As it currently stands (and as is almost always the case for every team), the St. Louis Cardinals have fewer payroll commitments for 2019 than they did at the beginning of 2018. Gone are the $14 million salary of Greg Holland and $3 million salary of Bud Norris (and Greg Garcia, and whatever you want to allocate from Tyson Ross or Matt Adams) and lessened is the financial commitment to Adam Wainwright. The Cardinals now have the chance to supplement their roster, one which as presently constituted is very close to the playoff team it nearly was last year, with top free agent talent.
There are hundreds of free agents on the market, and there are countless combinations of free agents which the Cardinals could sign. But which is the strategy which most behooves the Cardinals given their current construction?
Before I continue any further, I should include the following stipulation: Yes, there is nothing actually stopping the Cardinals, nor any other team, from signing every free agent. There is nothing stopping the Cardinals from giving Bryce Harper and Manny Machado sixty billion dollars each (the league has a luxury tax, which means these contracts would cost quite a bit more than sixty billion dollars each when all is said and done, but if Bill DeWitt Jr. wanted to give Jeff Bezos a swirly until he signed over all of his assets, while this would be highly illegal under the law, the contracts would be legal in terms of baseball).
But there is something deeply, deeply unsatisfying to me about being the guy in every free agent discussion every year who just says, “It’s not my money.” Well, sure. But it’s more fun to approach the decision from the standpoint of a general manager, whose end goal is closer to yours as a fan (make the team win as many games as possible) than is the end goal of owners (make money which you as a fan will never see, even indirectly). This also, however, means that I’m not going to forfeit my hypothetical budget for the sake of looking more impressive for doing more with less. If a player makes $16 million but FanGraphs says he was only worth $8 million, well, I’d still rather have that player than not if the alternative is owners banking the money.
For the sake of this discussion, I’m going to say that the Cardinals’ free agent budget allows for a $30 million increase in payroll for 2019 from its current standing. This would mean the Cardinals would have a higher payroll next year than last, which isn’t especially surprising considering general baseball financial inflation as well as the fact that the Cardinals haven’t been overwhelming spenders over the last few years (that the Cardinals made an effort to acquire Giancarlo Stanton, the most expensive player in baseball, last offseason shows that they aren’t going to go broke with a higher payroll).
I think it’s more likely their actual budget is higher than $30 million than lower, but I also suspect the contract estimates which I am using, the figures estimated by Jon Heyman, lean somewhat on the higher side, given the stagnation of the free agent market last season. The Cardinals might spend more and they might spend less and this isn’t about whether they should–it’s about how the Cardinals’ front office can best apply their financial resources, knowing that players are receiving the exact same chunk of it regardless of who specifically gets it.
Here are some of the approaches the Cardinals could take.
Approach 1: Go for one of the big fish. There are many useful players on the free agent market, but once Clayton Kershaw agreed to a three-year extension with the Los Angeles Dodgers in lieu of opting out of his contract, a top two clearly separated themselves from the pack–Bryce Harper and Manny Machado. Harper and Machado are each estimated to make $30 million per season by Heyman, and even if one chooses to not interpret $30 million as a literal cap and more of a framework, it’s probably safe to conclude that if the Cardinals sign one of Harper or Machado, barring further salary-cutting measures, they probably aren’t going to sign any further players expected to have a major impact on the 2019 team.
High-ticket free agents like Harper or Machado come with much more inherent risk. And because even the best players in baseball aren’t capable of carrying a team alone (a Mike Trout-level player might be able to turn an average team into a playoff team, but it’s not as though magically putting him on the Baltimore Orioles in 2018 would’ve kept them from 100+ losses), it really only makes sense for good teams to sign them. That’s partly because good teams (obviously) have better players being replaced. If you were to add two 3-WAR players to replace two replacement level players, in its simplest terms, that’s a 6-win swing. But if that team has 2-WAR players at those positions, it’s only a 2-win swing. Rarer are the players with MVP potential. Harper and Machado are those players.
Harper and Machado have been close to equivalent players throughout their careers–Harper has edges in FanGraphs WAR and overall prospect hype while Machado has the edge in Baseball Reference WAR, but none of these gaps are considerable enough to make me declare one is obviously better than the other. Much of the debate between the two comes down to team need. For instance, the Los Angeles Dodgers will almost certainly not bring back Machado, as they’ll have Justin Turner and a now-healthy Corey Seager manning the left side of the infield, but they would be far more improved with an all-MLB outfielder like Harper in the mix. That doesn’t mean Bryce Harper is better than Manny Machado–it means Turner and Seager are better than Joc Pederson.
At the same time, though, these are both players seeking long-term contracts (Heyman has Harper getting 11 years and Machado getting 10) and building a strategy around an additional year of Marcell Ozuna, or two additional years of Jedd Gyorko or Matt Carpenter seems silly. But at the same time, the next year or two should be the most impactful of each’s next contract (though since both are young for free agents, they should have a longer run under it of peak or near-peak performance). And despite the hype entering the 2018 season, the Cardinals could probably more easily find a place for Bryce Harper than they could for Manny Machado.
The Cardinals were supposedly set in the outfield, but Tommy Pham is now gone, Dexter Fowler was extremely ineffective in 2018 and probably can’t be counted upon as a regular outfielder until further notice, and Marcell Ozuna will probably only be in St. Louis for another year, anyway. As it stands, the Cardinals are one Harrison Bader regression (before his Rookie of the Year-caliber 2018 season, he was largely viewed as more of a fourth outfielder type than a center fielder of the future) or one Tyler O’Neill never developing plate discipline at the MLB level away from having some major problems in the outfield. Bryce Harper’s defensive metrics in 2018 were bad, but they were such an outlier from the rest of his career that I’m far from ready to conclude that Harper is not capable of at least playing a corner outfield spot for the next several seasons.
Meanwhile, Manny Machado (who has spent most of his career at third base but seems pretty insistent on playing shortstop) would be supplanting Paul DeJong, who has been a credible defensive shortstop (in more innings at the position in the Majors than Machado). Sure, DeJong could move to third base, supplanting potential trade bait Jedd Gyorko, but DeJong offense survives at third base while it could thrive at shortstop. He’s unquestionably an upgrade–I just think he’s less of one than Harper.
Approach 2: Go for a second tier position player and a third tier pitcher. My main problem with Approach 1 has little to do with the basic idea of it and more to do with the specific players in play in the 2018-19 offseason derby. Or, to be more specific, the positionality of those players. The Cardinals need some starting pitching.
There isn’t a Bryce Harper nor Manny Machado of pitchers out there–it’s possible, given Clayton Kershaw’s injury history and somewhat diminished performance as of late, that even he wouldn’t qualify (I’d qualify him, but I’ll hear arguments otherwise). But the Cardinals don’t necessarily need a superstar pitcher–they got great production from Miles Mikolas and good production from Jack Flaherty last season, they’ll have a healthier Michael Wacha, and they have potential bounceback candidates in Adam Wainwright and especially Luke Weaver. Oh, and they’ll have the man who is still probably their ace in Carlos Martinez. They need innings. Annoying as it is, given how little the Cardinals got in return for him, they need a Mike Leake type.
As far as a second tier position player, there probably isn’t one free agent the Cardinals have been linked to more often than third baseman Josh Donaldson. He battled injuries in 2018 and he wasn’t quite the player he has been in the past, but even so, at a 600 plate appearance rate, 2018 Donaldson was worth over three and a half fWAR. I entered 2018 believing that Josh Donaldson was, at the time, a better third baseman than Manny Machado, and while I think Machado has probably passed him, Donaldson could be signed to a much shorter contract. Heyman says he will get a two-year, $36 million contract. So that leaves $12 million for a starter.
The Cardinals might be able to haggle the price down on World Series hero Nathan Eovaldi, though the injury-prone, high-upside starter doesn’t really fit the mold of what the Cardinals are likely to be seeking. Scrolling down Heyman’s list (and skimming past Hyun-Jin Ryu, who is both injury-prone and a reasonable candidate to take the qualifying offer) comes Gio Gonzalez. In Gonzalez’s least prolific season this decade, he made 27 starts. In his second-least prolific, he made 31. He has shown rare levels of health from a starting pitcher, and while his numbers in 2018 took a bit of a step back, he did improve (particularly with his control) after a trade from the Nationals to the Milwaukee Brewers, so there’s that. Also, I don’t really care that he’s a lefty, but some people care about that sort of thing.
Oh, and if the Cardinals sign him to Heyman’s numbers (3/30), they’d have $2 million left over for a backup catcher or a reliever or something. I think I’d choose Jeff Mathis, who is the mid-thirties equivalent of what Yadier Molina was in the first few years of his career–stellar defensively, fairly embarrassing at the plate. Or just give the money to me. And hey, not that this should be their chief priority, but none of these three players would cost the Cardinals a draft pick to sign. Which is nice.
Approach 3: Go for a third-tier position player and a first-tier pitcher. On paper, I like this solution, mostly because I’m more worried about starting pitching than position players, particularly if you’re not going to get one of the elite position players. As far as pitchers, to be clear, the quality of player that qualifies as a first-tier pitcher is closer to the second-tier of position players than the first tier of them. But still, that means taking a run at Patrick Corbin, who should receive Cy Young votes this season in the National League, or Dallas Keuchel, who won a Cy Young Award just three seasons ago. They’re essentially a wash in terms of projected salary, though I’d side with Corbin between the two. In addition to being a year and a half younger, Corbin overcame velocity drops and general questions about his long-term viability to put up his best season ever, while Keuchel, despite having a nice bounce-back in 2018 from a run prevention perspective, isn’t missing nearly enough bats for me to feel comfortable in him long-term.
After signing Corbin, the Cardinals would have $10 million to spend. They could afford Asdrubal Cabrera, but Cabrera’s primary position is second base, and I’d rather keep Kolten Wong there, and to some extent, Cabrera feels like a glorified version of Yairo Munoz (and perhaps even just a parallel version of Jedd Gyorko). At that point, the Cardinals might look towards Jose Iglesias or Freddy Galvis, defense-first shortstops (particularly in the case of Iglesias). I think Iglesias is slightly better, but he would also be more expensive–if the Cardinals were to go this route, I’d sign Galvis (1/4, per Heyman) and dig around in the couch cushions for an extra million to sign Carlos Gonzalez as an insurance policy in the outfield.
Approach 4: Bolster the bullpen. The Cardinals could make runs at players at the riskiest free agent position (again), such as Craig Kimbrel (who kept finding himself in precocious jams in the postseason) or Zach Britton (who was barely replacement level in 2018 and has battled injuries throughout the last two seasons). Or, and hear me out here: they…could…not. They could instead do what the most successful teams in this postseason did by going with internal options and bargain-bin signings and just bringing in as many candidates into the fray as you can and hoping a few of them stick.
Approach 5: The one where they trade Jedd Gyorko. Trading Jedd Gyorko and $8 million owed by the Cardinals probably wouldn’t garner too much–maybe a B-prospect–but it would increase the budget. In the case that Jedd Gyorko, a fine player, isn’t available, I suddenly have a much stronger preference for Manny Machado, so let’s say the Cardinals spend $30 million on him and now have $8 million to spend elsewhere. The most consequential player who fills a Gyorko-like utility role is over budget (Marwin Gonzalez) but the Cardinals could then sign the aforementioned Asdrubal Cabrera in a super-utility role, or if they are comfortable with Yairo Munoz in that spot, they could sign a lesser free agent starter, such as former Cardinal Lance Lynn.
Here is my personal preference for the approaches.
- Approach 2–Josh Donaldson improves the Cardinals’ ceiling. Gio Gonzalez improves the Cardinals’ floor. Jeff Mathis means we don’t have to pretend Francisco Pena is a viable Major League catcher anymore. Win/win/win, in my book.
- Approach 1–It’s getting a little weird that the most lucrative contract in Cardinals history was signed in the first month of 2010. Despite my belief that Manny Machado is the spiritual successor to Yadier Molina as a glorious baseball heel, I’d prefer Harper, though I wouldn’t argue against either. And while there is some sentiment out there, perhaps fueled by a non-Chicago Midwestern inferiority complex, that players like Harper or Machado would never sign in St. Louis, I believe the Cardinals could acquire either one by appealing to his shared sense of humanity. And by his shared sense of humanity, I mean with wheelbarrows full of money.
- Approach 5–I don’t think there’s a substantial difference, really, between 1 and 5, except that I think I’d just rather have Jedd Gyorko than Asdrubal Cabrera. They have been comparable hitters in recent seasons, but the younger Gyorko has been better defensively. And even if the two are essentially a wash, in that case, I’d rather make fewer moves than making moves just to arrive at the same conclusion.
- Approach 3–Patrick Corbin would excite me, but just as There Is No Such Thing As A Pitching Prospect, pitching free agents aren’t exactly safe bets either. That said, I wouldn’t decline him. But while I, boring individual, advocated for the Cardinals to trade for Freddy Galvis at last year’s trade deadline, I think guys like he and Carlos Gonzalez are more “break in case of emergency”-type solutions rather than guys you build your off-season around.
- Approach 4–Just…don’t. It was a disaster last season, it didn’t work well the season before, and I’m going to guess the Colorado Rockies wish that instead of spending heavily on their bullpen for last season, they’d used that money to invest in a third position player to go with Nolan Arenado and Trevor Story.