The time will come, likely quite soon, for keeping our expectations in check. It may soon be time for St. Louis Cardinals fans to talk themselves into how Actually If You Think About It Anthony DeSclafani Is A Game-Changer, but for now, let’s fantasize.
It’s probably a bit unfair to the Cardinals to dismiss immediately that the Cardinals would sign a big-time free agent because it is not as though the Cardinals haven’t acquired big names in the past–Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado would be considered major gets as free agents, but they were acquired via trade. The Goldschmidt one, as good as he has been, is still a bit frustrating as a proponent of just signing free agents because then you don’t have to give up Carson Kelly and Luke Weaver in the process. The Arenado one, given the end result, basically turned into a free agent signing in effect–like offering a top free agent third baseman a seven-year, $209 million contract with multiple opt-out clauses and if-he-reaches-them-it’s-worth-it-for-the-team performance bonuses, but where the compensatory picks turned into Austin Gomber and Elehuris Montero. It was treated as a coup as a trade; in free agency, it would be regarded as fairly normal, except that it was for two-and-a-half times the most the Cardinals have ever given to a free agent whom they were plucking from a different team.
I am, so that there is a conversation to be had, going to limit myself to a single name–obviously the Cardinals would be better off signing all of the good free agents, but in the name of some level of realism, I will limit the Cardinals to one big Christmas toy for the season. So let’s browse the toy store.
Shortstop is the strongest position on the market in 2021, and if not for Francisco Lindor inking an extension with the New York Mets right before last season started, it could have been even more loaded. There are five names I would like to at least mention as far as shortstops are concerned–three are true, straight-ahead shortstops, and two are more hybrid-y types of players. I would happily take any of them as a St. Louis Cardinal. But I only get one, and that’s a maximum.
The top two names to consider were the starting shortstops for the two best teams in baseball over the past half-decade, bar none: Carlos Correa of the Houston Astros and Corey Seager of the Los Angeles Dodgers. FanGraphs lists the two as the two best free agents out there this season, and it’s hard to argue against that conclusion. Ben Clemens forecasts Correa to receive a nine-year, $297 million ($33 million average annual value) and for Seager to receive an eight-year, $240 million ($30 million AAV). Both players received the qualifying offer, which means any team which signs either would forfeit draft picks that would surely fall relatively low in their rounds because it’s impossible to image a team that signs Correa or Seager not being viewed as among the World Series favorites.
Carlos Correa is about five months younger than Corey Seager, though since both players will be just 27 on Opening Day 2022 (assuming the whole labor negotiation situation works itself out–Seager is a late April birthday, so I am taking a calculated risk here), it’s not as though either player could reasonably be considered past his prime. Both the Astros and Dodgers are considered in the hunt to retain the services of their star players, though neither is a lock–Correa was reportedly offered a five-year, $160 million contract with the Astros, which is a reasonable contract by annual salary, but it seems very unlikely that Correa would accept a five-year contract unless the team went far over the top AAV-wise. Seager’s road back to the Dodgers is complicated by the fact that he is arguably not even the best shortstop on the Dodgers–2021 trade deadline acquisition Trea Turner, who moved to second base with the Dodgers, was an MVP candidate last season–and the fact that Chris Taylor, a perfectly reasonable second base candidate, was given the qualifying offer (and unlike Seager, may actually take it) and could be considered a sufficient contingency plan in case highly-regarded prospect Gavin Lux never delivers on his prospect promise.
Correa and Seager are certainly in the same company as one another–over their careers, Correa has been the slightly superior power hitter, but Seager been the better contact hitter. Both players have injury concerns, though Correa’s have been an accumulation of small injuries throughout his career, while Seager has had the more dramatic injuries, including playing in just 26 games in 2018 and 95 in 2021. Seager has been the superior fielder throughout their respective careers, but his defensive metrics have fallen on hard times in the last few years; meanwhile, Correa, who was regarded as a potential future third baseman early in his career, has improved, and on Sunday won his first career Gold Glove at shortstop.
FanGraphs’s Steamer projections tab Correa as a 5.1 Wins Above Replacement player next season and Seager as a 4.5 WAR player. I might narrow the gap a little bit between the two, though I do ultimately agree that Carlos Correa is the slightly superior player. After Correa’s down 2020 (which, and I feel this will merit reminding constantly until the current generation of MLB players has retired, was a 60-game season), he rebounded well enough that I am as convinced of his excellence as ever. But usually, to the extent that either is connected to the Cardinals, it is Corey Seager. I’m not entirely sure why that is, though my two best guesses are that the Cardinals want to add a true left-handed bat to their righty and switch-hitting lineup and that they want to avoid a guy named “C. Correa” associated with cheating and the Houston Astros given what happened with Chris Correa in 2015. I think both of these bits of logic are stupid–it’s not as though Correa or Seager would be a platoon hitter, and a few people cracking jokes about e-mail hacking on Twitter for a couple days shouldn’t be a difference-maker when it comes to a nine-figure salary negotiation (not to mention the grossness of “let’s exclude guys with a Spanish surname because It Might Make People Uncomfortable”, even if Carlos Correa hasn’t exactly bathed himself in glory in the wake of the Astros’ sign-stealing scandal). But it’s not like if the Cardinals signed Corey Seager, my first reaction would be anger that they didn’t sign Carlos Correa. It would be “sweet, the Cardinals signed Corey Seager”.
The other true shortstop worth mentioning is Trevor Story. The Colorado Rockies shortstop will likely be quite a bit less expensive than Correa and Seager by virtue of the small detail that he is not even close to as good as they are. Which is not to say that Trevor Story is by any means a bad player, but you know that thing that happened at the heat of Nolan Arenado rumors last off-season where people buried their heads in the sand at the very notion that perhaps Colorado Rockies players, with nearly three decades of evidence to back it up, typically have inflated offensive numbers? Well, it’s back! But while Arenado at least had five seasons with at least as many home runs as Trevor Story’s career-high of 37 and strikeout rates consistently in the mid-teens, Trevor Story has a strikeout rate over three times that of his walk rate over his career and has benefited from high batting averages on balls in play (for as much as Coors Field still has a reputation mostly for its home run totals, arguably its bigger impact on offense is how large the field of play is) far more than Arenado ever did. Story is a good defensive shortstop, but is coming off a league-average season at the plate, his Steamer projection of a 107 wRC+ would put him materially below Juan Yepez, and his 112 career wRC+ is far behind Story’s reputation. Trevor Story is an above-average MLB shortstop; he is not in the same stratosphere as Carlos Correa or Corey Seager.
I’ll get to the other two shortstops I want to cover in a second, but an important thing to reference at some point is that the St. Louis Cardinals currently employ two guys with a recent track record of success playing shortstop for the St. Louis Cardinals. This isn’t the 2013-14 off-season, when the black hole that was Pete Kozma’s bat made the Cardinals’ off-season plan of upgrading at shortstop extraordinarily obvious. The presence of Paul DeJong or Edmundo Sosa reduces the projected value of the other, but combined, per Steamer, the two project for 730 plate appearances and 3.1 WAR–the duo combines to be projected as above-average at shortstop. But let’s set aside Sosa, who played considerable time at second base in 2021 and could easily figure to fill the utility infielder role that was expected for quite a while of Tommy Edman, and convert DeJong’s Steamer projections–397 PA, 1.9 WAR–to a full season. At 655 plate appearances, the total for which Trevor Story is projected, this puts DeJong at 3.13 WAR. Story projects for 3.6 WAR. The projected improvement of Story over DeJong is less than half a win. The upgrades represented by Correa and Seager are higher, and meaningfully so, but they are perhaps not as extreme as those mostly loudly clamoring for them might assume–at Correa’s PA projection, he improves over DeJong by 2.13 WAR; at Seager’s, he improves over DeJong by 1.65 WAR. The reason for this somewhat moderate improvement is that, while he isn’t as good as Carlos Correa or Corey Seager, Paul DeJong is quite good.
There would be a residual effect of one of these signings, which is that Paul DeJong would likely be traded. But for what? After a somewhat down 2021 (though, with 19 home runs in 402 plate appearances, a far-too-low-to-not-be-a-fluke .216 BABIP, and stronger defensive metrics than Edmundo Sosa, who has reputationally been treated as a clear upgrade with the glove, not nearly as down as it has been suggested), his trade value has surely declined. His contract remains favorable, with just $17.3 million in guaranteed money owed to DeJong over the next two years (incorporating potential buy-outs to team option years in 2024 and 2025), but the reason behind rumors of the Cardinals trying to upgrade at shortstop–a loaded free agent class–also applies to the teams that would be potentially interested in Paul DeJong. Why would, say, the New York Yankees give up anything more than a token prospect or two for Paul DeJong when they could swing in and sign a top free agent shortstop?
Before I move on, I should note the two other shortstops I promised–Marcus Semien and Javier Báez. Both of these players offer something unique to the Correa/Seager/Story class–they have played a whole bunch of both second base and shortstop. Semien just picked up a Gold Glove at second base following six full-time seasons as a shortstop and is an intriguing pickup because of his versatility, but with Tommy Edman, the other Gold Glover at second base, it’s not as though the Cardinals are really looking for somebody to take considerable reps at the position. As a shortstop, Semien is not dissimilar in recent production to Carlos Correa and Corey Seager, but he is four years older and, aside from 2019 and 2021, he has been far closer to Fine territory than superstar level. As for Javier Báez, the long-time Chicago Cub is now three years removed from his MVP-candidate season and was a good-not-great 3.6 fWAR player in 2021. Steamer is very down on Báez–at 2.0 WAR, they actually have him as a straight downgrade versus the Cardinals’ incumbents. I am not that low, but unless his market collapses, I can’t imagine the Cardinals making a sincere run at him.
The pure talents
There are two free agents too notable to not mention but who makes absolutely no sense for the Cardinals. I’ll go ahead and cover them–Freddie Freeman and Kris Bryant.
The odds-on favorite to sign Freddie Freeman is the team that has employed him throughout his entire professional baseball career–the Atlanta Braves. That a franchise icon like Freeman, one of the ten greatest players in the history of the Atlanta era of the team, remains unsigned remains perplexing, particularly as the whole point of locking down the likes of Ozzie Albies and Ronald Acuña Jr. to extremely team-friendly contracts was so that they could afford to keep the likes of Freeman in town (note: let this be a warning to players to always get as much money as you can, because teams are going to lie to you). Freddie Freeman has spent the entirety of the last eleven seasons in Atlanta, going from strong Braves team to rebuild to another strong Braves team in the process, and by FanGraphs WAR has been one of the ten best position players in the sport during that time. He remains a star–since his breakout 2013, his worst offensive season saw him with a wRC+ of 132, and in 2021, he registered a 135 wRC+ and was a Gold Glove finalist. Freddie Freeman is a highly desirable free agent and would make a ton of sense for many teams, but the Cardinals aren’t really one of them. Steamer projects Freeman to be a 4.4 WAR player and the third best first baseman in the sport, but the Cardinals already employ 3.7 WAR-projected Paul Goldschmidt. Sure, Freeman could play at designated hitter and be quite good at it, but a guy with $27 million in projected salary for the next half-decade not even being able to contribute in the field? I mean, not my money, I’d take it as a fan, but there are more robust ways upon which to improve the Cardinals. Might as well just get Nick Castellanos, a player whom, as a man of faith, I pride myself, etc.
Then there is Kris Bryant, a player who would make a ton of sense for a ton of teams and who would be, given his association with the Cubs, a hilarious troll move, but who has less value for the Cardinals than just about any other team on the field. Bryant is primarily a third baseman, a position already staffed by Nolan Arenado. He played considerable time at both corner outfield positions, one filled by a borderline MVP candidate in Tyler O’Neill and one filled by the team’s most vaunted young player in Dylan Carlson. He can play center field, though not well defensively, and while Bryant would be an incredible Chris Taylor-esque utility player, this is an extreme luxury good–a team that was relegated to the second Wild Card needs to shoot for something more impactful.
Max Dang Scherzer
There are a number of solid pitchers available in free agency this year, and each comes with their own set of concerns. Robbie Ray is coming off the best season of his career, but it is unlikely that it is replicable and he is more likely to hit the mid-high 3s projections for his ERA and FIP than his Cy Young-caliber numbers from 2021. Marcus Stroman is likely the safer bet but, despite his reputation dating back several years as a future ace, figures more as a solid #2 or strong #3 pitcher–think pre-ineffectiveness Carlos Martínez, but even smaller and more irritable on social media. Kevin Gausman pitched like a superstar in San Francisco but as merely passable in Baltimore. We’ve seen Noah Syndergaard, Justin Verlander, and Clayton Kershaw be great, but we also, given their season-ending injuries this season, declare they will definitely be great.
But Max Scherzer is somebody we know, and somebody who has been consistently great for nearly a decade. In the eight full seasons since 2013, when Scherzer won his first Cy Young Award, you could argue (and fWAR would) that 2021 was his worst season–he had a 2.46 ERA, 2.97 FIP, pitched 179 1/3 innings, struck out nearly 12 batters per nine innings and walked fewer than 2 per nine, managed a 2.16 ERA and 3.05 FIP in the postseason, and would, if I had such a ballot, crack my NL Cy Young ballot for 2021, in what, and I cannot stress this enough, is the worst full season Max Scherzer has had since before Chris Carpenter retired.
The downside to the extent there is one with Max Scherzer is that he is 37 years old, though it is not as though Scherzer, who already had a nice payday when he signed with the Washington Nationals before the 2015 season, is demanding a seven or eight year contract. He will probably notch a higher AAV than any other free agent this off-season–Ben Clemens projects $35 million for each of the next two seasons–but he is also the safest free agent out there. Even if the seemingly timeless Scherzer starts to look old, there is minimal long-term downside to any two year contract, particularly one for the most consistently performing pitcher in the sport.
But more than the greatness of Max Scherzer is where he would fit in, in particular, with the St. Louis Cardinals in 2022. That the Cardinals concluded 2021 with an awful offensive performance in the National League Wild Card Game (which, can’t stress this enough–it was against Max Scherzer and a loaded Los Angeles Dodgers bullpen) left fans with a bad taste in their mouths, but this was a Cardinals team whose wRC+ was just one point behind an Atlanta Braves team that just won the World Series. Could the offense improve? Sure, but the only two projected starting position players for the team who are projected by Steamer to be below-average at the plate are Tommy Edman, who is projected at 99 and just won the Gold Glove, and Yadier Molina, who will have to be dragged kicking and screaming off the field this season. Teams should always seek to improve in all areas, but the far more pressing area of need is the starting rotation. Jon Lester, J.A. Happ, Kwang-hyun Kim, and Carlos Martínez are all gone from the starting rotation mix, which leaves their present depth chart at a 40 year-old Adam Wainwright, a young potential superstar in Jack Flaherty who has nevertheless combined for just 118 2/3 innings over the last two seasons, a veteran in Miles Mikolas who was sub-Replacement Level in nine starts last season, a guy in Dakota Hudson who pitched 8 2/3 innings last season, and Jake Woodford, a decent player to keep, even bad whiskey puns aside, in reserve as a seventh or eighth starter, not as the guy penciled in to pitch every five days.
The Cardinals have a deeply incomplete rotation for 2022. The upgrade Max Scherzer provides dwarfs what upgrading a pretty good shortstop with a great shortstop would do. And in a bad-case scenario for Scherzer, where he is merely an okay starting pitcher and not a Cy Young candidate, he would still be certainly good enough to pitch in the Cardinals’ rotation–a 3 WAR Carlos Correa or Corey Seager, in a vacuum, wouldn’t be a horrible outcome for a free agent signing, but when the Cardinals already have 3 WAR-ish shortstops, it doesn’t mark a clear upgrade. And the odds that Carlos Correa or Corey Seager, who can’t exactly shift over to third base any time soon for the Cardinals if their defense starts to fade, start to play like Paul DeJong or Edmundo Sosa are quite a bit higher than Max Scherzer suddenly not being able to out-pitch Jake Woodford.