It is still looking like the big fish in free agency are going to get their money, but we saw a player in the middle tier of free agents take a pretty big discount last night. Todd Frazier signed for just two years and $17 million with the New York Mets, about half of what most expected him to receive and substantially lower than his value. He didn’t make much sense for the Cardinals given they already have a superior player at his position, but if things keep moving slowly and there are not fits for the Cardinals in free agency or trade, they should think about doing something with their stash of money. One option might be to buy a prospect.
Right now, the Cardinals have around $143 million committed to this year’s payroll. That’s about $5 million less than last season. It’s also less than what the team started 2016 with. It is significantly less than what the team can afford. It’s why John Fleming suggested the Cardinals simply pony up and sign Yu Darvish.
At this point, Darvish does make a lot of sense for the Cardinals in terms of improving the team, but if the team is unwilling to sign Darvish, they need to consider other uses for the money aside from keeping powder dry for the deadline. Jeff Sullivan at FanGraphs proposed an interesting solution last week:
We know the Yankees are trying to stay under the threshold. We know the Dodgers are also trying to stay under the threshold. Both teams could afford to exceed said threshold, because both teams pull in unbelievable revenue, but this is the reality in which we find ourselves. Both teams have decided that staying under the soft cap is the best long-term decision. It’s a near guarantee they’re going to hold themselves to that. Both teams would still like to get better. In order to do so, money would have to be shed. The most obvious contract the Yankees would like to lose belongs to Jacoby Ellsbury, who’s due about another $68 million. The most obvious contract the Dodgers would like to lose belongs to Matt Kemp, who’s due about another $43 million.
If the Yankees and Dodgers want to get rid of Ellsbury and Kemp, they are going to need to attach something of value, and that would come in the form of prospects. Sullivan mentions a few Dodgers prospects in Yadier Alvarez and Wilmer Font. Alvarez is a Top-50ish prospect, while Font is a favorite of Sullivan. The particular names in this case aren’t particularly important as the Dodgers have a bunch of prospects in the Top-100. Many would replicate what the Cardinals already have, but there are only so many Top-100 prospect types out there and having more is better. Sometimes prospects turn into major league players. Sometimes they turn into Marcell Ozuna. Sometimes they turn into Chris Archer.
Kemp would simply be released once the trade was completed with the Cardinals and owe him about $20 million over the next two years. The Cardinals can easily absorb the salary and still have room to sign anybody else they wanted. Why would the Cardinals help the Dodgers sign Yu Darvish? Why would the Dodgers help the Cardinals trade for Chris Archer or Josh Donaldson or whoever. That’s the way trades work. Both sides give something up to get something they can use. Darvish not going to the Cubs might be a slight bonus as well.
As for the Yankees, they have a bunch of Top-100 prospects, too. Gleyber Torres and might be out of reach, but Justus Sheffield, Estevan Florial, Miguel Andujar, and ALbert Abreu are all good prospects. Ellsbury is owed an extra year, but he also has some value as a baseball player. Ellsbury would be a solid fourth outfielder for the Cardinals, able to handle center field, and he bats left-handed, which the Cardinals don’t have a lot of on the bench right now. Ellsbury has a no-trade clause, but he might find a contender like the Cardinals appealing.
The Cardinals had the opportunity to buy a prospect for a similar amount of money last year when Luis Robert became an amateur free agent. They did not bid the money necessary to get Robert into the Cardinals organization. Robert, like the players discussed above, a top-50ish prospect, depending on who you ask. The Cardinals passed last year, but could have another chance right now as the Yankees and Dodgers look to cut payroll.
Buying a prospect might not be the very best use of the Cardinals available money. Signing Yu Darvish might help the team more. Trading for Josh Donaldson or Manny Machado might do the same. They could do both, though presumably Darvish would be off the table at that point. We are getting to the point where screams become louder for the Cardinals to do something, anything with all that extra payroll money. I’m not there.
If given the option between spending some of the Cardinals available money on Greg Holland or a prospect, I’m taking the prospect every time. The Cardinals don’t need to do just anything with all of the payroll flexibility they have. However, if they don’t like any of the free agents available who would make a difference, like Darvish, and they can’t make a trade for Donaldson because Toronto is holding onto him, and they don’t want to meet the prospect price for Manny Machado, they need to think of creative alternatives. Buying a prospect is something the Cardinals could do to make the organization better, and that makes it a worthwhile option to consider.