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Should the Cardinals have Brewers-ed this offseason?

The Cardinals have gone for low-risk upgrades while the Brewers have gone for high-upside ones. Which approach should the Cardinals have taken?

MLB: Milwaukee Brewers at St. Louis Cardinals Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

So far, the off-season of the St. Louis Cardinals has been defined by the lack of risk associated with it. The Cardinals have made some moves, but none have been particularly extreme moves, either in terms of going all-in for 2018 (say, the New York Yankees acquiring Giancarlo Stanton) or selling parts for 2018 in hopes for long-term improvement (say, the Miami Marlins trading Giancarlo Stanton).

The Cardinals acquired Marcell Ozuna from the Marlins, a short-term move (Ozuna has two arbitration years remaining before he hits free agency, while the four players sent to Miami have a combined 24 years of club control remaining), but not one which significantly hamstrings the future outlook of the club—of the four prospects dealt, only Sandy Alcantara was considered a particularly major one, and from the Cardinals’ perspective, he was a secondary prospect behind the likes of Alex Reyes, Luke Weaver, and Jack Flaherty. The Cardinals traded MLB talent in Aledmys Diaz, Stephen Piscotty, and Randal Grichuk, but these trades were more a matter of clearing redundant pieces while getting something in return (including Dominic Leone, who figures to be part of the 2018 bullpen). And the free agent signings have been limited to international signing Miles Mikolas and decidedly non-elite reliever Luke Gregerson.

In fairness to the Cardinals, their off-season excitement has not lagged behind most teams—the free agent market has been notoriously slow. But one team that has made splashier acquisitions than the Cardinals since the end of the 2017 season is the team which finished three games ahead of the Cardinals in the National League Central last season—the Milwaukee Brewers.

On Friday, Craig Edwards wrote about whether the Brewers were actually better than the Cardinals following their Thursday evening acquisitions of Christian Yelich, from the Marlins via trade, and Lorenzo Cain, via free agency. Ultimately, Craig concluded that while the Brewers had improved their 2018 stock by acquiring the pair of outfielders, their 2017 results did not reflect their true talent, and that the Cardinals are still the better team.

But whether the Brewers are better or not is not the same as asking if the Brewers have had the better off-season. The question is whether you would rather have the Cardinals following a Brewers-like off-season, one marked by a truly major transaction in the Yelich trade and a significant free agent signing in Cain, or the Cardinals following a Cardinals-like off-season of, well, what they’ve actually done so far.

Comparing the trades which brought Marcell Ozuna to St. Louis and Christian Yelich to Milwaukee is a bit apples to oranges and a bit chicken to egg, to use the only two metaphors about metaphors I know. Yelich was unquestionably the stronger asset to acquire—while Ozuna was better in 2017 by Wins Above Replacement, Yelich has been the superior player throughout their respective careers. Although Ozuna’s contract situation is still favorable for the team—the Cardinals will get an above-average outfielder at below-market rates for two seasons—it is not nearly the bargain of Yelich’s. Yelich will make under $11 million per season over the next four years and he has a $15 million team option for 2022.

Yelich is the preferable asset, probably in the short term and definitely in the long term, but the Marlins shipping Yelich was at least partially a move inspired by the acquisition of Ozuna—it was only after the Ozuna trade (which followed the Giancarlo Stanton trade) that Yelich asked to be traded. The Marlins trading Ozuna was probable even had the Cardinals not been involved, and perhaps they would have considered trading Yelich independent of Ozuna, but these are not certainties.

One thing that is for sure is that the Brewers sent a stronger package to Miami than the Cardinals did for Ozuna. In exchange for Yelich, Milwaukee sent prospects Lewis Brinson, Monte Harrison, Isan Diaz, and Jordan Yamamoto to the Marlins. There is no perfect Cardinals analogy for this trade, as the two organizations have different strengths and weaknesses both in terms of Major League rosters and minor league affiliates, but there are analogous pieces in terms of raw prospect pedigree.

  • Lewis Brinson is the most regarded of the prospects, ranking #1 in the Brewers system and #18 in baseball, per Baseball America. The Cardinals do not have an outfield prospect in the same stratosphere as Brinson, so the best (only) parallel is pitcher Alex Reyes, who ranks #17 on the Baseball America list.
  • Monte Harrison is also a consensus Top 100 prospect, albeit lower on the lists. Harrison ranks 75th per Baseball America and 85th per ESPN. The outfielder’s closest Cardinals comparison is probably outfielder Tyler O’Neill, who ranks 86th on the Baseball America list.
  • Isan Diaz, a middle infielder, has been a Top 100 prospect in the past, though he has slipped from most such lists. He is a slightly weaker prospect than Delvin Perez, who is younger and has more defensive potential, but Harrison is probably a stronger prospect than O’Neill, so let’s just go with Perez, who has higher upside but who (perhaps obviously, by virtue of being 19) is less certain to be a useful MLB piece.
  • Jordan Yamamoto pitched well in high-A last season but is not an especially acclaimed prospect—following 2017, Yamamoto ranked 21st in the Brewers’ system and rates as a 40 by future value. Let’s call him the Zac Gallen (who went to Miami in the Ozuna trade) of this transaction.

Would you, a Cardinals fan, want to trade Alex Reyes, Tyler O’Neill, Delvin Perez, and Zac Gallen for Christian Yelich? It sounds steep at first glance, but the Cardinals would be acquiring an established MLB outfielder with a very team-friendly contract in exchange for a player coming off Tommy John surgery and three players who have yet to play in Major League Baseball. It is risky but ultimately defensible. But acquiring Ozuna required a far more modest package, one which did not significantly hamper the depth of the Cardinals’ farm.

The Yelich trade made more sense for the Brewers because it addressed a significant area of need. Of the Brewers outfield in 2017, only Domingo Santana ranked in the top 12 in Baseball Reference Wins Above Replacement (6th), while Ryan Braun and Keon Broxton were disappointments. Yelich is more valuable to the Brewers than he would be to the Cardinals, because who he is replacing is less valuable than what Marcell Ozuna will be replacing in St. Louis. If Yelich is disappointing but not disastrous in Milwaukee (say, a league-average player), this is far more palatable than in St. Louis, where he arguably would not be worth starting.

This is the central problem for the Cardinals this off-season—they do not have obvious weaknesses, but rather many spots which could be improved but not by leaps and bounds. The Brewers could trade for Christian Yelich and sign Lorenzo Cain and be looking at a dramatically altered outfield—the Cardinals could have done the same and looked at an outfield which, while better than the Brewers’ now-outfield, would have been a less significant improvement over the internal options.

So what would be the Cardinals equivalent to Yelich and Cain in terms of marginal improvement? Perhaps one of the soon-to-be free agent AL East third basemen (Josh Donaldson or Manny Machado) acquired via trade and a top free agent pitcher (let’s say Yu Darvish, though Jake Arrieta qualifies as well). Donaldson/Machado and Darvish are better in a vacuum than Yelich and Cain, but the Cardinals would only get one year of (admittedly excellent) production from an aforementioned third baseman and would be assuming the inherent risks with signing a pitcher. The Cardinals may lack an abundance of superstars, but it is their steadiness across the board which makes major improvement difficult.

None of this is to say the Cardinals shouldn’t try to make moves. The Cardinals should be on the phone with the Tampa Bay Rays every day discussing what it would take to acquire Chris Archer, knowing full well it will cost some future assets but hopefully not too many future assets, and they should be seriously considering signing Yu Darvish.

But any realistic target for the Cardinals is going to represent closer to the improvement provided by Cain (who will replace Braun or Santana) rather than what is provided by Yelich (who, acquired hours earlier, will replace Broxton). And this is fine, but it does make caution about trading future assets understandable, if tedious, for any fan hoping to see a substantially improved team in 2018.