A year ago, the Cardinals and Marlins agreed to a trade that would have sent Giancarlo Stanton to St. Louis. Stanton exercised the no-trade clause in his contract, and ended up with the Yankees instead. The Cardinals continued to engage the Marlins, likely preferring eventual NL MVP Christian Yelich, but ending up instead with Marcell Ozuna, as he was who the Marlins made available at the time. Trading for Ozuna made sense, as waiting for Yelich carried the risk of him not becoming available at all. Most Cardinals moves make sense. But Ozuna was not the Cardinals’ first choice, and the trade likely wasn’t even Plan B. Last winter was not the first time St. Louis missed out on its top choice and resorted to lesser options. If they opt to do so again, they risk missing the postseason for a fourth straight year despite not having a losing season.
Let’s review. The winter of 2016 saw potential trade targets in Adam Eaton and Charlie Blackmon go unacquired; the Cardinals signed Dexter Fowler right after the Eaton trade. Three years ago, the team famously missed out on David Price and Jason Heyward and ended up with Mike Leake.
Ozuna struggled with shoulder problems most of the season, which limited his defense and eliminated the power surge that made him a very good player the season before. The Cardinals jettisoned Leake in the middle of 2017 and had to give the Mariners $17.5 million to do so. Fowler put up a solid 2017 but followed it up with a miserable 2018 that brought his two-year WAR total with St. Louis down to 1.3. He’s owed roughly $50 million over the next three years and would require a similar buyout to the one that sent Leake to Seattle in order to be traded. And those were the good Cardinals free agent signings. The club has used some of its payroll room and guaranteed around $56 million to Luke Gregerson, Greg Holland, and Brett Cecil, and received a 5.62 ERA and 0.4 WAR in 137.2 combined innings from that trio.
Knowing only the information in the paragraph above might lead one to conclude the Cardinals are in awful shape. They aren’t. Instead, the club is awash in cromulence that just needs some embiggening. It’s still very early in the offseason, but the initial Depth Chart projections have the Cardinals at 38.1 WAR, ninth-best in baseball and fourth in the National League. There’s talent to be added through free agency or trades, but right now, the Cardinals have a roster that projects for about 85 wins. When we look at how that roster is assembled, we see a lot of good and very little great. The table below shows the Cardinals’ projected starters, with projected team WAR by position and the MLB ranking at that position.
The Cardinals pitching staff ranks 15th. No starter is projected for more than three wins but there are no obvious holes at the bottom of the rotation either, with Alex Reyes, Michael Wacha, Adam Wainwright, Luke Weaver, and John Gant representing depth after Miles Mikolas, Carlos Martinez, and Jack Flaherty. Fowler and Tyler O’Neill represent quality backups in the outfield with Yairo Munoz playing the same role in the infield. What’s clear from above, and what has been the obvious problem for the Cardinals for a while, is that upgrading from average is difficult. Projections see Ozuna’s 2018 as an unfortunate blip, but even if he recovers and meets his projection, he still sits on the outside of the top-30 position players in baseball.
It’s obvious the Cardinals lack a star performer, and also obvious that it’s difficult to find that level of player. And that brings us to Josh Donaldson, who just signed a very reasonable (I’d say a bargain) $23 million, one-year deal with the Braves. Here’s what Dan Szymborski said in his elegy for the Cardinals earlier this month.
The Cardinals are a hard team to upgrade in that they’re just so solid in most places. The starting lineup is deep enough that, outside of Dexter Fowler, they really need to be exciting to justify the term. Taking a chance on Josh Donaldson is one of those moves that does have interesting upside, but the rest of the market’s second-tier should be rather uninteresting, at least as it concerns the lineup. It may seem a stretch for St. Louis to spend more than twice what they’ve ever spent on a player contract, but remember, they were a team connected with Giancarlo Stanton, and reportedly made a significant offer to David Price when the pitcher was a free agent.
Dan is right about a bunch of things in the above paragraph, but particularly about the market’s second tier. Mike Moustakas doesn’t upgrade the Cardinals meaningfully. Neither would Michael Brantley or Andrew McCutchen, and if they wanted A.J. Pollock, they could’ve just kept Tommy Pham. Donaldson was mentioned by Dan and others as a Cardinals possibility because he would have been an upgrade; that the Cardinals reportedly made a play for him only serves to enhance their reputation as second-place finishers in free agency.
I’m not inclined to give the Cardinals the benefit of the doubt on their offseason plans, but I will acknowledge that part of the reason Donaldson seemed like a good fit for the team was because, despite his upside, he looks an awful lot like the Plan B you settle for after Plan A fizzles out. An aging player needing a rebound on a one-year deal is a Lance Berkman/Carlos Beltran move the Cardinals have made before. Donaldson is in a tier below players like Manny Machado and Bryce Harper because of his age and injury history. And so if I were to give the Cardinals the benefit of the doubt and assume this winter will somehow be different, I might view the decision not to aggressively pursue a good Donaldson deal as a clear indicator he was not part of Plan A to which they are in fact committed.
It’s clear the Cardinals will have to actually deliver on their preferred plan this offseason if they are going to get back to the playoffs; the rest of the potential outcomes are not particularly appealing. Right now, the club is the same 4-5 games behind the Cubs that they have been for a year. Even if they added a valuable player like Paul Goldschmidt, who some have speculated would be a good fit, they would still need to do more to put themselves ahead of Chicago, regardless of the moves Theo Epstein and Co. make (or don’t) this offseason. Goldschmidt would be a free agent at the end of next year, along with Ozuna, Mikolas, and Wacha, which puts the team in a real bind to compete in 2020 if the Arizona first basemen was the only major addition.
If the team were to add a rental like Goldschmidt, it becomes even more important to add the best player available to maximize the current window. Few expect the Cardinals will actually land Harper given their past and his other potential suitors, but the Cardinals’ president (and owner’s son) acknowledged the possibility to Derrick Goold. It’s worth noting the last time the Cardinals won the bidding war for a premier free agent, it was for a Scott Boras client four years older than Harper. Matt Holliday’s $17 million per year salary equates to $30 million when MLB’s payroll inflation is taken into account. Holliday lived up to his deal and was a big part of one of the most successful runs in franchise history, with five playoff appearances in seven seasons along with two World Series appearances and one title. The team hasn’t been the same since his bat left two years ago. If the Cardinals don’t make Harper (or Machado) a reality, it’s difficult to see them breaking out of the cycle of good-but-not-good-enough they’ve found themselves in the past three seasons. The moderate move has hamstrung the Cardinals, so now they’re being pushed to make the risky one. It’s called the winner’s curse for good reason, but when the alternatives are lacking, putting all your eggs in a single basket may be the only way to carry them.
Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.