The 2017-18 off-season was rife with rumors that the St. Louis Cardinals would make a big splash. Relatively speaking, they did, with the acquisition of Marcell Ozuna via trade from the Miami Marlins, but it wasn’t the super big splash that had been rumored throughout the long Winter months.
The reasons for not making these moves (ones I’m being intentionally vague about for now, but which will soon be discussed) are understandable, whether you agree or disagree with them–moves which would improve the 2018 team in obvious, basically indisputable ways would hurt the team in future seasons. Consider the famous 2004 trade in which the Atlanta Braves sent a prospect and a couple spare parts to the Cardinals for J.D. Drew, who was a world-beating superstar in his remaining season before hitting free agency. For a year, the Braves improved–but they probably would’ve liked to have Adam Wainwright, the prospect they sent to St. Louis.
The Cardinals took a relatively conservative approach, trading for a good non-superstar with two years of club control remaining (Ozuna) rather than one of the many mega-stars about to hit free agency after 2018. But what if the Cardinals decided to go all the way in for 2018?
It is impossible to simulate the intricate reality of baseball with 100% accuracy, but the critically adored Out of the Park Baseball 19 is a pretty good proxy. A baseball simulation computer game which is the latest in a series of games praised by statheads, MLB players, and even Boston Red Sox owner John Henry, who has been described as an enthusiastic fan of the series.
For this “study”, which basically consisted of me spending a Saturday screwing around on my computer instead of going outside or whatever, I started a standard MLB game as the Cardinals in which I would act as GM and Mike Matheny would manage the game on a day-to-day basis (even in my wildest fantasies, I can’t overcome that hurdle). OOTP 19 also includes real-life professional leagues around the world, including Nippon Professional Baseball, Korea Baseball Organization, and various American independent leagues, but for the sake of this simulation, I excluded them because it’s not as though these players would have a big influence on Major League Baseball in 2018. I kept all league settings the same. I then got to work.
Here were my first two moves:
- I delegated several more long-term duties to my “assistant GM” Michael Girsch, such as drafting and scouting prospects. In retrospect, I guess I could have drafted a bunch of high-floor, low-ceiling college pitchers early in hopes that one of them could make the big leagues later that year, such as the Kansas City Royals got in their 2014 World Series run with Brandon Finnegan, but, um, I didn’t think about that. But if this team is as good as I expect it to be, it’s not going to be an issue.
- I slashed the developmental budget. Zero dollars and zero cents. I don’t need scouts because what do I care about people that can’t help me this season? I want to spend every penny I can on 2018, because in the immortal words of Johnny Rotten, “There is no future.” I did not alter the team’s revenues or how much ownership would allow me to spend, because this is more meant to test what the front office could do rather than whether the DeWitt family is cheap. Also, yes, I’m pretty sure if you injected many billions of dollars and I could literally buy every player in MLB, I could win the World Series. Even Mike Matheny can’t ruin that.
Now let’s get to the fun part.
March 28, 2018 is a big day for me. After settling into my office, I started to make calls. There is one semi-anachronism at play here–Greg Holland is on the Cardinals, making $14 million and costing the Cardinals a draft pick, despite not actually being signed until March 30. The draft pick thing doesn’t really concern me because, after all, I don’t care about the long-term of this team. As for the financial cost, the signing of Holland is far more detrimental in this alternate reality than it is in reality. In reality, there were no alternatives–it’s $14 million spent on Greg Holland or $14 million pocketed, and while at this point you might prefer the latter, it’s probably not by as much as $14 million on (fill in name of very good baseball player). In this universe…you’ll see.
Here were the roster moves I made that day.
- St. Louis Cardinals acquire Manny Machado from the Baltimore Orioles for Paul DeJong, Tyler O’Neill, and Francisco Pena: O’Neill is a well-regarded prospect in this game, probably slightly moreso than the preseason perception of him was in real life, and so I decided to use him to make a run at Manny Machado. There are several players I desire, but this is the crown jewel for me because Machado can play shortstop. O’Neill and Paul DeJong, now unnecessary for 2018 because he would be backing up Machado, almost did the trick, but the Orioles needed something to sweeten the deal. I’m not totally sure how Francisco Pena was the difference maker, but considering Carson Kelly is more highly rated in the eyes of most people that aren’t real-life Mike Matheny, and playing everyday in Memphis is for long-term benefit that I do not care about, Pena was pretty expendable.
- St. Louis Cardinals acquire Josh Donaldson and Aledmys Diaz from the Toronto Blue Jays for Matt Carpenter, Kolten Wong, and Dexter Fowler: The Blue Jays, unlike the Orioles, are in relative win-now mode, so a MLB package for their best player was necessary. Matt Carpenter, a third baseman in the game, is far less valuable to this team with Donaldson in the fold, and with an elite third baseman (plus Machado to possibly slide back over to third if needed), Jedd Gyorko is now useful mostly as a second baseman, hence Kolten Wong’s expendability. As for Dexter Fowler…you’ll see. Oh, and Aledmys Diaz appeared to be of little interest to Toronto, so I elected to re-acquire a free Aledmys Diaz.
- St. Louis Cardinals acquire Bryce Harper from the Washington Nationals for Michael Wacha, Jack Flaherty, Randy Arozarena, Marcell Ozuna, and Aledmys Diaz: I think this probably works for replacing Fowler. Harper is among the very best players in the game, and for the purposes of this exercise is certainly the most valuable commodity (Mike Trout would have been great, but as he is under a below-market contract for several seasons, he would be even costlier). The costs are extensive here, particularly on the pitching front (OOTP doesn’t love Jack Flaherty’s future prospects as much as you probably do, for what it’s worth), but creating an offensive juggernaut is my modus operandi here. The last two World Series champions, albeit teams build in totally different ways from this team, built around position players, and their pitching came later. I’m taking this approach. Mostly.
- St. Louis Cardinals acquire Dallas Keuchel and Jake Marisnick from the Houston Astros for Luke Weaver and Jordan Hicks: I get why Houston did this–Keuchel, like the previous acquisitions (aside from Diaz), has one year remaining until free agency, and Luke Weaver, while not as good, has five years of cost control remaining. And Jordan Hicks, in OOTP-land a decent prospect as a starter at AA Springfield, is a high-upside long-term play for the Astros. But Dallas Keuchel instantly becomes the team’s co-ace with Carlos Martinez, and Jake Marisnick, though perhaps not necessary given the presence of Harrison Bader, is a useful trade chip.
- St. Louis Cardinals attempt to acquire Clayton Kershaw from the Los Angeles Dodgers but do not have the budget because Greg Holland: Suddenly, OOTP became a veritable salary cap league, because I’m running out of budget space. Yes, I’m acquiring guys who haven’t yet reached their free agency years, but guys in their last years of arbitration aren’t exactly free. And while I could trade a boatloat of prospects and maybe eventually work my way up to Kershaw, who could opt into free agency after 2018, but I’d have to dump Holland. And, to quote many GMs to whom I eventually attempted to essentially sell Holland, “We refuse to accept any overpriced veterans at this time.”
- St. Louis Cardinals acquire Brian Dozier from the Minnesota Twins, who will retain 25% of Dozier’s salary, for Jedd Gyorko, Jose Martinez, and Dominic Leone: Dozier, (stop me if you’ve heard this one before) a pending free agent, is a clear improvement over Gyorko, and is indeed one of the best second basemen in baseball. Martinez (weirdly a very good fielder in this game) hurts because I now lack a first baseman, but I’ll work on that. As for Dominic Leone…I know this website is called “St. Louis Bullpen”, but I don’t actually believe a great bullpen is necessary. You can find good relievers on the farm. I’m banking on this.
- St. Louis Cardinals acquire Wil Myers from the San Diego Padres for Carson Kelly: A backup catcher for a starting left fielder (Ozuna was traded earlier) who can also play first base. Easy call.
- St. Louis Cardinals offer one-year contracts to Adam Lind (MLB), Scott Diamond (minor-league to MLB), and Dioner Navarro (minor-league to MLB): I have Luke Voit at my disposal, and thus I have decided on a stop-gap solution at first base–a platoon featuring the lefty Lind and the righty Voit. I have long-term plans here, but I think this is fine for now. Diamond is purely rotation depth–my hope is I don’t actually have to use him, but it’s about a million dollars for an insurance policy. And I fully intend for Navarro to act as Yadier Molina’s backup but if he’s willing to agree to a minor-league deal, I might as well keep my options open.
So, I’ve written 1,600+ words and covered exactly one day of the season. I have many more words to write about this season, though I will promise that 1,600 words to discuss one day is my maximum. Check back for future installments of the “What if the 2018 Cardinals had gone all-in?” series.
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