Even for the highest spending teams in baseball, contributions from players making the league minimum salary are inevitably vital for a World Series championship–this should very much remain the case through the minimum salary bump that has come with the new collective bargaining agreement. The likes of Mookie Betts or Clayton Kershaw were obviously indispensible to the 2020 Los Angeles Dodgers, but without the likes of Tony Gonsolin or Will Smith, the stars wouldn’t have been enough.
Saying this isn’t even an act of the kind of financial austerity that some fans like to project on their favorite teams–younger players tend to be really good at baseball and some of the best recent seasons in baseball have come from guys who made the league minimum before eventually making real money in salary arbitration. When the St. Louis Cardinals won their most recent World Series in 2011, they received significant contributions from league minimum players such as Allen Craig, Jon Jay, Fernando Salas, and most famously, David Freese.
With the unsurprising news that the National League will implement the designated hitter in 2022, there is suddenly a vacancy in the Cardinals’ everyday lineup, when previously, the team was bringing back the lineup that, depending on your perspective, led the team to a .500ish record for most of the 2021 season, went on the franchise’s greatest winning streak ever, or was good enough to be the fifth best team in the National League and nothing more. But the Cardinals have not signed a designated hitter, nor any other position players, in the off-season, pre-or-post-lockout.
To some this may seem like a dereliction of duty, but the Cardinals do have a new addition on the offensive side of the game–Juan Yepez. Yepez, who spent the 2021 season primarily with the AAA Memphis Redbirds, was acquired in 2017 as the return for Matt Adams (in the meantime, the Cardinals re-acquired Adams and Adams has played for three additional franchises), and was placed on the team’s 40-man roster prior to the team’s Wild Card Game against the Los Angeles Dodgers (he was active for the game but did not play). The addition was inevitable–he was required to be placed on the 40-man roster or risk being exposed to the Rule 5 Draft, and Yepez was one of the organization’s best hitters in 2021.
Juan Yepez gets lost in the shuffle of Cardinals prospect-watching. Yepez ranks 26th in the Cardinals’ organization per MLB.com, and while I think this is quite a bit lower than it should be, I do understand more generally why Yepez is not as highly regarded as the upper echelon–unlike most of the big names, Yepez does not project, despite having played several different positions in the minors, as anything more than a first baseman in the Majors. Being a first baseman limits one’s potential value ceiling–while Nolan Gorman, for instance, projects as capable of handling second or third base, two reasonably valuable defensive spots, Yepez projects at a position mostly known as a holding spot for offensive value.
But for practical purposes, Juan Yepez’s 2022 niche would not be at first base, which defensive Gold Glove winner/noted masher Paul Goldschmidt has locked down, but at designated hitter. On one hand, the barrier for entry is even higher for a DH, but the position inherently limits any player’s upside. Is, say, catching prospect Ivan Herrera a better prospect than Juan Yepez? Maybe on the whole he is, but that’s because of Herrera’s defensive potential–Juan Yepez is a better prospect than Ivan Herrera for 2022 as a designated hitter. And as we all know Ivan Herrera isn’t getting anywhere near catcher during the Yadier Molina retirement tour.
How good of a hitter does Juan Yepez project to be? It can be a bit tricky, as he has never taken a Major League at-bat, and the error bars on projections are notably wider, but the 24 year-old projects to be one of the best hitters on the Cardinals. By ZiPS wOBA, an offense-only stat which does not adjust for playing time, Yepez ranks fifth, trailing only Tyler O’Neill, Paul Goldschmidt, Dylan Carlson, and Nolan Arenado. Steamer projections are even more optimistic, placing Yepez behind only Goldschmidt. Because he’s inexperienced, he is perhaps not that safe of an option, but by this same logic, he perhaps has quite a bit more upside.
There are several designated hitter options available on the free agent market–Nelson Cruz and Kyle Schwarber are notable among them–but the upgrade would be quite a bit more if the Cardinals did not already have a suitable option internally at a league minimum salary. And not having a major financial obligation devoted to a DH means a more flexible situation and the ability to use the position as proto-off-days for the spot. All in all, sticking with Juan Yepez as designated hitter, in a vacuum, makes a ton of sense.
Rather than investing in a designated hitter, the Cardinals’ transactions so far post-lockout have been of a famous variety–relief pitchers. The Cardinals signed former Detroit Tiger/most recently Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighter Drew VerHagen on Friday, with team president John Mozeliak claiming that he would compete for a spot in the starting rotation but with his MLB experience being in the bullpen, and on Sunday, the Cardinals signed former Miami Marlin/Cleveland Indian (doubly a former Indian since the franchise now known as the Guardians are also formerly the Indians) Nick Wittgren. Neither VerHagen nor Wittgren have been superstars–VerHagen finished his final MLB season of 2019 with a 5.90 ERA and 4.87 FIP, while Wittgren finished last season with a 5.05 ERA and 4.84 FIP. But while neither of these signings exactly inspire glowing confidence, such low-risk signings are the kinds of moves for which fans critical of the front office have been clamoring for years. This is not Andrew Miller nor Brett Cecil, pitchers for whom the Cardinals were required to devote ample dollars and term–these are guys whose salaries constitute a rounding error. Often, these veterans flame out, but sometimes, as the Cardinals saw with T.J. McFarland and Luís Garcia last season, they flourish.
By themselves, these are the smart moves–don’t invest in a committed DH unless you have a complete dearth of bats, and don’t invest major years or dollars in non-elite relievers. The problem for the Cardinals is that the purpose these bargain signings and internal options ought not be to save money for the sake of doing so–given the tone of the lockout, you probably won’t have to be convinced too aggressively to not care about if Bill DeWitt Jr. makes a profit.
The problem is that the Cardinals do still have a clear problem–the Cardinals are counting on Jack Flaherty to resume a level of dominance that he achieved for a few months in 2019 but really hasn’t replicated since, on Adam Wainwright to not pitch like he’s in his 40s, on Steven Matz to maintain his strong 2021 and not pitch to his relatively mediocre career norms, and on Miles Mikolas and Dakota Hudson, who have pitched well but have been ravaged by injuries, to have productive and healthy twenty-twenty-twos. The backup option for the Cardinals seems to be Drew VerHagen, which is superior than the situation the Cardinals had before Friday, but is still not nearly enough to make the team favorites in the National League Central.
The Cardinals have a consistent lineup and they have a competent bullpen, which is a start. But they are leaving opportunities on the table. Carlos Rodón came and went from the free agency lists. Zack Greinke and Collin McHugh are steps down, but they would also solidify the starting rotation and, although they are lesser players in a vacuum to Kyle Schwarber, they may represent more useful players for the St. Louis Cardinals in 2022.