The St. Louis Cardinals need an outfielder. In fact, considering Jose Martinez is currently listed as a backup option at all three outfield positions, the Cardinals realistically need two outfielders. If zero moves are made during the offseason (this won’t happen), Tommy Pham will be the starting left fielder on opening night against the Chicago Cubs, alongside Randal Grichuk in center. Given Pham’s persisting health issues and his seemingly being on a completely different page than his manager, this is, to be blunt, not a desirable route, especially if the Cardinals intend to gain ground on the defending World Series champions.
Well, as Winter Meetings draw to a close, John Mozeliak has “missed out” on Carlos Gomez (re-signed with the Rangers), Ian Desmond (signed with the Rockies), and Adam Eaton (traded to the Nationals). In my piece on center field options, I mentioned all three players but admitted that I wasn’t necessarily sold on any of them. Remaining outfield options include, but are not limited to, Lorenzo Cain (trade), Jarrod Dyson (trade), Dexter Fowler (free agent, draft pick attached), Charlie Blackmon (trade), and potentially Odubel Herrera (trade).
In the only name-based rumor put forth involving the Cardinals during Winter Meetings, the Redbirds were slated to send second baseman Kolten Wong across the state in a package (including a handful of interesting names) for Lorenzo Cain and closer Wade Davis. Of course, Davis has since been traded to the Cubs for outfielder/designated hitter Jorge Soler, so even if this rumor had any actual traction, it would certainly require some restructuring.
In the most Mike Matheny of press conferences (documented here by Derrick Goold), the manager heaped praise on 26-year-old second baseman regarding his defense and then back-tracked a bit by stating his future offensive output will be helped by taking “some of the lessons he learned.” Mozeliak, too asked about the club’s second baseman, classified Wong as “Gold-Glove caliber,” and made it a point that the Cardinals were “not actively shopping him.” Oh, of course they’re not.
Once teams know that a player is available publicly, his trade value takes a hit. As veterans in the professional baseball community, Matheny and Mozeliak both know this, so being on the same page at a media-engulfed press conference helped strengthen the value Wong presently holds. And Wong’s trade value is not insignificant considering his team-friendly contract (four years, $23.2 million) lasts through 2020 with a below-market-value team option of $12.5 million for 2021. So while the Cardinals may say they aren’t actively shopping Wong, he definitely isn’t “untouchable,” especially when you remember Mozeliak’s propensity to stack the farm system with prospects.
With Matheny’s and Mo’s thoughts in mind, I am here to plead with the front office to indeed retain Wong, despite his clear value provided toward the acquisition of a much-needed center fielder. The paths to an acquired outfielder I prefer are through dollar signs (a free agent) or prospects (a trade). In 2016, Cardinal pitchers led Major League Baseball in ground ball rate at 49.5%. The Rockies were a close second at 49.1%, but there existed a significant drop-off for the third highest teams (three tied with 46.9%) and beyond. Barring a setback, Lance Lynn is set for a return to rotation in 2017, and though he isn’t known as being a ground ball pitcher, he’s right around league average, so infield defense will remain of supreme importance for the Cardinals.
Thus, trading Wong to fill one hole on the diamond (center) will only open up another one (second). Sure, the Cardinals employ valuable infield depth in Jedd Gyorko, but I just don’t see him as an adequate defender at second base over the course of a 162-game season. Before I am referred to Gyorko’s positive defensive metrics from last season (here is a link to his FanGraphs page), the sample size we are talking about is 337.2 innings, so let’s pump the brakes a bit before we get too excited about that.
Along those same lines, I assume some will then point to Wong’s errors (with some really bad ones standing out), but in reality, this concern is way overblown. Wong has shown to be an above-average second base defender in each MLB season, and we are nearing the sample size necessary to reliably draw conclusions from defensive metrics (one should aim for three full seasons at a given position). For those uninterested in fielding metrics or those that are visually-inclined, the following spray chart from FanGraphs should help in determining Wong’s value at second base:
Wong’s 2016 Made Plays Chart (via FanGraphs)
Bottom line, I, like all of you, want the Cardinals to make a splash this offseason. And no, not just for the sake of making a splash, but because I truly believe they are closer to catching the Cubs than many believe (simply a teaser, as this is a post for another day). Even if the Cardinals don’t “catch” the Cubs, they don’t have to, as we have learned that truly anything can happen once a team reaches the postseason.
I understand the need for acquiring a center fielder, but I don’t think it should come at the expense of another position, particularly one as important to the Cardinals as second base. Honestly, if the front office doesn’t want to top-prospect splurge on a real impact center fielder (Herrera, Kevin Kiermaier, A.J. Pollock, Ender Inciarte) — understandable given the cost of trading this winter — signing one (Fowler) just may be the path to take (yes, that was painful for me to type). Because for as much as I don’t like Fowler, you can take it a few notches further down the disapproval scale when it comes to Charlie Blackmon.