The Brewers took a big step in contending for a title while the Cubs continue to pursue Yu Darvish. How will the Cardinals respond?
Depending on the current state of your baseball team, the following question may be difficult to answer: would you rather know what you’re getting out of your players, or would you trade a lower floor for a higher ceiling? In some cases, this is easy: if you have Mike Trout, you probably don’t want to leave anything up to a crystal ball. But if you’re a fringe playoff team, are you willing to risk missing the playoffs to get a shot at the title?
After the Brewers remade their outfield in a span of about an hour on Thursday, the Cardinals found themselves asking that last question. The Brewers already answered with a resounding “yes.”
Check out Lorenzo Cain’s last three years and you will see the boom or bust potential. Yelich is a different story, but you can see similar thinking. Brinson was expected to be very good, and the other guys in the deal aren’t just throw-ins. There is a decent amount of risk in this trade for Milwaukee, but Yelich hasn’t even reached his full potential yet.
Depending on what Cain does, where they trade their reserve outfielders, and if Eric Thames can do better than his second half of 2017, the Brewers have a wide range of outcomes. But if it all clicks, then they are scary good. They would like to upgrade their rotation, but the lineup will hit. And even if they don’t make upgrades, Brandon Woodruff, Josh Hader, and Luis Ortiz offer even more upside. It’s interesting to see the usually conservative Milwaukee go all-in. In light of that decision, the Cardinals must make up their own minds on what to do.
Cardinals easier to project
There are a few notable exceptions here, but most players on the Cardinals aren’t difficult to project. Sure, we don’t know what Miles Mikolas will be or if Luke Weaver can maintain his second half performance, but the roster contains mostly veterans. It’s not hard to guess what Yadier Molina, Matt Carpenter, Dexter Fowler, Kolten Wong, or Marcell Ozuna will do. Likewise, you can pencil in the numbers for Carlos Martinez, Michael Wacha, and Luke Gregerson.
None of this is inherently bad, of course. Most of the guys I just mentioned should be very productive. In fact, a team with those starters can easily make a run at the playoffs. But that isn’t the question that needs to be asked. The question is whether or not the Cardinals roster has enough upside to make a run at the World Series. Before the Brewers made their upgrades, I was skeptical. After those upgrades, the chances are even lower.
I would not fault you for screaming: “WHY HAVEN’T YOU MENTIONED ALEX REYES YET?” He is the biggest piece of “upside” that the Cardinals have right now. If he realizes his full potential sooner rather than later, then most of what I have written becomes moot. But count me among those who are still cautious after a Tommy John surgery. Most players struggle with control after major injuries, and Reyes already had control issues to begin with. I think that has to realistically cap his upside quite a bit.
As of today, the Cardinals have a good roster. They should have a top ten offense, but not a top five offense. Their pitching is solid if unspectacular, and could use a couple of bullpen upgrades. If nothing else, they should also pick up many wins from the rebuilding Pirates. But in order to get past the Brewers or Cubs in the NL Central, and to make themselves one of the undisputed top teams in the National League, it sure seems like they need to add another stud. He can be the bat that makes them a top five offense, or the high-end reliever that they currently lack, but he needs to be someone if the Cardinals want their upside to be that of title number 12.
What’s out there?
Before anyone yells at John Mozeliak, please keep in mind that he has had a great offseason. The Marcell Ozuna trade was an incredible value for the Cardinals. I don’t believe that Sandy Alcantara has a future as a starter, and I don’t view Magneuris Sierra as more than a fourth outfielder. As for the bullpen, Gregerson is a solid addition.
When his HR/FB rate comes back down to Earth next year, he should be another quality option for late innings. Dominic Leone is another solid, cheap add whose floor is that of a quality middle reliever. Sure, another reliever would be nice, but paying too many relievers is a recipe for disaster, and they have minor league options.
Now, the questions about where the next big move will come from are fair. But the Josh Donaldson plan was really smart. The Cardinals targeted a rental whose value was slightly diminished due to injuries. They went to a team who looked to be in a position to sell. For the life of me, I cannot figure out why the Blue Jays weren’t willing to listen on offers. It seemed like the best way for a team not in contention to get younger, and they passed. Now the Cardinals have to scramble for plan B if they want to make another move.
There are some big name free agents available, but they all have big problems, too. Eric Hosmer is not worth the $150 million that he is about to get. J.D. Martinez is one of the best bats in the game when healthy, but his fielding is atrocious. He probably only represents a marginal upgrade over Fowler in a corner outfield spot. There is Mike Moustakas, who hit 38 home runs last year, but he managed to do that with rather poor exit velocity numbers.
Prices can always drop, but it seems unlikely that the Cardinals go after a big money player. That leaves trades as the only option, and there just aren’t many teams selling infielders right now. There aren’t many teams selling in general, but most of the available options seem to be in the outfield.
As for relief pitchers, we know that the high end guys command a lot. And the best options for trades seem to be on teams that won’t sell anyway. Alex Colome of the Rays was a nice try, and Roberto Osuna of the Jays is in the same spot as Donaldson. With the Pirates and Padres locking up Felipe Rivero and Brad Hand, respectively, the options are limited. One name that comes to mind is Raisel Iglesias, but he’s young enough that the Reds might not want to trade him yet.
The larger point that I am getting at is that the Cardinals may look like they need to make a big move, but that it’s easier said than done. Some things just come out of nowhere, and maybe I am looking in the wrong places. But desperation moves kill your team’s chances at winning a World Series instead of improving them.
Is standing pat an option?
In short, yes. The Cardinals can stand pat for two reasons. The first is that guys like Donaldson may be available halfway through the year if the Jays are what we think they are. And the second is that they have enough talent in the high minors to wait one more year to make their big move.
As for the trade deadline theory, the Cardinals probably will be close enough to contention to consider making a big move at the deadline. I don’t know if they will be close enough to warrant that move, but it’s possible. I would be surprised if we don’t hear more chatter about Donaldson and Manny Machado by July than we are hearing today. And relief pitchers on bad teams always pop up that can make a difference for a contender if the Cardinals really are close enough.
Nevertheless, the “next year” question is the more entertaining one. I know that essentially waiting one year stinks, but it’s not a terrible option. If Donaldson and Machado really aren’t going to be traded, then who is to stop the Cardinals from signing one of them next year? I doubt the Cardinals will have found their third baseman of the future by then. The Cubs’ window will have one fewer year left by then. The Brewers may still be there, but they won’t be adding Donaldson or Machado.
The best teams don’t make desperation moves. Even if the Cardinals aren’t planning on going after Machado or Donaldson, they still shouldn’t panic. I am confident that they won’t because Mozeliak never has. But the urge to make that move will be there all season long. It’s better to disappoint your fans one year and then make them happy with a smart long-term move than make them happy for one year only for everyone to find out that the move was terrible the next season.
I expect some minor transactions from now until Opening Day, but nothing big. I don’t think the Cardinals will get the big acquisition that they need to contend this year. But I also don’t think that is a bad thing. It might be more fun to add some risk and upside at the same time. But why not add that risk in the form of a big contract to an MVP candidate like Machado or Donaldson? Why give up top prospects for the best available player now, when next year’s best is so much better.
I started the article by saying that we don’t know if the Cardinals want to trade risk for upside. I am starting to think that their silence means “no.” And if they play it right, that could put them right where they need to be 365 days from now.
In the meantime, they have a good team that will be fun to watch. The upgrade they made with Ozuna is still on of the best moves of the offseason by any team. It may not be enough, but this offseason is a large step in the right direction. They need to keep going in that direction, just not right this instant.
Photo Credit: Bill Streicher – USA TODAY Sports