Last night, we learned that the league and its players union finally agreed to a new five-year collective bargaining agreement (CBA). Okay, “finally” is not a fair word to use considering a deal was reached prior to a strike taking place (there hasn’t been one for 22 years), but for much of the last week, the idea that “both sides are still very far apart” seemed to dominate national baseball writers’ headlines, so baseball fans everywhere are appreciative that a resolution was ultimately reached prior to the deadline. I could write about the new CBA, but others at SB Nation (among many others) already have that covered. Instead, I plan to touch on the potential trade partner match between the New York Mets and the St. Louis Cardinals.
In case you missed it, two days ago, Dave Cameron, the managing editor of FanGraphs, wrote a piece titled, “Let’s Fix the Mets Outfield.” On the surface, it didn’t look like a piece that would affect those interested in the Cardinals. It begins by discussing the outfield logjam created by the re-signing of Yoenis Cespedes. Then, Cameron quickly points out that though a physical logjam exists, an upgrade is possible (maybe even necessary?) at center field given the current one-dimensional, injury-plagued option for the position (Juan Lagares). And no, the returning Cespedes should not spend much (if any) time in center, and Curtis Granderson, who turns 36 in March, has not been a full-time center fielder since 2012.
This is where the match gets eerily similar. As fans of the Cardinals, we are all well aware of the “strange handling” of Randal Grichuk last season. Despite a terrific 2015 season (3.1 fWAR in 350 plate appearances), the 25-year-old Grichuk was demoted to Triple-A on two separate occasions (once in June/July and another time in August) in 2016. For the Mets, Michael Conforto, a 23-year-old outfielder who enjoyed his own success in 2015 (2.1 fWAR in 194 PAs), was handed Triple-A two demotions as well. Thus, could the two teams line up for a swap of their oddly-handled, yet still promising outfielders?
Now, we all know my opinion of Grichuk’s center field defense (if you don’t, all that is required is a quick Twitter search), but with 1,260.1 MLB innings at the position already under his belt, some teams may place not-insignificant value in knowing that he doesn’t routinely look foolish out there and that he is nowhere near the stage of physical decline (meaning improvement is possible). Even being “okay” at a position as important as center field can be valuable — especially given his positional peers — and the power his bat possesses — something wholly absent in Lagares — can begin to make up for any defensive inefficiencies.
As Cameron stated in his piece, if the Mets want to take advantage of Cespedes’ prime, upgrading center field is “probably an idea worth pursuing.” Grichuk, who is under team control until 2021, provides a noticeable upgrade over Lagares. Now, do the Mets necessarily want to deal Conforto in the process? According to MLB.com beat writer Anthony DiComo, that answer is a public no, but what else are they supposed to say given the negotiating hole they are already in when an inquiring general manager can simply bring up their handling of the 23-year-old last season?
Unless they believe Conforto can adequately transition to center field (a position in which he has played professional for a grand total of 89.0 innings), his playing time will be scattered in 2017. Or, if they want him still around for 2018 — when Granderson’s current contract expires — I certainly understand that line of thinking, but the opening in center field would still remain.
Now that I have done my best to pump Grichuk up as a potential center field upgrade for the Mets, you may be wondering why I am so interested in the Cardinals adding Conforto, a corner outfielder by trade. To make a long story short, Conforto projects to be a better hitter than Grichuk, all while providing above-average to plus corner outfield defense — something left field at Busch Stadium has not enjoyed in quite some time. Conforto, though his time in the minors before his 2015 promotion was very brief (589 PAs), was a significantly better hitter than Grichuk at each level. What helps with the projection models even further is Conforto’s more promising strikeout and walk rates.
Trading away the projected 2017 center field starter for a starting left fielder may seem counter-intuitive, but at the end-of-season press conference, general manager John Mozeliak made it clear that upgrading center field was one of the team’s offseason priorities. When you read between the lines of Mo’s comments — a task we’ve all become quite familiar with as Cardinal fans — you can conclude that the team plans to look at center field options, with the intention of moving Grichuk over to left, as Stephen Piscotty is rooted in right.
Thus, if you believe Conforto is a better overall option in left field than Grichuk (an opinion I very strongly share), the speculated trade in this post (I understand the Cardinals would likely have to throw in a pitching prospect as well) should not have even the slightest effect on the team’s original offseason plan of upgrading center field. They can reach out to Dexter Fowler, even though I have already taken a negative stance on that option. Admittedly, with Conforto in left, I’d begin to soften my stance against the addition of Fowler. Or they can contact a potential stop-gap option in Carlos Gomez, who could fill the void while Harrison Bader goes through his final grooming stages with the Memphis Redbirds.
Bottom line, it is December 1st, winter meetings commence in three days, and the hot stove may finally begin to see some real life. A trade between the Cardinals and Mets just may be a good start for both teams as they mount their respective chases of the defending World Series Champion Cubs.