One of my favorite and least favorite pastimes of the free agent hot stove season is yelling about how to spend somebody else’s money. On one hand, it is fun to dream of what new players the St. Louis Cardinals could sign, and I prefer being able to preserve these fantasies to, say, the artificially low, borderline immoral salary cap of the National Football League (the NHL also has a salary cap, but they also don’t print money to nearly the extent of the NFL). On the other hand, there is no limit to our expectations. If we demand a middle of the order hitter, the Cardinals will acquire a guy who just hit 37 home runs and had a wRC+ which matched the career mark of Eddie Mathews, and then demand another franchise player, get a guy whose wRC+ matched the career mark of Miguel Cabrera, and then demand another one the next offseason. With a salary cap, the benefit to fans is that our fantasies are given some sense of limit. But this is also the problem.
But if I’m going to go a route in analyzing what players the Cardinals should pursue this off-season, I have two choices: argue that the Cardinals should sign precisely one #4 starter and call 911, or that the Cardinals should sign all of the players. The former is more realistic and might be what I advocate a few months down the road. The latter is what I’m advocating while I still can.
Here is a look at the top free agents on the market. I will go in order from the top of the list supplied by FanGraphs and categorize players by OPEN DEWALLET or if signing him would be a COWARD SIGNING. Side note: I am not looking at potential trades for Mookie Betts, Kris Bryant, and/or Francisco Lindor, though the Cardinals should obviously give up their 11th ranked prospect for them. But in free agency, nothing of value is being surrendered aside from compensation picks that have diminishing returns once you sign a bunch of them. And every action must include an equal and opposite reaction so the current roster will be considered.
- Gerrit Cole: The narrow runner-up to Houston Astros teammate Justin Verlander for the American League Cy Young Award, Cole was arguably the 2019 postseason’s finest pitcher and is the top free agent in this year’s class. The only pitcher in the same stratosphere as Cole on the Cardinals is Jack Flaherty, and why have one awesome starter when you can have two awesome starters? OPEN DEWALLET
- Anthony Rendon: Prior to 2019, Rendon was the superior third baseman to Matt Carpenter but it was at least a fair fight. But Rendon’s MVP-caliber 2019 combined with Carpenter’s lackluster one (and aging) makes this now a very easy call. Carpenter might (probably will) rebound from his 2019 struggles but 1. He probably still won’t be as good as Rendon, who has always been a vastly superior fielder beyond his immense offensive prowess; 2. This just means he can be an awesome bench bat. And if Carp complains too much (I doubt it but it’s possible), give him away for whatever you can get or cut him loose. OPEN DEWALLET
- Stephen Strasburg: Only a minor step down from Cole among the best pitchers in the free agent class, adding Strasburg would give the Cardinals the sport’s best top three in the rotation in Cole, Flaherty, and Strasburg (ranked in order of respective Cy Young finish). Mikolas becomes the #4 starter (and a very good one), Wainwright probably is the #5 (Dakota Hudson still has plentiful minor league options and despite some late struggles, Carlos Martinez was a very good reliever most of last season), and this rotation looks solid. OPEN DEWALLET
- Josh Donaldson: Perpetually underrated, Donaldson probably isn’t that far below Rendon in terms of how much I’d want him for 2020, though his age makes his long-term prospects much less bright. While the presence of Rendon makes the recent Atlanta Brave less valuable, he is a better hitting option than now-best bench bat Matt Carpenter. OPEN DEWALLET
- Yasmani Grandal: Bumped up one spot in the rankings thanks to Red Sox DH J.D. Martinez not opting out of his contract, the Brewers catcher would represent a massive upgrade over Yadier Molina by the numbers. Maybe you think the numbers lie, but I have no need to prove Grandal is better than Molina—I need to prove he’s better than Andrew Knizner. He easily is. OPEN DEWALLET
- Marcell Ozuna: Outfield depth for the Cardinals is, if not a weakness, at least a question mark. And in Marcell Ozuna, the Cardinals can retain the services of a player who is not only the best outfielder on the market but is an established Good Cardinals Locker Room Guy. OPEN DEWALLET
- Madison Bumgarner: Famous for his 2014 postseason heroics and once (allegedly) dating a girl named Madison Bumgarner while in high school, Bumgarner had a down 2019 and, now 30, may have lost a step from his peak. But he is probably better than Adam Wainwright, who (for now—I promise I’ll show the updated roster at the end) I can slot in the bullpen. OPEN DEWALLET
- Zack Wheeler: Point blank: Do I think Wheeler is better than Miles Mikolas? It’s closer than fans demanding the Cardinals trade for him last July might suggest, but yes, he probably is. OPEN DEWALLET
- Didi Gregorius: At this point, my shortstop depth is Tommy Edman, a guy I’m not convinced won’t turn back into a pumpkin. I’m not saying he will, but I’m reasonably confident that Gregorius will not. And here’s where controversy kicks in: for the time being, I am going to use my roster flexibility to stick Paul DeJong, who struggled mightily late last season, in Memphis, and because I can’t do the same for Matt Carpenter, I’m going to have to give him away for a non-prospect while paying off his salary. OPEN DEWALLET
- Nick Castellanos: His defensive shortcomings are worrisome, but he would certainly be a stronger offense-only corner outfielder than Jose Martinez. OPEN DEWALLET
- Dallas Keuchel: We are starting to run out of room for starting pitchers here. At this point, I have four new starters plus Flaherty. And I think I’d rather have Miles Mikolas in the rotation in a pinch. And the soft-ish tossing Keuchel doesn’t strike me as a particular appetizing bullpen option. COWARD SIGNING
- Hyun-Jin Ryu: Ryu’s problem isn’t ineffectiveness: he’s probably the third best pitcher on the market by pure talent. But Ryu gets hurt a lot. But we can worry about that later. I say sign him, throw Zack Wheeler or Madison Bumgarner in the bullpen, and throw Ryu until his arm falls off. OPEN DEWALLET
- Mike Moustakas: With Rendon and Donaldson now in the fold, Moustakas doesn’t do much for me. I think I’d still rather have Matt Carpenter, a player I may not have room for anyway. COWARD SIGNING
- Will Smith: I am now bouncing around to less redundant candidates. I know that after Brett Cecil and Andrew Miller, some fans will be weary of any left-handed reliever, but this is a really good one. You can cut Cecil (or Tyler Webb) loose and put a relief superstar in the bullpen.
OPEN DEWALLETWait, the Braves signed him? And are going to give up a draft pick to use him as the setup guy? That’s weird. Anyway, I guess Andrew Miller is going to survive with his predominant veteran lefty reliever role intact.
- Dellin Betances: The Yankees reliever has had health issues lately but he is absolutely dynamite when he takes the field. A very obvious fit in any bullpen. OPEN DEWALLET
- Will Harris: While the Astros reliever gave up a huge Howie Kendrick home run the last time we saw him and his velocity looked down later in the playoffs, he has been a consistently potent reliever who would serve the Cardinals very well in a middle relief capacity. Adding him (and others) means exposing a lot of promising pitchers to waivers but this is sometimes what you have to do. OPEN DEWALLET
THE NEW 40 MAN ROSTER (currently at 38)
Catchers: Yasmani Grandal (new), Andrew Knizner (AAA), Yadier Molina
Infielders: Paul DeJong (AAA), Josh Donaldson, Tommy Edman, Paul Goldschmidt, Didi Gregorius, Yairo Muñoz (AAA), Anthony Rendon, Kolten Wong (cuts: Matt Carpenter, Rangel Ravelo, Edmundo Sosa, Ramon Urias)
Outfielders: Randy Arozarena (AAA), Harrison Bader, Nick Castellanos, Dexter Fowler, Adolis Garcia (AAA), Jose Martinez, Tyler O’Neill (AAA), Marcell Ozuna, Lane Thomas (AAA) (cuts: Jose Martinez, Justin Williams)
Pitchers: Dellin Betances, John Brebbia (AAA), Madison Bumgarner, Genesis Cabrera (AAA), Gerrit Cole, Junior Fernandez (AAA), Jack Flaherty, Giovanny Gallegos, Will Harris, Ryan Helsley (AAA), Jordan Hicks (60 day IL), Dakota Hudson (AAA), Carlos Martinez, Miles Mikolas, Andrew Miller, Alex Reyes (AAA), Hyun-Jin Ryu, Stephen Strasburg, Adam Wainwright, Tyler Webb (AAA), Zack Wheeler (cuts: Brett Cecil, John Gant, Austin Gomber, Dominic Leone, Daniel Ponce de Leon)
Or, if you’d prefer a more nuanced look at the new 25-man roster.
- C—Yasmani Grandal
- 3B—Anthony Rendon
- 1B—Paul Goldschmidt
- LF—Marcell Ozuna
- RF—Nick Castellanos
- SS—Didi Gregorius
- 2B—Kolten Wong
- CF—Harrison Bader
OF—Dexter Fowler (he may be usurped by Dylan Carlson eventually, but for now, I’m going to give him a shot)
- Gerrit Cole
- Jack Flaherty
- Stephen Strasburg
- Hyun-Jin Ryu
- Zack Wheeler
Experienced righty relievers—Dellin Betances, Giovanny Gallegos, Will Harris, Carlos Martinez
Experienced lefty reliever—Will Smith
Starters turned righty relievers—Miles Mikolas, Adam Wainwright
Starter turned lefty reliever—Madison Bumgarner
There is what the Cardinals roster should be next year and if you disagree it’s because you’re an apologist for ownership. Also, this roster sets up perfectly for trading for Mookie Betts. That would make the outfield look real nice.