While I still haven’t give up hope on 2017 — not because they’ve played great but because the St. Louis Cardinals are only a handful of games out of first place despite their lousy record — it’s interesting that the front office seems to have turned the page to 2018.
Team vice president John Mozeliak and new general manager Mike Girsch have both openly admitted that they believe the Redbirds are in the market for a “superstar” or “elite talent.” I’m glad, five years after the loss of Albert Pujols to free agency, that the Cardinals recognize the need for the sort of bat for the middle of the order that makes the hitters around him better. The sort of player who can carry a team on his back for a week or two at a time. The question is where might they acquire it.
While several intriguing sluggers hit the market last off-season, including Dodgers third baseman Justin Turner who is slick with the glove and hitting .349 with 13 homers despite a couple of stints on the disabled list and Edwin Encarnacion who has 23 homers and a .253 batting average after signing with the Cleveland Indians, the market will be thinner this year.
The leading home run hitter on the pending free agent list is Kansas City Royals third sacker Mike Moustakas with 31 along with a .274 batting average. He’s a popular guy in the clubhouse and with the fans. But while he is having a career season in 2017, Moustakas has a career on-base percentage of only .303 and he hit just .240 in an injury-riddled 2016 campaign.
If the Cardinals signed Moustakas, where would they put Jedd Gyorko, the team’s best hitter until a mid-season fade? I mentioned earlier this year that Gyorko might have been a good player to trade while his value was at an all-time high. But he’s been fading back to reality on a daily basis.
An intriguing free agent is outfielder J.D. Martinez whom the Cardinals briefly inquired about before he was dealt to the Arizona Diamondbacks as a short term rental.
Martinez is a professional at the plate with a career .282 batting average and a .340 on-base percentage. While he hit 38 homers in 2015, he profiles to be more of a 22-25 homer guy on a consistent basis. And that’s fine. It’s not all about home runs. If you’re going after the best talent available, he may be your guy. But, if the Redbirds seek a feared masher to bat cleanup, he might be playing a little bit out of his comfort zone. Another issue with Martinez is that he’s a corner outfielder — and not a great one. So the Cardinals will add to their outfield glut by inking him to a deal. On a team that likes to develop talent, it would be an odd fit to have to guys signed well into their 30s (the other being Dexter Fowler) taking up two of three MLB outfield spots while the St. Louis farm system is overflowing with talented flychasers including Harrison Bader, Magneuris Sierra and Jose Adolis Garcia. while the Cardinals might be ready to move on from Randal Grichuk and Stephen Piscotty, they still have Tommy Pham to fit into the picture with all the rising kids.
Fellow Royal Eric Hosmer may be the next-best free agent option. He plays first base and is hitting .317 with 22 homers. He enjoyed three seasons of 33 homers or more from 2013-15. But he has only driven in 100 runs once in his career. He’s a two-time Gold Glover and a former All-Star, so he’s got the resume. But he may be the most expensive free agent on the market this winter.
The Cardinals, in the past, have set values on players and then refused to adjust when the market blew past their appraisal. Coming in second in free agent bidding isn’t going to cut it this year. Team leaders can’t shrug their shoulders and say “we tried.” If they do, it’s going to be another miserable year in 2018.
Failing signing one or two of those guys — which would be quite a feat — the Cardinals may have to take the trade route to try to get better. But, judging from the way things panned out at the deadline, it appears that the local ball team may value its young talent more than other clubs covet it.
It’s been said — accurately — that the Birds are so deep they could field two major league teams. The only problem is that both of them would be pretty mediocre at best. The Cardinals can’t go into the off-season thinking that they’re going to flip Aledmys Diaz, currently deposed in Class AAA Memphis, for the slugging cleanup hitter we’ve all been dreaming about. The Cardinals are going to either have to accept a salary dump or else take on a player on an expiring contract and then pony up to keep him into the future if they’re going to land the piece or pieces they need.
I’m glad that it seems the people who are in control have taken off the blinders and admit that this team needs help beyond the standard “internal options.” But admitting you have a problem is only the first step toward getting better. Club chairman Bill DeWitt Jr. is going to have to take the next big step, writing some seriously painful checks, if this situation is going to be different in 2018.