible idea.
In practice, this idea could be difficult to pull off. Some of the names put out there, like Adam Eaton, Dexter Fowler, and Charlie Blackmon, aren’t actually good defensive center fielders. While a left field/center field combination of Grichuk and any of those three are an upgrade over Matt Holliday/Brandon Moss and Grichuk, if the idea is to get an above-average fielding center fielder, none of those three provide much difference from Grichuk when you look at a decent sample size of those players’ defensive stats and regress for Grichuk’s lack of experience. They might be one-win upgrades over Moss or Holliday, but would require a significant outlay in prospects or money.
Those are not the only options. Joe Schwarz laid out the case for Ender Inciarte, and he does fit the mold of someone who would improve defense, but with average offense, he still projects to be roughly a three-win player. Kevin Kiermaier is the rich man’s Inicarte—better fielder and more consistent hitter. He would make a great addition to the Cardinals, but we don’t know if he’s available or the cost and that is the problem the Cardinals could face on multiple players this offseason.
The Cardinals missed out on David Price and Jason Heyward last season, losing in their bid to add or potentially keep another core player. The Cardinals are another year out and have not found another star, instead, in Cardinals-like fashion, finding multiple plug-and-play starters from seemingly nowhere (per the narrative). Thus, they are now a year behind in their quest for the next core member and should be a bit more desperate to find another star.
Star players with multiple years to go on their contracts generally don’t have their availability advertised. It’s a bad look for player and team and tends not to make anyone happy except for us drooling opposing fans imagining said player on our team. Is Kevin Kiermaier, who might not be a star but would make an impact, available? Is Evan Longoria? Will talks around Chris Sale resume? Might A.J. Pollock come available in a new regime in Arizona? Yoenis Cespedes would increase the quality of the defense in left field, but is aging, would likely require more cash than he is worth, and he might be the only available free agent who represents a decent upgrade. If the Cardinals believe Lourdes Gourriel, Jr. could be a star at any position, an aggressive pursuit seems like a no-brainer. And those are the slightly realistic targets.
Players like A.J. Pollock, Nolan Arenado, Manny Machado, and Bryce Harper are almost definitely not available, but those are the types of names the Cardinals need to target if they want to make a difference, players with 2-3 years left on their deal who teams might be trying to trade before they get too close to free agency. Big names will get traded this winter, and the Cardinals need a great player more than ever to get better next season. It is not as if the Cardinals have never been so bold. Just two years ago, they traded two young pitchers for a pending free agent who put together a 6-WAR season and greatly helped the defense of a 100-win, division-leading team.
For years, the Cardinals have been an organization that has made moves on the margins, gaining an incremental benefit to slightly increase their odds of success—your Jedd Gyorko and Mike Leake moves of the world. That is a fantastic approach, but we shouldn’t ignore the bold moves the franchise has taken as well. Signing Matt Holliday to a $120 million contract is now ancient history, but trading Joe Kelly and Allen Craig for John Lackey was a great, bold move that helped change the organization’s direction. When other free agents might have been available cheaply, the Cardinals signed a much-criticized four-year contract for Jhonny Peralta that worked out very well. The organization lost on its bid to sign Jason Heyward, but they did receive a year of MVP-level play after making a bold trade for his services, even if just for a year (and a draft pick).
It’s no secret that the Cardinals are behind the Cubs right now, but the gap isn’t quite as large as some would have you believe. However, making an incremental move isn’t going to bridge the gap to make a division title a reasonable goal. The Cardinals are in a tough spot because they have to go to the market—they can no longer simply let the market come to them.
The weak free agent class is going to make the trade market very volatile, and the Cardinals will need to be ready for anything. Any and all positions should be in play if a star becomes available, whether it is infield, outfield, or in the rotation. The cost is going to be high, and the Cardinals depth, both in the majors and in the minors, will make that cost agreeable. The Cardinals had a quiet offseason, results-wise last year after a lot of talk to the contrary. This winter, quiet talks should lead to loud moves.