A widely-stated, probably not entirely true but spiritually mostly valid tagline for the mostly dormant 2018-19 offseason is something along the lines of “Every team could sign Bryce Harper or Manny Machado if they wanted.” Baseball teams, after all, are extremely lucrative businesses, and while team owners have been more than willing to publicize the salaries of players so that fans will perceive players as upper-crust elites, the players are the relative working class compared to the multi-billionaires signing the paychecks.
Mercifully, public sentiment has come a long way since, say, the 1994 strike, in which fans overwhelmingly chastised players as greedy, but much of the discourse a quarter-century later is less about “players should be paid more” (strongly agreed, even if I’m less concerned about how much the richest guys in the sport make than that minor leaguers start making a living wage, or even just minimum wage) and more about “I want my team to spend more money so that my favorite team can win more baseball games” (agreed, though my motives on this end are entirely selfish and don’t actually improve the world). This is a post about the latter.
Let’s say St. Louis Cardinals ownership woke up today and decided, “You know what? Let’s sign all of the remaining free agents. Any player who is good enough to make the Cardinals’ 25-man roster belongs on this team.” I’m not actually sure that the Cardinals could make all of these transactions–certainly, they have the financial capacity to make any one or two of them, but this is a very costly endeavor. But let’s just live in a fantasy world.
Since this is all a fantasy, I’m not going to bother looking at the prospective contracts of these players. I’m also not going to bother looking at contract length–it is simply to see how much of an upgrade each player represents over the current Cardinals incumbent in 2019. Displaced Cardinals incumbents are not necessarily removed from the team, but in some cases, they are given a diminished role. All in all, with this, the Cardinals add eight players to their 2019 roster. Here is the 25-man roster under this absurd hypothetical, with new additions italicized.
Catchers: Yadier Molina, Martin Maldonado
Infielders: Paul Goldschmidt, Kolten Wong, Manny Machado, Matt Carpenter, Asdrubal Cabrera, Paul DeJong
Outfielders: Marcell Ozuna, A.J. Pollock, Bryce Harper, Harrison Bader, Jose Martinez
Starting Pitchers: Dallas Keuchel, Jack Flaherty, Miles Mikolas, Carlos Martinez, Michael Wacha
Relief Pitchers: Craig Kimbrel, Adam Wainwright, Andrew Miller, Cody Allen, John Brebbia, Jordan Hicks, Chasen Shreve
While Martin Maldonado is probably the least exciting of the new additions, he also represents what is the most obvious spot on the entire roster to be upgraded–backup catcher. The current backup catcher, Francisco Pena, would be a catastrophe if he received more than “Yadier Molina’s backup” levels of playing time. Presumptive AAA starter Andrew Knizner is almost certainly better than Pena, but the primary focus of the organization with regard to him is development.
I’ve long been skeptical of the notion that the presence of Yadier Molina is a significant problem when it comes to signing up backup catchers–this may be the case for a young catcher hoping to sign a short contract in order to impress potential long-term suitors, but a veteran who has resigned himself to a backup role is generally just going to find the most lucrative contract. In the case of Maldonado, he’s a defense-first catcher whose projected 75 wRC+ doesn’t sound great, unless it is being compared to Pena’s projected 69 wRC+. Plus, the whole defense thing.
Let’s assume Francisco Pena’s true talent is replacement level–I think this is generous, but he was above this prior to last season (which, granted, saw his career MLB plate appearances more than triple). And let’s say the backup catcher will play as much in 2019 as in 2018. This gives Martin Maldonado 142 plate appearances and, if we are to prorate his projected Wins Above Replacement by Steamer, 0.4 WAR.
Manny Machado, a much more exciting potential acquisition, would be most valuable to the 2019 Cardinals as a shortstop. Machado has indicated he wants to play shortstop, and while I think for the right price he could probably be convinced to move back to third base, where he was a Gold Glover for the Baltimore Orioles, the Cardinals already have one of the best duos in the sport at the corner infield spots in Paul Goldschmidt and Matt Carpenter. Steamer likes Paul DeJong quite a bit, considering his lackluster prospect pedigree, but it likes Machado materially more, because we aren’t talking about a merely good player–we’re talking about a special, generational one. As a binary choice, Machado gives the Cardinals an additional 1.8 WAR. More on the (positive) ripple effect later. And by later, I mean the next paragraph. This is technically later.
Asdrubal Cabrera wouldn’t be good enough to start for the 2019 Cardinals, much less for the 2019 Cardinals+Machado, but he would be a valuable bench player. He plays all three of the non-first base infield positions, which on a stacked team could make him a rich man’s Yairo Munoz. With Cabrera present, and Paul DeJong still available as a bench player, there wouldn’t be much room for Jedd Gyorko anyway–the de facto backup third baseman to Matt Carpenter would be Manny Machado or Paul DeJong. The current infield bench of Gyorko and Munoz are projected for a combined 477 plate appearances and 0.9 WAR. Adding the projected WAR of DeJong and Cabrera wouldn’t be fair–both are projected to start, but given Gyorko/Munoz plate appearances, they improve the team by 0.9 WAR.
The outfield is somewhat volatile for the Cardinals–the current starting center fielder, Harrison Bader, has shown flashes of brilliance, but he also came out of nowhere last season and may be a candidate to regress to merely adequate MLB player. Adding A.J. Pollock, a terrific player when healthy, adds quite a bit of insurance, and would allow the defensive specialist Bader to come off the bench as a defensive replacement. Oh, and Bryce Harper? Really good player! Could probably be an improvement to a team with zero outfielders among the twenty-six listed right fielders by MLB Network as candidates for their top ten list.
It’s a little trickier to adjust for playing time with outfielders, particularly because right field is the murkiest spot on the team in terms of starting position player. It’s fair to assume Bryce Harper will get every bit of his projected 630 plate appearances if signed, which means a 4.9 WAR projection. A.J. Pollock would likely play a bit less because the team would have a considerably above-average backup center fielder in Bader, so let’s say he gets 500 PA. This puts Pollock at 2.5 WAR.
While Jose Martinez would almost certainly be gone in the event of signing Harper or Pollock, much less both, the Cardinals could keep him, which is all that matters in this hypothetical. This would get him about 175 plate appearances as a primary backup at first base and both corner outfield spots, as well as a pinch-hitter, and this gets him to around 0.6 WAR. Harrison Bader stands to get around 200 plate appearances–he would start more in center field than Martinez would in any of his spots, and he would enter games as a defensive substitute (Bader would probably actually get less than 200 PA, but this is a way of approximating his additional defensive value). So I’ll estimate his WAR at 0.8 WAR. So that’s 8.8 WAR among these four players, while the current non-Marcell Ozuna outfielders are at 4.5 WAR. So, a 4.3 WAR bump.
For pitcher projections, I’m going to use FanGraphs WAR (as determined by Steamer) rather than RA9-WAR (in layman’s terms, Baseball Reference’s model) not because I think the former is infinitely more useful than the latter, but because defense so dramatically impacts the latter, and in the case of any new player, we are talking about players whose track records came with other defenses and ballparks behind them.
The starting rotation, while full of questions, could only really be improved by one current free agent, by Steamer projections–Dallas Keuchel. He projects to be the Cardinals’ top starting pitcher, but how much better he is than Jack Flaherty isn’t especially relevant–what matters is how much better he is than Adam Wainwright. The Wainwright projection is a bit screwy, as it already considers the potential of him pitching out of the bullpen, but some mix of Wainwright and Alex Reyes projects, in 30ish starts, for about 2 WAR. Which gives Keuchel a 1.2 WAR improvement.
Given how maligned the bullpen has been, it may be surprising that only two relievers register as upgrades over the current group, but most of the market’s top relievers have signed (including one, Andrew Miller, by the Cardinals). Craig Kimbrel is an obvious one, postseason struggles aside, and Andrew Miller’s old Cleveland Indians teammate Cody Allen, while not projected to be a great member of the bullpen, would be an improvement over Dakota Hudson or Luke Gregerson. These two pitchers are worth about 0.5 WAR, and while the presence of Kimbrel and Allen would cut into the innings of the incumbent bullpen, this isn’t nearly as dramatic of a drop-off as a starting position player becoming a backup. There’s 1.2 WAR to be added here.
So in the end, the Cardinals have, by spending record money, improved their outlook by a total of 9.8 WAR. And I’m not really sure what to make of that. It would make the Cardinals pretty easily NL Central favorites, but they wouldn’t even be projected for 100 wins. It’s possible I miscalculated some things (I probably did), but I don’t think “this team still probably wouldn’t win 100 games” is incorrect. It speaks to the depth the Cardinals currently have, and it speaks to how, aside from Machado and Harper, the free agent class is full of good players but not franchise-changers. It doesn’t mean the Cardinals shouldn’t spend a handsome sum of money, but it does mean that doing so isn’t necessarily going to be as franchise-altering as it seems.