In sharp contrast to the last few off-seasons, Major League Baseball free agency largely resolved itself rather quickly during the 2019-20 iteration. Gerrit Cole, Stephen Strasburg, and Anthony Rendon were off the market by early December, and each had a pretty penny to show for it. For the health of baseball, particularly for those of us who tend to take a pro-player stance, this is a good thing. For the sake of blind roster speculation through the most brutally cold months of the year, it is far less good.
Generally speaking, hypothetically signing free agents, as a fan, to the St. Louis Cardinals has been pretty dull lately, mostly because the team has a fairly high floor at most positions. There are no Pete Kozma-esque holes to fill with obvious solutions like Jhonny Peralta: there are instead a bunch of average-ish players who can be improved upon, but for whom the improvements are less dramatic. Cole and Strasburg would have been great, but even with recent health concerns about Miles Mikolas, the Cardinals bring back most of a rotation that was above-average in 2019; a top free agent would solidify the group, but a new addition in Kwang-Hyun Kim, as well as potential rotation returns in Carlos Martinez and Alex Reyes, assures the position isn’t a complete disaster. An Anthony Rendon (or a Nolan Arenado, in order to get the reference to the Colorado Rockies third baseman that is required by law in every off-season Cardinals blog post) would improve the offense, but incumbent third baseman Matt Carpenter was an MVP candidate just two seasons ago, and he projects to be above-average in 2020.
Unfortunately, the position at which the Cardinals entered the off-season with the most pressing need is the position at which the fewest strong free agent options existed—the outfield. The Cardinals’ outfield depth was thin enough last year that Tommy Edman, a utility infielder in the minors, was receiving ample playing time during the postseason in right field, and the depth has only become thinner since—Marcell Ozuna departed via free agency to the Atlanta Braves. The Cardinals do have high-ceiling outfielders—Harrison Bader is a defensive stalwart who could be an All-Star-caliber player with merely average offensive production, Tyler O’Neill has displayed 30+ home run potential along with ample speed in the field, and minor league outfielder Dylan Carlson is a much-heralded prospect who could factor into the Major League lineup as soon as this season. But there is also a fair amount of uncertainty here. If you told me that these three guys would combine for 12 Wins Above Replacement in 2020, I wouldn’t be completely shocked. But I also wouldn’t be completely shocked if you told me they combined for zero. There is a ton of volatility here.
Aside from trading for Mookie Betts, a thing the Cardinals didn’t do, there wasn’t an option readily available in the outfield this off-season who would significantly raise the outfield’s floor. Re-signing Ozuna would have been an option, but his offense was never quite what the team expected when they acquired him from the Miami Marlins, and his defense has declined rapidly. Now-Cincinnati Reds outfielder Nick Castellanos has a similar story, and would have required an eight-figure salary for several seasons. Unfortunately, those options are now off-the-market. I have been informed that free agent outfielders no longer exist. So the following is an assessment of a purely hypothetical player. Bear with me.
Just imagine if the Cardinals could acquire an outfielder—a veteran, but not somebody who is demonstrably over-the-hill (say, a 29-year-old), with consistently solid offense. Picture a player who has decent power—a guy who has cleared twenty home runs for the last three seasons and projects to clear twenty home runs again in 2020—and solid speed (let’s set a stolen bases base line at 15+ bags swiped) and plate discipline (he doesn’t have to be Matt Carpenter-level disciplined, but typically within a percent or two of a double-digit rate). Imagine that the totality of his offensive production makes him a consistently above-average hitter—like, a 100+ wRC+ nearly every season of his career. I’d say “let’s imagine he’s been above 100 every season of his career”, but that seems far-fetched even for a hypothetical.
Imagine a player who is additionally a plus defensive player for his career who provides even more excitement that his decent metrics would suggest thanks to a rocket arm. Imagine that said player could lay some claim to postseason clutchness—I’m not a strong believer that such a thing can be proven in such small samples, but seeing that a guy, say, cleared 130 wRC+ on multiple postseason runs is hardly a negative thing. Imagine said player is not only available in late February, but is the sort of player that MLB Trade Rumors believes could be acquired on a one-year deal in the seven-figure range. Said player wouldn’t likely be a superstar, but given his aforementioned consistency, he could significantly improve the floor of a team like the Cardinals.
Character concerns are particularly relevant with regard to semi-marginal players such as the hypothetical one I am describing—I understand why teams would be more willing to look the other way on a superstar. You wouldn’t want a guy with a long arrest record—a guy who has some speeding tickets but no other criminal history is perfectly fine, and is indeed less of a demonstrable problem than Mike Leake’s rap sheet when the Cardinals signed the pitcher four years ago. And ideally you’d want a player who is beloved by teammates and has been beloved by his hometown fans. Perhaps he tends to get under the skin of opponents and opposing fans, but Cardinals fans have tended to embrace the likes of Chris Carpenter and Yadier Molina, who also fit this bill, in the past and present. It’s fair to expect they would in the future.
But this is all hypothetical.