On Tuesday, Craig Edwards wrote a provocative piece in which he proposed three major transactions, each as big or bigger than last week's probable "move of the off-season" signing of Dexter Fowler. He proposed that the Cardinals trade top prospect Alex Reyes, very good outfield prospect Harrison Bader, and two less MLB-ready but still appealing prospects in Edmundo Sosa and Sandy Alcantara, to the Chicago White Sox for starting pitcher Jose Quintana.
Next he suggested recent MLB mainstays Kolten Wong and Matt Adams, touted pitching prospect Luke Weaver, and minor leaguer Austin Gomber for Angels shortstop Andrelton Simmons. Third, as a missing piece of the puzzle, Craig suggested signing ex-Blue Jays first baseman/designated hitter Edwin Encarnacion.
I believe all three of these moves are reasonable suggestions, and that in particular, the two trades offer reasonable packages which the other teams might actually accept. Dealing Alex Reyes, the most acclaimed Cardinals pitching prospect since (at least) Rick Ankiel, would be difficult, but Quintana is, at 27 and under very reasonable levels of team control through 2020 (Quintana is slated to make $14.8 million total for the next two seasons, followed by a $10.5 million option for both 2019 and 2020), he is arguably a top ten pitcher in baseball, and the cost of Quintana would likely be comparable to the haul the White Sox received from the Boston Red Sox for their other top pitcher, Chris Sale.
Losing Luke Weaver is tough but the loss of Wong and Adams, two sporadically excellent but ultimately flawed pieces, is easier to swallow when considering that the return is arguably the best defensive shortstop since Ozzie Smith. And Edwin Encarnacion would be a great signing under the "well it's not my money so sure" principle.
Undeniably, the lineup presented by Craig's proposal is more potent—the two big question marks would be defensively regarding Matt Carpenter (who, even if you believe he is a poor defensive third baseman, and I tend to think he's closer to average than he is to terrible, would be helped dramatically by the extreme range of Simmons) and Aledmys Diaz (and if he's a complete disaster at second, the team would still have Jedd Gyorko as a backup, which probably isn’t a substantial drop-off from Kolten Wong anyway).
This is a rotation that has a tremendous one-two punch in Quintana and Carlos Martinez, two recently-terrific starters with upside to reemerge into greatness in Adam Wainwright and Lance Lynn, and a solid if not spectacular innings eater in Mike Leake. This is a lineup that could compete with the Cubs. This is, however, far from a sure thing. And while the odds of a 2017 NL Central title, and thus a 2017 World Series title, would increase by pushing all-in, I do not consider the odds to be increased by enough to justify the long-term damage that it would likely cause.
By Steamer's 2017 projections, the only positions at which the refurbished Cardinals would have an edge in expected Wins Above Replacement over the Cubs are catcher (0.1 WAR), shortstop (0.5 WAR), and center field (1.6 WAR over Jon Jay; 1.2 over the combined efforts of Jay and Albert Almora). The 2.9 projected WAR separating Kris Bryant and Matt Carpenter alone is a larger gap than all of the relative advantages of the Cardinals lineup combined.
While the Cubs have their share of regression candidates on the mound, they still have a half win or so edge with their top starter (Jon Lester has a 0.3 projected fWAR and a 0.6 projected RA9-WAR over Jose Quintana) and their #2 starter, Jake Arrieta, holds a 0.4 projected WAR edge over Carlos Martinez. Meanwhile, Kyle Hendricks and John Lackey outpace, respectively, Wainwright and Lynn.
Could Steamer projections be wrong? Certainly. But aside from just hoping really, really hard that the Cubs underachieve and the Cardinals overachieve by enough to close their perceived true talent gap, is there sufficient reason to believe this will happen?
Different teams have different agendas at different times. The Atlanta Braves, who despite their recent penchant for signing some of the oldest starting pitchers in baseball are pretty transparently in rebuilding mode (or the t-word, if you're feeling more cynical), might have had the prospects and young MLB talent to have made runs at Chris Sale or Adam Eaton before they were traded (think Dansby Swanson and a couple of their better prospects), but why would they? Neither Sale nor Eaton would make the Braves realistic playoff contenders, while the trades turned the Boston Red Sox and Washington Nationals from playoff contenders in crowded fields into bona fide World Series contenders.
While one could argue the likes of Yoan Moncada or Lucas Giolito were too much to give up for these players, the motivations of the teams were logical: if the difference made from a "win now" strategy is the difference between a mere playoff appearance and a World Series title, you make that move eight days a week. For the Cardinals, however, these trades would probably not be enough.
Signing Edwin Encarnacion is itself a move which would make the Cardinals better in 2017, and while the organization would lose a draft pick (though not a first round pick, as that was already forfeited due to the Dexter Fowler signing), it would not cause nearly the potential long-term damage of an absolute all-in strategy.
A Molina-Encarnacion-Wong/Gyorko-Carpenter-Diaz-Grichuk-Fowler-Piscotty lineup paired with a Quintana-less Cardinals rotation is a very good team, one that should reasonably expect to make the playoffs, but not one which would be favorites for the 2017 NL Central title.
However, this is a team that would be positioned well to compete not only in 2017 but also in future seasons, when hopefully, the likes of Alex Reyes, Luke Weaver, and Harrison Bader will join young players venturing into veteran status such as Kolten Wong as the core group of a Cardinals team which can compete with a Cubs team which will inevitably face the same hurdles of aging and players reaching free agency that every team eventually confronts.