Per a report from Derrick Goold two days ago, the St. Louis Cardinals will enter the 2017 season with Matt Carpenter as the team’s starting first baseman. Carpenter was drafted in 2009 as a third baseman — a position he played almost exclusively in the minor leagues (97.7% of his minor league innings, to be exact) — but showed enough defensive utility at the MLB level to transition to second full-time in 2013 only to return to the hot corner for the 2014 and 2015 seasons. Just last season, Carpenter was dealt a ~40-30-30 split at third, second, and first, respectively.
Now, we have certainly heard this story before. Over the last couple of offseasons, the Cardinals have stated that they plan to commit a legitimate amount of playing time to a specific player at first base — from third-baseman-turned-outfielder Stephen Piscotty in 2015 to coincidentally third-baseman-turned-outfielder Matt Holliday this past season. As we already know, neither one of these options really panned out as the two combined for a total of 118.2 innings at the position.
Regardless, let’s give the Cardinals’ decision makers the benefit of the doubt here and assume they truly are committed to making Carpenter the primary first baseman going forward — which is not necessarily a bad idea because his defense at third, and second, for that matter, is below average, and it creates position flexibility on the left side of the diamond. Full disclosure, at times last season, Carpenter’s defense looked shaky at first base as well, particularly on pick-off throws from pitchers, but with a full offseason dedicated to fine-tuning the craft known as first-base defense, along with the fact that he is a lifelong infielder, I have little doubt he can become, at the very least, adequate at the position.
So, where does this leave the 28-year-old Matt Adams, who remains under team control until the offseason following the 2018 season? In the National League, Adams is limited to one position (first), but in the American League, his viability doubles as he can also be slotted into the lineup as the designated hitter. Well, the Cardinals play in the National League, so if Carpenter is set to serve as the team’s primary first baseman, that leaves Adams squarely on the bench. As we have learned over the years, Adams, while a potent bench bat (.330/.352/.600 slash line over 105 PH plate appearances), enjoys more consistent success when given regular playing time — something he just won’t get, barring injuries, with the 2017 Cardinals.
Fortunately for the Cardinals, the 2017 first baseman free agent market is lackluster, at best, outside of the top target in Edwin Encarnacion, who, considering his age (34), will likely be overpaid, especially considering Boston appears to be a potential landing spot. Here is the complete list of free agent first basemen (with their respective ages in parentheses), via MLB Trade Rumors: Encarnacion (34), Ryan Howard (37), Chris Johnson (32), Dae-ho Lee (35), Adam Lind (33), James Loney (33), Mitch Moreland (31), Logan Morrison (29), Brandon Moss (33), Mike Napoli (35), Steve Pearce (34), Mark Reynolds (33), Sean Rodriguez (32), Jerry Sands (29), and Eric Thames (30). I understand that many of these players may also see time in the outfield with their future teams.
In a vacuum, Adams, and his 4.1 fWAR over 1,486 career plate appearances, isn’t all that appealing of a trade target, but when you factor in his age (youngest of any reportedly-available first basemen), team control (two seasons), and free agent peers, his value elevates not insignificantly. Since the start of the 2013 season, Adams’ first season with regular playing time, the free agent first basemen listed above, excluding Encarnacion, have combined for 37.4 fWAR, with the bulk (73%) of the production coming from only four players: Pearce (8.1), Napoli (7.9), Moss (6.5), and Lind (4.8). If you filter the list to only last season, the top producer on the list was Pearce, at a whopping 2.0 fWAR, with five options providing negative value.
Admittedly, this was a roundabout exercise to point out that, maybe, Adams possesses more trade value than we as Cardinals fans originally thought. Now, of course, any inquiring general manager will be quick to point out that he is destined for the Cardinals bench in 2017, subsequently limiting the Cardinals’ leverage in negotiations, but Mozeliak can counter right back with the statistics provided above. Any inquiring GM can then bring up the significant injuries Adams has dealt with over the last two seasons.
Given the back and forth documented above, dealing Adams will obviously be a tough and complicated task for Mozeliak. Yet, the Cardinals benefit from the reality that Adams doesn’t need to serve as the centerpiece for any trade deal. He can be packaged together with a top pitching prospect in Luke Weaver, or if a team is interested in playing the lottery, Adams can be had with Jaime Garcia, who recently had his below-market-value team option picked up by the Cardinals. These packages would almost certainly require more than just the two players mentioned for each, but I merely intended to provide a starting point as I know money will be required depending on the package coming back or more prospects will have to be thrown in to help sweeten the deal.
Would the Rays (who have attractive targets in Kevin Kiermaier and Alex Colome, and a considerably less attractive option in Evan Longoria) be willing to talk with Mozeliak about a borderline blockbuster deal? How about the Miami Marlins (namely Marcell Ozuna) who didn’t even employ a first baseman with enough at bats to qualify for the leaderboards last season, along with an unequivocally unimpressive starting rotation? How about the Blue Jays should they lose Encarnacion, and likely R.A. Dickey, to higher bidders? Considering it is only November 10th, the possibilities are endless, and you better believe Mozeliak will be making his best sales pitches to opposing GMs as we enter the much anticipated hot stove season.