What to expect from Waino

Once the Cards traded for Marcell Ozuna and we got the corner OF and middle of the order hitter we needed, the buzz was that the Cardinals were going to acquire their new closer. To be sure, the 9th inning was a huge problem for the team last season but I couldn’t get over the nagging feeling that the rotation was a little bit short. The goal certainly was to play deep into the postseason and, if the postseason began today, Michael Wacha would be the team’s starter in game 2. Now, I like Wacha just fine and, in fact, Joe Schwarz over at Birds on the Bat recently discussed how good he actually was last year (hint: nearly as good as Carlos Martinez) but he’s still, in my mind, just a 5-6 inning guy who shouldn’t be pitching to anyone a 3rd time through the order. Maybe he should be on the bump in game 3 but not game 2 against Strasburg, Rich Hill, or Lester or Quintana.

I like the addition of Miles Mikolas and Luke Weaver obviously demonstrated that he’s ready to take the next step and become a regular member of the rotation. Martinez is a borderline ace and there’s lots of depth in the upper minors. There’s a lot to like about the team’s rotation but it also seems that 1.) there may not be much margin for error or injury and 2.) the rotation looks a lot like the rest of the roster with a lot of average-ish guys but lacking the stars it needs to be a postseason contender.

Mo’s declaration a few days ago that Luke Gregerson would be the team’s closer if the season started today wasn’t his first pretty shocking declaration of the offseason. The first shocking declaration of the offseason was that Mo was confident in the team’s starting rotation at this point. There’s no uneasiness about the rotation at all? Maybe I’d get it if Alex Reyes would be part of the rotation when he joins the pitching staff in May but all indications are that the team will need every live arm it can find to bolster the pen.

Now, of course, Mo wasn’t as confident as he declared a month ago because it was revealed this week that he spent a lot of time doing legwork attempting to acquire Chris Archer from the Rays, something I’ve been wanting him to do all offseason. Still, those talks reached an impasse and the rotation still has Mikolas, Weaver, and Adam Wainwright following Martinez and Wacha. As curious as it seems, Wainwright is the biggest question mark.

Despite a horrible ERA, Wainwright’s fielding-independent pitching numbers last year weren’t all that bad. His ERA was a ghastly 5.11 but his FIP was just 4.29, giving him 1.5 fWAR in 123.1 innings. He was OK into July and then had a pretty good start results-wise against the Cubs in mid-July and then 3 pretty bad starts in early August when it was clear to anyone watching him that Wainwright wasn’t OK. Both the eye test and the numbers indicated that something was wrong when the P-D revealed that something was wrong with the soon-to-be 36 year-old’s elbow. Waino rested and when he returned his strikeouts and velocity were way down.

Wainwright had elbow surgery in the offseason and turns 37 in August. Still, Steamer projects Wainwright to reach 1.7 WAR in 142 innings and ZIPS projects him for 1.6 WAR in 127 innings. That’s a pretty good rate for a guy who struck out 1 batter in 13 innings in the last 2 months of the season in 2017. Not only is Mozeliak confident about Wainwright’s 2018, but ZIPS and Steamer are pretty confident as well. Where does that confidence come from?

In August and September, Wainwright faced 61 batters and gave up 18 hits and 10 walks…and struck out 1 batter. His K rate was 1.6% and his BB rate was 16.4%. According to Brooks Baseball, his average 4-seam fastball velocity was 90.44 in July, 2017 and 86.68 in August, 2017. He lost 4 mph on his fastball between July and August. It’s pretty clear that something was wrong and all indications are that it had something to do with his elbow.

So where does all the confidence come from? In order for Mo to be confident about the rotation, he’s got to be confident in Wainwright. ZIPS and Steamer seem to be reasonably confident in him so is that where it comes from? Surely the team’s internal projections must be giving Mo something similar to what ZIPS and Steamer are showing. But aren’t all of those projections based on a lot of historical data? Isn’t it possible (or even likely) that all those projections aren’t weighting the last 2 months of 2017 heavily enough?

If he can produce roughly 1.5 WAR in 120-130 innings, I think most Cards’ fans (and coaches, teammates, members of management) would be pretty happy. The team could supplement the other innings with Jack Flaherty and others from the farm and would have a solid 5th man for the rotation. But what if the Wainwright that shows up on Florida mounds in March is the same guy the team saw in August and September? Then, the team has no 5th starter going into the season?

Or maybe it’s worse if Wainwright is OK in March and suggests that it’s possible he might pitch well during the season and then the team runs him out there 8 or 10 times and he’s awful. The team loses 7 or 8 of those games and Wainwright has an ERA around 8.50 or something and now the team has to find a 5th starter.

It seems to me that the best case scenario is probably something around what the projections are projecting — 1.5 to 2 WAR for somewhere between 140 and 160 innings — but the worst case scenario is probably replacement level or even lower and the team loses a bunch of games while they’re figuring out what to do. That’s not what we normally expect from projections. The projections the public sees are usually something around the 50th-percentile projection meaning that a pitcher who projects for 1.5 WAR could have a best case scenario maybe around 3 WAR. But I just don’t see that as Wainwright’s 90th-percentile projection for 2018. Does anyone?

I don’t think it would be the worst thing in the world if Flaherty ended up getting Wainwright’s innings. In fact, ZIPS actually projects Flaherty to be better than Wainwright in 2018 and worth 2.0 WAR. But if he takes Wainwright’s spot, that still eats into the team’s depth and adds another average-ish piece to an average-ish rotation.

The bottom line is that the team still needs to be trying to trade for Chris Archer. Honestly, I feel somewhat better about the bullpen right now than I do the rotation. I realize most of Cardinal nation right now is up in arms (so to speak) about the pen, but a stronger rotation could help alleviate some of those concerns.

Thanks for reading.

 

 

Cheap, Cheap…Fun, Fun

In the wake of the realization that there are nearly no more decent free agent relievers on the market, and Mo’s declaration that, as of right now, Luke Gregerson is the team’s closer, a lot of the team’s fans are upset. After 2 frustrating years without watching October baseball under the Gateway Arch, a lot of fans had high hopes for what the offseason would bring. As I alluded to the other day, Mo stated that acquiring a middle of the order hitter was priority 1 and finding a closer would be priority 1A. Lots of good relievers entered and exited the free agent market and, when the music stopped, Luke Gregerson was sitting in the Cardinals’ seat. It’s like being promised a great Italian meal and ending up at Olive Garden.

And the howls from Cardinal nation are loud and vigorous. No one wants to end up at Olive Garden, after all. The most common complaint is that the team is cheap, that management won’t spend the money it has, and within every Twitter comment thread someone’s going to use the pejorative “DeWallet” to refer to Bill DeWitt, Jr.

To me, it’s reasonable to not understand what’s going on with the pursuit of a closer. I questioned the process in my post a couple of days ago. It’s not like Addison Reed, Juan Nicasio, or most of the other free agent relievers signed for inordinate sums of money. So why was the team unwilling to spend $17 million on Reed? Is the team really unable to come up with $17 million to fix its closer situation?

I don’t buy the notion that Cards’ management is cheap. After all, just a few weeks ago, the team was willing to give Giancarlo Stanton $250 million. The Oakland A’s weren’t willing to do that. The Tampa Bay Rays weren’t willing to do that. In fact, not one other team in baseball was willing to do that. Even the vaunted New York Yankees — the team most recognized for its prolific spending — when they ultimately acquired Stanton received $30 million from the Marlins and passed Starlin Castro and his roughly $23 million on to the Marlins.

Just 2 offseasons ago, the team offered nearly $200 million to David Price and another $200 million or so to Jason Heyward. Some fans complain about the team “always finishing 2nd” in these negotiations but it’s pretty well established that the Cards’ offer to Heyward included more guaranteed money than the Cubs’ did and the team’s offer to the Marlins for Stanton was better than the Giants’ and the Yankees’. Cheap teams don’t do these sorts of things.

So, $250 million for Stanton but they can’t even go to $18 million to add a closer? How can that be?

The team seems to believe it’s got lots of potential relievers and lots of candidates for the closer’s role. Tyler Lyons is really good. Sam Tuivailala has great stuff. There’s Brebbia, Cecil, and the young guys — Hicks, Hudson, Helsley and, of course, Alex Reyes. But none of them fit the category of “proven closer.” Nevertheless, it’s pretty obvious that the team feels like it has internal candidates who are close to being as good as Reed and Nicasio. The team’s attitude seems to be that it will be willing to pay lots of money for players it doesn’t have in its system (including stars like Price, Heyward, and Stanton) but will not be willing to pay lots of money for a guy when we’ve got someone just as good ready and waiting in our system? In the team’s bullpen, there are several candidates and they’re not just depending on one.

(*as for the “Heyward is a star” argument, it appeared that way while he was a Cardinal and appeared he was going to be a star in the future. His most recent 2 years as a Cub have shown that’s not really the case. This pleases me.)

To me, this is a defensible position. I’m not saying that I’m convinced that Hicks (or whoever) is as good as Reed because I’m not but there is merit to the argument that the team should give its young guys a chance to play and should save that money for when it is needed as long as there is money available for the team to add or keep one of its stars.

I still don’t understand why Mo didn’t just come out at the beginning of the offseason and say, with regard to the bullpen, “we’re going to give the kids a chance; we think they’re as good as any of the relievers out there.” Some of us wouldn’t have bought it but at least it wouldn’t have seemed as if management pulled the ol’ switcheroo later on. I would not have understood, however, if the team had not done everything within its capacity to trade for Stanton.

I still think that the team needs to add some star talent. The Cards still aren’t where they  need to be in order to be successful this postseason. The team still needs a talent upgrade but I can see the argument that Addison Reed doesn’t really offer the upgrade the team needs. I’m not sure I agree with them, but I can see a world in which Reyes is a dominant closer the likes of which Addison Reed wouldn’t have been. I can see one of the H’s combining with Lyons, Cecil, Gregerson, and Brebbia to get the team through the 6th, 7th, and 8th innings. And, finally, while some of these guys won’t work out, I can see the kind of depth that will allow for some of them to get injured or pitch poorly and the team ends up just fine. It’s a risky strategy, and I would have preferred signing at least one of those relievers, but I’m starting to see what the team’s plan is.

I Don’t Get It

I don’t get it.

When the offseason began, the Cardinals announced that they had 2 offseason goals. Priority 1 was to add a middle of the order hitter and the addition of a closer was called “Priority 1A.” Six weeks ago the team was willing to spend $250 million on Giancarlo Stanton. Two days ago, the team wasn’t willing to spend $17 million on Addison Reed. I don’t get it.

To a degree, the Cards’ bullpen problems in 2017 were overblown. The pen wasn’t awful; their FIP was 8th in the majors and 2nd in the NL. By ERA, it was 7th in the majors and 4th in the NL. A lot was made throughout the season about the team’s number of blown saves but they had the 6th fewest blown saves in the majors, 4th fewest in the NL. On the other hand, the Cards’ pen’s record was 22-29 and they had 90 (yes, count ’em…90!) meltdowns (most in the NL and 4th most in the majors).

Last season the team went through 3 closers, all of whom left the team at the end of the season as free agents. The Post-Dispatch’s Derrick Goold wrote earlier today about many of the pen’s struggles in 2017. He wrote that the team, “blew 41 leads, 20 more than the LA Dodgers. The Cardinals had 101 games decided by three or fewer runs, and they went 48-53 in those games. The only teams with a worse record were retched (sic): Philadelphia and San Francisco. The Cardinals had more one-run games (53) than any winning team, and they lost 29 of them.”

It just makes no sense that, with only Reed and the questionable Greg Holland left on the free agent market, a team that was willing and able to give Stanton $250 million would be unwilling to beat the Twins’ $17 million offer to Reed.

It sort of made sense that the team allowed Wade Davis to sign with the Rockies — $52 million over 3 years for a 32 year old reliever who’s had some arm troubles in the past is a little rich. I also understood when Juan Nicasio, the best of the team’s 3 closers last year, chose the Mariners over the Cardinals (for another $17 million) because, with Davis still on the market at the time and the team apparently attempting to trade for Alex Colome (though in the same article, Goold basically shot that down as well), I could see that the team might not be able to guarantee Nicasio a shot at the closer’s role. But with the very obvious need for a closer and ostensibly only Reed and Holland left, the team allowed Reed to be banished to the Land of 1000 Lakes for just $17 million.

When the offseason began, there were a lot of solid free agent relievers out there and it was my contention that the team needed to add 2. Over the last month or so, we’ve seen them sign with other teams, one by one, and the Cardinals ended up with Luke Gregerson. Now, Gregerson’s ok — though Zach Gifford raised some legitimate concerns about his ability to consistently get hitters out — but he’s still a fastball-slider guy who has been outstanding against righties but struggled against lefties throughout his career. Despite being a really solid closer for the Astros in 2015, he doesn’t really have the requisite profile for a closer.

Still, I’m not that appalled by Mozliak’s declaration that Gregerson would be the team’s closer if the season ended today. I’m more interested in who the team’s closer will be in August and September and, despite all the mystery about the closer’s role and the team’s refusal to add one this offseason, I think there are reasons to be optimistic about the pen.

First, I’ve long been a fan of Tyler Lyons and think he has the ability to be an outstanding reliever. He could probably close but might even be more effective in sort of an Andrew Miller-type role. He’s always destroyed lefties and was nearly equally potent versus righties out of the pen last year. John Brebbia performed very well for the team in 2017 and Brett Cecil was much better than a lot of fans recognize in his first year in St. Louis. A lot of people are very high on Sam Tuivailala, even though I’ve struggled to see what so many others have seen in him. Matt Bowman is a useful, if overused, piece as well.

While there are no obvious, well-recognized big-name relievers among that group, it has the makings of a deep and decent core. What is really intriguing, however, is the prospect of prospects like Jordan Hicks, Dakota Hudson, and Ryan Helsley joining the pen this season. They are all hard-throwers with potentially dominant stuff that could add some real horses to the bullpen this season. Add to that the fact that Alex Reyes will likely become a member of the pen when he gets back on the mound in May and there may be reason for some excitement.

Still, of those 4, right now only Reyes is on the 40 man roster so, in order for those guys to help the team, some players will have to be removed from the 40-man. Moreover, despite their talent and stuff, it’s unrealistic to think that all of them will succeed in their first opportunity to get major league hitters out. As Goold pointed out in the article above, Hicks has never pitched in a game above the class-A level and Helsley only has experience in 7 games above that level.

There’s clearly a lot of talent and the potential for a very good bullpen in 2018 but any honest assessment also has to acknowledge that there’s a great deal of uncertainty as well. While this may work, and I certainly understand the desire to see what all these good arms can bring to the pen, it’s really difficult to maintain that the team approached the closer’s role or the bullpen this offseason as “Priority 1A.” They’ve added Luke Gregerson…and no one else.

And it’s not like the free agents who signed with other teams signed for outrageous salaries that couldn’t be predicted. If you look at the free agent predictions from both MLB Trade Rumors and Fangraphs, most of the actual signings are either in the same neighborhood as predicted or were actually a little lower. It’s not like the reliever market exploded and the team just decided it was more prudent to go with the team’s prospects instead.

So I don’t get it. It’s not that I don’t get the team’s decision to go with the young guys. I can see why they’re interesting and potentially exciting. What I don’t get is the “Priority 1A” stuff. I don’t get that the team seemed to create the expectation that they were going to go after some big fish (or 2 medium-sized fish) and instead decided to go after Luke Gregerson and some guys from Springfield. Why tell the fans that the closer’s role is a priority instead of telling everyone, “we’ve got a bunch of great, young, hard-throwing pitchers and we’re going to go with them.”

It should be clear from this that I still think the team should have signed someone like Tommy Hunter or Nicasio or Bryan Shaw. There were good pitchers on the market who signed for contracts that weren’t prohibitively expensive and would have provided some insurance if those young guys showed that they’re not quite ready. That said, this strategy could work and, while I would have preferred at least something better than Gregerson in the pen, I can see wanting to find out if Hicks, Helsley, or Hudson can help. I, too, am excited about the prospect of seeing what Reyes can do out of the pen. But I don’t understand what appears to be the change in strategy since the offseason began.

There’s no doubt that a lot of fans will react to the Cards’ decision here as though the team is being cheap and there will be howls of “DeWallet” all over the internet. I sincerely don’t think this decision was a financial one. Those relievers haven’t signed for that much money — in baseball, $17 million just isn’t that much — and the team was willing to take on more of Stanton’s contract than any other team was, including the Yankees. They gave Gregerson $11 million so why not add just $6 million more and add some like Nicasio or Reed who is objectively better than Gregerson? I don’t know. I don’t understand much of this. I just don’t get it.

Thanks for reading.

Glad to be Back

A lot of Cards’ fans have been clamoring for the addition of another big hitter, and with good reason. Most of us expected to add Giancarlo Stanton this offseason and instead ended up with Marcell Ozuna. Now, Ozuna’s a really good player in his own right but he’s not Stanton. Stanton not only is a superstar who would’ve transformed the lineup but he’s also under contract for the next several years. Ozuna, on the other hand, only figures to be a Cardinal for the next 2.

The persistent chatter about adding another big bat to the lineup seems primarily driven by 2 things. The first is the fact that the Cardinals have missed the playoffs the last two seasons and fans have seen the team fall behind the loathsome Cubs, who won their first championship in 1008 years (not a typo). We’ve been spoiled by the team’s success and demand a return to its winning ways. The second is that Matt Carpenter has some positional versatility and there are several players on the free agent market who could fit the team’s lineup. The team could add a third baseman, turning Jedd Gyorko into the super-sub a lot of fans believe him to be, leaving Carpenter at first. Another option is to add a first baseman, moving Carp back to his original position at third base.

I’ll admit that the prospect of turning Gyorko into a Ben Zobrist-like super-sub has its allure. First, Gyorko is a strong defensively at both 2B and 3B and has the ability to fill in at SS and 1B in short stints. Considering Kolten Wong‘s relative weakness against lefties, the right-handed Gyorko is a natural platoon partner and then he could bounce around the infield, allowing Carpenter, Paul DeJong, and the new first or third baseman the days off they need to stay healthy and strong for a playoff run. It’s pretty easy to envision Gyorko getting 100+ starts at the 4 positions and 450 or so plate appearances which would make him a big step up over Greg Garcia as the utility infielder.

When there was discussion about a month ago about the prospect of the Cardinals trading for Evan Longoria (especially as part of a Chris Archer trade), it was hard not to see how much depth this would provide the infield. The problem, as lots of people on the internet were all too willing to point out, was that Longoria just wasn’t that big of an upgrade over Gyorko at third. To be sure, the team would gain quite a bit by replacing most of Garcia’s PA’s with Gyorko’s, but it wouldn’t gain much, if anything, by replacing Gyorko’s with Longoria’s.

The free agent market right now is flush with corner infielders, most notably 1B Eric Hosmer, The Cards have been linked to Hosmer as rumors have circulated that he’s received multiple 7 year, $140+million offers. Adding Hosmer would move Carp back to third and makes Gyorko the super-sub. That sounds like a lot of infield depth and would surely make the Cardinals better…but at what price?

If the Cardinals didn’t want to spend $140+ million on this experiment, they could always add a third baseman such as Todd Frazier or Mike Moustakas. Frazier and Moustakas aren’t as good Hosmer but they’re pretty good players in their own right and wouldn’t come with Hosmer’s Scott Boras-driven high price tag. Let’s begin with Hosmer.

Most of the discussion about Hosmer is about whether or not he’s worth the high price tag that Boras has attached to him. Here, Craig Edwards makes the point that $140 million isn’t really out of line (though Travis Sawchik argues that a team wouldn’t really benefit from signing Hosmer to a 7 year deal). Still, for a team sitting where the Cardinals sit on the win curve, where an additional couple of wins could really be the difference between making the playoffs and having its fans lament for another offseason how long it’s been since the Cardinals were part of that elite group, the team may not need to insist on getting a ton of surplus value from a free agent acquisition.

Hosmer, of course, isn’t a superstar but he is a pretty good player and a solid upgrade over Greg Garcia. Adding him to 1B, moving Carpenter across the diamond, and replacing Garcia with Gyorko would surely help the team and perhaps push them into the playoffs. Steamer projects Hosmer to be worth 2.6 WAR next year while ZIPS has him at a paltry 1.9. He was a 4.1 WAR player last year (though -0.1 in 2016) but that was aided by a .351 BABIP. But he’s young, maybe still improving and it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that he’s a 3 – 3.5 WAR player in 2018. Fangraphs presently has the Cardinals projected for 88 wins so adding another 3 puts the team in prime playoff position and puts the team right in the thick of the NL Central race.

What about Frazier or Moustakas?  Moustakas is projected for around 2.5 WAR next year (2.5 from ZIPS; 2.7 from Steamer) while Frazier is projected for around 3 (3.5 from ZIPS; 2.3 from Steamer). Like Hosmer, those guys would certainly help.

The question or concern, however, isn’t so much about how any of these players produces in isolation but rather, how much do they add to a team that already has 8 solid starting position players? And, are they worth that addition? For instance, if we assume Hosmer is a 3.5 WAR player and, as one, is worth $140 million over 7 years, that doesn’t mean that he adds 3.5 WAR to the Cardinals. Gyorko, for his part, is projected as at 2.9 WAR so the addition of Hosmer, even at 3.5 WAR, only adds about half a win to the Cards’ starting infield. Now, turning Gyorko into a super-sub is an improvement over Garcia but, in doing so, also reduces his plate appearances. He wouldn’t be a 2.9 WAR player as a super-sub, so maybe 2 WAR is more likely. Because of that, he’s probably only about a 1 win upgrade over Garcia because getting him 450 PA’s reduces Carpenter’s, Wong’s, and DeJong’s as well. It’s an upgrade, to be sure, but probably only about a win and a half, not the 3.5 Boras wants the Cardinals to pay for. All that assumes, also, that the defensively challenged Carpenter would be worth as many WAR as a starting 3B as he is as a starting 1B. Personally, I’m skeptical that’s the case, as he’s a decidedly below-average 3B but a pretty good 1B but maybe the positional adjustment helps it all come out in the wash.

The point is that Hosmer, even if he’s a 3.5 WAR 1B, he’s probably only worth about 1.5 WAR to the Cardinals and, thus, not worth anywhere near $140 million to the Cards. He might be worth that much to the Royals or Padres — where he’d actually be replacing a replacement level player — but that’s not what he’d be doing with the Cardinals.

The same sort of logic applies to Frazier and Moustakas, though Carpenter remains at first base, in that they wouldn’t be replacing a replacement level player. In fact, it’s dubious whether either of them is even an improvement over Gyorko but at least Gyorko is an improvement over Garcia and adding them probably adds 1 win or so to the Cardinals’ total. Is 1 win per year, even where the Cards are on the win curve, worth a 3 year, $45-50 million contract? Questionable, at best. And one opportunity cost of adding a 3B to a multi-year contract this offseason is that it makes attempting to sign, say, Josh Donaldson to a long-term contract next offseason much more difficult. Perhaps the team should stay away from one of these guys for that reason alone.

There’s good and bad to the Cardinals’ roster as it stands today. The good is that the team is pretty solid at all the non-pitching positions. Every starting position player projects (according to ZIPS) for at least 2.1 WAR. The bad is that there really are no superstars in the mold of Stanton. Ozuna is the best the team has and he’s projecting for *only 3.7 WAR.

Because the team is so balanced, therefore, the only real way to improve the lineup is to add a genuine superstar. Hosmer, Moustakas, and Frazier just don’t fit the bill. The guy who does, of course, is Donaldson but the Blue Jays don’t appear to be all that interested in parting with him…at least, not yet.

Finally, I’d like to thank @StlCardsCards and Dave Cameron for inspiring me to get back to writing. I’ve been wanting to do it and needed a little nudge. CardsCards’ advice on Twitter and Dave’s “retirement” from Fangraphs were the inspiration I needed to get back at it. Back when I was writing at http://www.vivaelbirdos.com, I was reading fangraphs religiously trying to learn as much as I can about the game and come up with ideas to write about at VEB. I learned so much from Dave and Fangraphs and being a dedicated reader of that site for the last several years has also helped me appreciate how much I don’t know. Thanks to both of you and to everyone else for reading.

Where’s Jason headed?

Last week I went through all the reasons why giving Jason Heyward $200 million is not the same as giving $200 million to Albert Pujols 4 years ago.  It’s interesting that, 4 years ago, there weren’t that many teams in the market for Pujols.  It appeared to be between the Cardinals and the Marlins (was he really going to Miami?) until the Angels got involved.  Part of that, probably, is that it seemed to be somewhat of a forgone conclusion that he wasn’t going to be leaving St. Louis, but a lot of it also had to be all the things we discussed last week — his age, his history of injuries, the fact that he was basically only going to be able to provide value with his bat and, of course, his contract.  I imagine that Heyward, on the other hand, will have many suitors.

This week I want to explore which teams will be attempting to compete with the Cardinals for the honor of paying him roughly $200 million over the next 10 years — the contract Jeff Todd at mlbtraderumors expects Heyward to receive.  (For my part, I’m going with 9/$190 + an opt-out clause after 4 or 5 years.)

After the Cubs’ series ended, Jennifer Langosch reported that “re-signing Heyward tops the Cards’ to-do list.”  Heyward, in that same article, is quoted as saying of the Cardinals, “This is definitely an ideal situation.”  It’s clear that there’s mutual interest in Heyward making St. Louis his home for the next several years.  The question, then, is about the money.  Can we make it work?

The Cardinals don’t really have a history of spending on the biggest free agent out there. It’s not really our style.  The last time the team did that, however, was a situation very similar to this one.  The team traded for an outfielder on the verge of becoming a free agent, let him play for a while with the birds on his bat, and then signed him that offseason.  That player, of course, was Matt Holliday and this was two years prior to Pujols becoming a free agent.  It’s clear that the team signed Holliday with the intention of him becoming the team’s leader and star player if/when Pujols left.

So here we are, 6 years later, one year before Holliday’s contract ends, and the team is trying to decide how much to offer Heyward.  Like Pujols then, Holliday is the team’s highest paid player (at least in total contract value; Wainwright earns more per year) and he’ll be a free agent at the end of 2016 though the team does hold a $17 million option on 2017.  It’s clear that Holliday won’t sign another long-term contract, though there’s been some discussion on both sides of a shorter extension with the team.  Holliday is no longer the team’s star player and, after his contract expires, won’t be the team’s highest paid player even if he does sign an extension.  It’s time to pass the torch.

Though the team has never gone higher than $120 million in total value on a contract for any player, it did offer Pujols more than $200 million when he left for the Angels so it’s not like the team is unwilling to put this much money on the table.  They just know that it has to be for the right player.  The team also, as Derrick Goold has pointed out, has never included an opt-out in any contract that they’ve signed.  But, according to Goold, they’re “open to the possibility.”  It will certainly take one in order to get Heyward to return.  They’ve done no-trade clauses before, as well.  Holliday has one.  So though all of this is rare for the team, none of it seems to be unworkable.

The team also, as I pointed out last week, should expect a huge increase in revenues when the new TV deal kicks in in a couple of years.  Playoff revenue also helps, of course. Moreover, though several of their younger players will see big increases in their salaries as they become eligible for arbitration and the team extends some, Holliday’s big salary comes off the books in 2016 (’17 if the option is picked up), Molina’s comes off the books in 2017 (’18 if his option is picked up), Peralta’s comes off the books in 2017, and Wainwright’s comes off the books in 2018.  So while a big increase to Heyward’s salary will tighten the team’s budget for a couple of years (he made $7.8 million last year), that won’t cripple the team’s long-term future at all.

Still, there will be many suitors for Heyward due to his youth and potential, and his ability to help his team in so many ways.  There are several big-budget teams  who could be interested and might out-bid the Cardinals if they want to.  All in all, I’d put the team’s chance to re-sign Heyward at around 20%.

So let’s look at some of the others.

First of all, who can we eliminate?  Some teams just have no shot either because they don’t have $200 million to throw at one player, they have so many needs that they’re not going to be willing to put it all into a right fielder, or they’re not likely to have $200 million worth of appreciation for a position player whose value comes largely from getting on base, playing defense, and running the bases and doesn’t hit 25-30 HR or more per year.  I’ll put the Blue Jays, Royals, D’backs, Pirates, Mets, Indians, Tigers, Rays, Reds, Marlins, A’s, Padres, Braves, Twins, Brewers, Rockies, and Phillies in that category.  Some of these teams are quite good, of course, but they have needs other than a RF so Heyward’s not a fit.  The Mets, I imagine, will go all-out to re-sign Yoenis Cespedes and, if they can’t do that, they’ll go another route.  They could use another outfielder if Cespedes leaves, but their money issues and holes at SS and 2B (if David Murphy leaves, as expected) will probably preclude them from spending a huge chunk on Heyward.

So who’s left?  The Cubs, Dodgers, Giants, Yankees, Angels, Mariners, Astros, Red Sox, Nationals, Rangers, Orioles, and White Sox.  First, Orioles — 1%, about equal to the Mets.  They have a lot of revenue but many needs and have never shown any desire to spend $200 million on anyone.  Moreover, they seem to regret letting Nelson Cruz leave as a free agent.  Heyward is like the anti-Nelson Cruz.

Red Sox — 1%.  I don’t want to say “no chance” because they’re the Red Sox but they have plenty of outfielders (well, plenty minus 1 with Hanley Ramirez moving to 1B) and are woefully short of pitching.  They’ll spend their $200 million on David Price.

Nationals — 1%.  The Nats are going to need quite a bit of help with Desmond and Jordan Zimmerman becoming free agents, Stephen Strasburg becoming a free agent after next season, and Bryce Harper becoming a free agent the year after.  They’re long shots, at best, here.

Rangers — 2%.  They’ve got Choo and Fielder locked up and have a pretty desperate need for pitching even with Yu Darvish returning next year but they’re paying Josh Hamilton nothing, don’t need to play him at all, and have a pretty good revenue stream.  Adrian Beltre’s not getting any younger so they could use a little youth and maybe no team in baseball is better equipped to take advantage of any power surge Heyward might have as he gets into his prime.  I’d be surprised, but not shocked.

White Sox — 2%.  The White Sox have holes everywhere, the financial ability to make a big splash, and could really use a star like Heyward in their lineup and in the field (by UZR they were the worst defensive team in the majors last year).  On the other hand, they’re terrible.  They have holes everywhere and, while Heyward could help them a ton, he alone won’t make this team a playoff team.  A 76 win team who finished 19 games out of first in 2015 with Jeff Samardzija, they’re going to have to blow every other team’s offer out of the water in order to get Heyward to sign with them and I just don’t see that happening.

Angels — 2%.  Who knows?  They’ve got the financial wherewithal, but they’re already paying Pujols $25 million per year, they’re paying Mike Trout nearly $25 million per year, and they’re paying Josh Hamilton nearly $25 million per year to play for the Rangers.  Still, they were 18th in the majors in position player WAR and 19th in pitcher WAR so they could definitely use a guy like Heyward.  Even so, I see them having too many holes and too much money tied up in single players to see them wanting to do it again with Heyward.

Giants — 5%.  They’ve never done anything like this before and they’re also not likely the team that’s going to appreciate Heyward’s skill set but they’ve got holes.  Hunter Pence is in RF but he could be moved to LF, leaving Heyward to patrol RF and the very deep right-center while still enabling Heyward to use his power to take advantage of the right field wall that Bonds abused for so many years.  Posey makes a lot of money but he’s locked up until 2021.  Still, I see them more as players for pitching — Mike Leake or Jordan Zimmerman — than for Heyward.

Mariners — 10%.  This, I could see.  They have money and a huge outfield that needs to be patrolled by someone like Heyward.  New GM Jerry DiPoto is a guy I think appreciates the value that Heyward provides and has an edict from the front office to try to win.  He’s going to build around Cano, Kyle, Cruz, and King Felix.  Ultimately, I don’t see them wanting to have a 3rd $20 million player (Cano and Felix are the other 2) so I see them probably trying to fix multiple needs with several players but don’t be surprised if the M’s make a big push for Heyward.

Yankees — 10%.  Never say never.  The Yankees have several needs, a short right-field porch, and would appreciate the defensive and base running value that Heyward provides.  They also, of course, have the financial ability to outbid everyone else.  If they want him, they’ll probably get him.  That said, the Yankees have tried to be pretty judicious with their spending over the last couple of years to avoid paying excessive luxury taxes.  They already have Ellsbury, Gardner, and Beltran in their outfield and have Aaron Judge on the way.  And with Bryce Harper a free agent in just a couple of year, my guess is that they’ll try to blow the budget on Harper after Beltran and C.C. Sabathia come off the books.

Astros — 10%.  The Astros are close to being really good, as anyone who watched them in the playoffs this year knows.  They have a lot of young players and a ton of payroll space and, with Rasmus becoming a free agent, a hole in the outfield.  Sure, George Springer is in RF but they could easily move him to LF to accommodate Heyward.  My guess is that they feel the need to spend more on pitching this offseason than position players so they ultimately go a different route, but don’t be surprised if I’m wrong.

Dodgers — 15%.  It wasn’t too long ago when all anyone could talk about was how crowded the Dodgers’ outfield was and how they needed to trade some players.  What a difference a year can make.  Joc Pederson showed some warts by really struggling in the 2nd half.  Carl Crawford missed much of the season with injuries and didn’t play very well when he was out there.  Andre Ethier still isn’t very good and Yasiel Puig was injured much of the year and has become such a pain the butt that most expect the Dodgers to trade him this offseason.  That outfield surplus is now shaky at best.  Most of the Dodgers’ additions since Andrew Friedman took over have been smaller names rather than huge splashes but, after losing to the Mets in the NLDS, they may decide to spend a lot this offseason.  I’d expect them to extend Zack Greinke for about $150 million.  Do they want to spend an extra $200 on Heyward?  This is the other team who can outbid everyone else if they want to.

Cubs — 20%.  This is the worst case scenario for the Cardinals.  Not only did we lose to the Cubs in the NLDS and not only are they looking really strong well into the future, but the Cubs signing Heyward would not only improve their team but would make us worse in the process.  Yes, the Cubs probably need to add pitching but they are going to have a hole in CF and could trade either Soler or Schwarber to add pitching.  Heyward then would improve their outfield defense and hit homers in Wrigley.  He is unquestionably Epstein’s kind of guy and the Cubs have the payroll space in order to make this happen.  Then, there’s this from Craig Edwards:

I think the Cards and Cubs probably have the greatest chance to land Heyward but, unlike the Holliday or Pujols negotiations, there will be multiple competitors.  We’re not getting any hometown discount and if the Dodgers, Yankees, or Cubs decide to spend $225 million or more, we’ll lose him.  But, as long as the price stays in the $180-200 million range, I think we have as good a chance as anyone…and I think he’ll be worth that kind of contract.

One of these things is not like the other

It’s 2011.  Albert Pujols, the greatest Cardinal of my generation and the driving force behind 2 World Series titles, is about to become a free agent.  Pujols accumulated 81.3 fWAR in his 11 years in a Cardinal uniform and was well on his way to the Hall of Fame.  He had been the Rookie of the Year, won the MVP 3 times and finished 2nd 4 more (he’d have certainly won 3 more if not for Bonds and the fact that MVP voters love RBI).  He had won 2 Gold Gloves and been an All-Star 10 times.  He was, in every definition of the word, a Cardinal hero…and he was about to become a free agent.

Everyone knew the price for Pujols was going to be high; the obvious question was “how high would the team go in order to re-sign him?”  He had to be re-signed, though, right?  He was, after all, Albert Pujols.  We couldn’t let him get away.  Many were surprised, including Albert himself, when the team didn’t make more of a push to get him signed before his final year in a Cardinal uniform.  In January, 2011, the team offered Pujols a 9 year, $198 million offer which he rejected.  He became a free agent that November and in December, the team upped its offer to 10 years, $220 million.  We, of course, know what happened next. The Angels swooped in with a 10 year, $254 million offer and he was gone.

As it turned out, the team didn’t miss a beat.  The Cardinals installed Lance Berkman and Allen Craig at first base, won 88 games, and was 1 win away from playing in the World Series.  The Angels had a good season themselves, winning 89 games, but finished 3rd in the tough AL West.  Pujols played well, accumulating 3.6 fWAR but it was the lowest total of his career.  And he hasn’t been even that good since.  In his 4 years in Southern California, Pujols has accumulated a total of 9.1 fWAR — less than 2.3 per season.  In 2003 as a Cardinal, Pujols accumulated 9.5 fWAR in that season alone.  Now he’s basically a league average player.

In the 2012 amateur draft, the Cardinals had 2 compensation picks for losing Pujols to the Angels.  They used those 2 picks to select Michael Wacha and Stephen Piscotty.  Craig became a hero for the Cardinals and, when he started to slip, we traded him to the Red Sox for John Lackey.  Now, does anyone think that the Cardinals would trade Wacha and Piscotty for Pujols?  Would any team be so stupid as to make that deal?  I guarantee that the Angels would rather have Wacha and Piscotty than Pujols.

Dave Cameron from Fangraphs does a trade value series each July where he ranks the top 50 players in baseball in terms of the trade value and then he concludes the series with the 5 players in baseball with the lowest trade value.  In other words — the 5 worst contracts in baseball.  In 2013 and 2014, Pujols ranked first — the worst contract in the game.  This year, Pujols made it up to 5th with Cameron estimating that Pujols’s contract had $70 million in dead weight.  Whether or not we agree that Pujols’s contract is the worst, or the 5th worst, or the 10th worst in baseball, it is inarguably a bad contract, one to which we should all be ecstatic the Cardinals never agreed.

This offseason the Cardinals are back in that boat, trying to decide how much to offer Jason Heyward, another free agent who will be seeking somewhere in the neighborhood of $200 million.  Many Cardinals’ fans, with full knowledge of how well the team has done since Pujols left and of how burdensome the contract is to the Angels, will follow the Heyward negotiations with trepidation.  “$200 million for guy who hit 13 home runs last year?  That’s preposterous!”  But is it?

First of all, it’s not 2011.  Salaries have escalated by about 7% per year in baseball over the last 4 years.  So, $200 million today is equivalent to about $153 million in 2011.  Second, when Pujols left for the Angels, he was already 31 years old and his last season was his worst (though still very good).  He had dealt with multiple injuries to his arm and his feet and was basically relegated to first base.  It was pretty obvious that he was not going to age particularly well.  He would soon, undoubtedly, become a DH at least part-time and with the Cards in the NL, it didn’t make a ton of sense to carry a part-time DH on the roster.  As it turns out, Pujols was only in year 4 of his 10 year deal and only played 1B 95 times last year.  Down the stretch for the Angels, Chris Cron played 1B and Pujols was the DH.  Formerly a very good base runner, at least for someone without blazing speed, now Pujols is frequently pinch run for.  And he still has 6 years left on his deal.

Jason Heyward is a very different character.  First, he just turned 26 — 5 years younger than Pujols was when he began his first season in LA.  He’s an outstanding defensive outfielder and base runner.  He’s easily the best defensive right fielder in the game by both UZR and DRS and the team even felt comfortable enough with Heyward in the outfield to put him in CF 10 times.  Fangraphs has Heyward as the 5th best base runner in the game, adding 7 runs to the team just by stealing bases and taking the extra base on singles and doubles.  So even though Heyward doesn’t hit with the power that one would like from a superstar, $200 million player — averaging just under 13 homers per year over the previous 3 seasons — he still accumulates a lot of value other ways.  Once Pujols started to break down, he became basically just a slugger.

Even though he only hit 13 homers in 2015, he was still the 6th best outfielder in the game by fWAR and was the team’s most valuable player as well.  Most importantly, however, many players don’t reach their peaks until they are somewhere between 27 and 30.  Heyward has already hit 27 HR in the big leagues once and with his frame, 6’5″ & 245 pounds, there are a lot of reasons people think that power may return.  In other words, there are a lot of reasons to believe the best is yet to come with Heyward.  That simply was not realistic with the Pujols contract.

Yesterday, Craig Edwards of vivaelbirdos and fangraphs shared this via twitter:

Sure, Holliday had more homers than Heyward at his age but Heyward was still arguably a better hitter at his age than Holliday was (121 wRC+ > 116 wRC+).  And Holliday didn’t provide anywhere near the defensive and base running value that Heyward provides.

So, here’s the point, the Cardinals can’t afford to hand out $200 million contracts to anyone who wants one.  They must be offered judiciously.  Thus, the team should offer a huge mega-contract only to players who:

  • are obviously great
  • are young and can provide value for a long time
  • have the ability to help the team at the plate, in the field, and on the bases
  • may not have yet reached their peak
  • have a good injury history
  • can help the team win when they’re not hitting homers

Jason Heyward meets all of those criteria.  If the team is ever going to bid on the top free agent position player on the market, this is the guy to bid on.  We won’t be able to go after Bryce Harper in a couple of years but we do have as good a chance as anyone of landing Heyward and should push all our chips in to get him.  We have room in the budget and the team is going to get a lot more money when its big contract with Fox Sports Midwest kicks in.  The dollars may be similar, in that they may both start with a 2, but this is not the Pujols contract.

The power of wasted PA’s

Since the season ended, there’s been a ton of hand-wringing about the problems the Cardinals’ offense encountered during the 2015 season.  A few examples:

  • The team was 11th in the NL in home runs and runs scored
  • The Cardinals were 8th in the NL in wOBA
  • The Cards’ position players were tied for 10th in baseball in wOBA
  • The team’s offensive runs above average was 7th in the NL.

These, of course, aren’t indicators of a below-average offense but, when we’re playing in a division against 2 of the best teams in baseball, a mediocre offense going forward just isn’t going to cut it.  Add to that the fact that players like Matt Holliday, Jhonny Peralta, and Yadi are already past their offensive primes and aren’t going to get any younger.

We know that several players just didn’t perform to expectations this year but the real problem is the number of times these underperformers were forced or allowed to come to the plate this season.  Every team has underperformers.  But it creates real problems for a team when those players get too many plate appearances.

Below are the numbers in 2015 for the team’s biggest underperformers.

 PA ISO  AVG  OBP  SLG  wOBA  wRC+
 Jay  245 .048  .210  .306  .257  .253 57
 Adams 186  .137  .240  .280  .377 .284 78
 Reynolds 432 .168  .230  .315  .398 .311 97
 Cruz  151  .106  .204  .235  .310 .237 46
 Bourjos    225  .133  .200 .290 .333 .271 70
 Kozma  111  0 .152 .236 .152 .180 7
 Totals  1350  .115 .213 .289 .329 .271 70

141 batters qualified for the batting title in major league baseball in 2015.  Only 5 of them had a wRC+ less than 70.  These 6 Cardinals combined for an offensive performance 30% worse than league average and the team gave them 1350 PAs.  Just for reference, 23% of the team’s plate appearances went to players who hit worse than Padres’ pitcher Tyson Ross.  That’s 1 out of every 4 plate appearances — not counting the 353 PAs we gave to our pitchers.  So 3 times out of every time through the order we either let a pitcher bat or someone who hit worse than Tyson Ross.  Jay and Bourjos, who were horrible in 2015, got 120 more plate appearances than Randall Grichuk did.  No wonder we had trouble scoring runs!

So, the good news…First, there’s no way Jay can hit this badly in 2016.  He’s had wRC+’s of 116, 115, 115, 103, and 115 in his first 5 seasons with the team and had an injured wrist all season.  He’ll be better and, if by some chance he isn’t, Grichuk or Tommy Pham or Jason Heyward will be able to step in take some of those PA’s away.  There’s no way he’ll be allowed to come to the plate 245 times if he’s hitting as horrendously as he did in 2015.

Adams started slow and dealt with a hamstring injury for most of the season.  He may have a bad stretch where he hits as badly as he did in 2015, but he’s unlikely to repeat this performance over 350-400 PAs.  Reynolds didn’t really underperform so much as that he had to take on too many PAs due to Adams’s injury.  Regardless, I wouldn’t bet money on Reynolds returning in 2016.

Similarly, it’s unlikely that Bourjos will return.  I suspect that the emergence of Pham has made Bourjos expendable.  He’ll be tendered a contract and traded.

Cruz and Kozma are tough.  The only reason they were on the roster is that we need a backup catcher and someone who could play shortstop in the event of an injury to Peralta.  The team, therefore, may be forced to sacrifice some offense in order to get this sort of defensive protection.  But the team has to do better than what these 2 can bring to the table.  We’ll discuss this in more detail another time but, suffice to say, we can’t afford to give 260+ PAs to players who hit worse than many pitchers.

A lot of Cards’ fans are looking for a better #3 hitter or more homers than Heyward provided (13) from our cleanup hitter.  Our starters, for the most part, performed pretty well offensively so probably what we need most, is more depth.  We need our reserves to perform better when there are injuries to Holliday, Peralta, or Molina or when our aging starters need days off.  If we get more from our 9th through 13th position players, we can afford to give our starters more rest and we’ll score more runs doing it.