For the past few off seasons – specifically those in which the St. Louis Cardinals have cleaned their lockers by the start of October – there’s been a tune that floats out from the Cardinals’ front office in the weeks following the conclusion of the World Series. It’s a hopeful, melodic thing that is quickly gobbled up by Cardinals’ beat writers everywhere – and I should say I don’t fault them, as it is their job.
But inevitably, this song-and-dance ends up looking foolish, maybe even irresponsible, by the time the next spring blooms and baseball comes calling once again. It’s probably best chronicled in a Twitter thread by Double Birds, the socio-political blog covering the Birds on the Bat.
It’s true that the “elite talent,” “big moves,” and “aggressive approaches,” have never turned up much of note for St. Louis faithful. Obviously, you’ll have people pointing out the successful finds of Miles Mikolas and Seunghwan Oh or even the trades of Tony Cruz and Jon Jay for Jose Martinez and Jedd Gyorko respectively. However, it’s probably too generous to consider these types of moves aggressive as, “flipping mediocre players for good ones,” could be a baseline expectation for any general manger of a competitive MLB franchise.
Still, it’s not as if the Cardinals have sat on their thumbs and done absolutely nothing. If anything, they’ve become known for making marginal, cost-effective moves in free agency while aiming higher on the trade market.
2014 – 2015: Trade Tyrell Jenkins and Shelby Miller for Jason Heyward; Signed Jeremy Hazelbaker and Mark Reynolds
2015 – 2016: Traded Tony Cruz and Jon Jay for Jose Martinez and Jedd Gyorko respectively; Signed Mike Leake and Seunghwan Oh
2016 -2017: Signed Dexter Fowler and Brett Cecil
2017 – 2018: Traded Stephen Piscotty, Randal Grichuk and a host of minor leaguers for Yairo Munoz, Dominic Leone and Marcell Ozuna; Signed Miles Mikolas, Bud Norris and Greg Holland
A lot of those moves can be debated on terms of effectiveness – and some clearly cannot – but there’s no doubt that they got done. For all the hand-wringing about the Cardinals not doing anything in any off season, that is decidedly not the case.
The issue is that the front office has shown an aversion to spending lots and lots of money on roster-changing talent. People may point to the “large” contract given to Dexter Fowler, but his per year rate actually lined up reasonably with his career, and would have continued to do so if Fowler had not loudly turned into one of the worst players in baseball in 2018.
John detailed the ways the Cardinal front office could approach this off season on Monday, and I’m going to refer to his five-tiered approach here. I’m more partial to Approach 1 – sign Harper or Machado – but I can also get behind Approach 2 – sign a second-tier position player and a third-tier pitcher. Based on the Cardinals’ offseasons past, Approach 2 is the much more likely of the two to happen, but I’d argue it’s just as likely as an unholy combination of Approaches 3, 4 and 5 – sign a third-tier position player, bolster the bullpen and trade a few depth pieces.
So, in an effort to prepare ourselves for the inevitable (and perhaps disappointing) roster-shuffling, I want to look at a few free agents Cardinal fans may not be thinking of at the moment. Yes, everyone knows about the Harper/Machado/Donaldson of it all. But what other moves could John Mozeliak and Mike Girsch have up their sleeves?
Brantley comes with a few question marks, and no I’m not talking about his injuries. A Brantley signing would only come if Dexter Fowler’s contract were to be unloaded. It would suggest the brass isn’t too high on Tyler O’Neill, which would be unlike them at this point in his development. And Brantley comes with the well-known injury concerns. But health aside, he’s just about as dependable a hitter as you’ll get on the market outside the top tier of players. He’s consistently pretty-good-not-great, with good on-base skills and workable power. And while he’s not an exciting defensive option, Harrison Bader should help make up for some deficiencies. This would be an extremely risky move for the Cardinals to make, and would likely need to come in conjunction with another semi-big move or two.
In the universe where the Cardinals trade Jedd Gyroko, Marwin Gonzalez seems somewhat redundant. However, Gonzalez would be a bench upgrade from Greg Garcia, and has posted solid defensive numbers across his career with flashes of offensive potential. He likely wouldn’t be a long-term answer for any position, and the likelihood the Cardinals would outbid for him isn’t high. But Gonzalez would be far from the worst option to spell Wong and DeJong while getting regular starts at third base. If the Cardinals choose to go big in the outfield, Gonzalez would be a nice supplementary pickup.
This is probably me at my most irrational, but it’d be wonderful to see a Joe Kelly-St. Louis reunion. Kelly, once the will-he-won’t-he fire baller bouncing from the rotation to the bullpen in the early days of Mike Matheny, has established himself as a reliable – while not altogether spectacular – reliever for a Boston franchise that just picked up another World Series title. Kelly was sterling in the playoffs, sporting an 0.79 ERA and 13 strikeouts over 11.1 innings. He would help bolster a bullpen that will likely be filled with young arms, and it wouldn’t break the bank to get him. Kelly has said he wants to stay in Boston, but St. Louis probably wouldn’t be an unwelcome destination either.
Nick Markakis comes with the same prerequisites as Michael Brantley when it comes to Tyler O’Neill and Dexter Fowler. However, Markakis would offer a steady, left-handed lineup presence in right field, and his defense shortcomings would be partially mitigated be Harrison Bader’s brilliance in center. And while Markakis is coming off his best season in a while – suggesting some possible regression – there’s nothing too concerning in his line that suggests he’ll be Dexter Fowler 2.0.
Sanchez was quietly very good in Atlanta last year, posting a FIP, xFIP and SIERA all under four. Much of it comes thanks to his renewed pitching arsenal, which veered sharply away from an ineffective slider and toward a very good cutter and change up. Sanchez would likely be a multi-year commitment, but would solidify the back end of the rotation for the duration. With only two of the five rotation slots locked in for next year (Flaherty, Mikolas) and questions surrounding much of the Cardinals pitching depth – will Carlos Martinez still be here; will Wacha and Reyes be healthy; are Gant and Gomber good enough to stick long term; will Weaver rediscover his non-pumpkin ways? – Sanchez would be another welcome veteran to help raise the floor, one of the most Cardinal things I can think of.