It's obvious that the team has a lot of the pieces of the puzzle in place. But it's missing something needed to put the club over the top in the National League Central Division. But, in late May of a long season, where can the Redbirds find that piece — and what would it cost them to add it?
The Christmas list addition is Baltimore Orioles superstar infielder Manny Machado who definitely has the talent to be an impact player. But the O's wouldn't give up their young star over the winter because no team would meet their outrageous asking price. It's doubtful that stance is going to change now or at the trading deadline. It doesn't make any sense for St. Louis to give up three or four top prospects for a short-term rental player that the team is unlikely to be able to re-sign at the end of the year.
The Birds are likely going to have to look for a more modest solution.
One guy the Cardinals easily could have had last off-season was Kansas City Royals third baseman Mike Moustakas who got absolutely no attention on the free agent market. After hanging out all winter looking for a multi-year contract, Moose ended up accepting just $6 million on a one-year deal.
Is Moustakas equivalent to Machado? Not at all. But he could improve the Cardinals batting order and the team's defense over players who are filling those roles now. I know I've mentioned this move before. But the timing is excellent because Kansas City is hopelessly buried at 14-32 in the American League Central Division.
Going into the winter, it was my contention that the Redbirds desperately needed to improve on the infield corners. In short, both Matt Carpenter and Jose Martinez are awful defenders who are always a threat to hurt their team with their gloves as much or more as they help it with their bats. Carpenter must be stashed at first base to minimize his terrible throwing arm. But the front office decided that Jose Martinez, who can't field first base as well as the average junior high school infielder, needed to play and he forced Carpenter back across the diamond where it's painful to watch him lollipop the ball over to first.
Could the weight of struggling in the field be weighing on Carpenter, causing his .177 batting average? Maybe. But it also might have something to do with the fact that Carp only seems to feel comfortable batting leadoff. With a chance to add to the offense AND improve the defense last winter, the Birds chose to do neither, doubling down on their bad corner fielders by adding Martinez. At the same time, they decided to skip on the chance to find a third-place hitter and instead decided to take Carpenter out of his comfort zone. It's been a disaster.
So, back to Moustakas: Whether or not he is Brooks Robinson with the glove, he's immeasurably better at third base than Carpenter. Moose has two errors in 101 chances with a .980 fielding percentage. At the plate, he'd easily be the best power hitter in the St. Louis lineup so far this season, batting .295 with 10 home runs.
All of that production for about a third of what Moustakas would have received if he would have accepted Kansas City's qualifying offer sounds like a lot of bang for the buck to me.
Cardinals President of Baseball Operations John Mozeliak can't turn back the hands of time and sign Moustakas now. But could he still be had? The short answer is "probably." The Royals are absolutely awful this season and look as if they're headed back into another 30-year rebuilding plan. So their front office is probably more than willing to get rid of veterans. The longer answer includes the words "but at what price?" If I am in charge of the St. Louis player procurement responsibilities, I am not even going to consider giving up a top prospect for a guy that KC seemed to begrudgingly take back into the fold when he didn't have a better offer. But if the Royals were willing to give up their third baseman at a reasonable price, I'd definitely be ready to talk trade.
So who would the Cardinals give up?
Well, to be honest — and I know a lot of the blindly loyal fans are going to flip out when I say this — I would offer Jose Martinez back to Kansas City, which traded him away to the Cardinals after several years in the Royals farm system.
But... but... Martinez is one of the Birds' best hitters. Yeah, maybe. But the guy is a designated hitter and the Cardinals play in the National League which I hope and pray will never adopt that abomination to the game. Martinez has directly caused the Birds to lose at least three games with his lousy fielding, including a two-run error Saturday when he couldn't manage to catch an easy ball. St. Louis lost the game by one run. You do the math.
Would the Royals take Martinez? I think it would be a great trade for them. They'd get a guy who is controllable at a cheap price for several years in exchange for a guy they didn't really want anyway. Before you say that sounds like a bad deal for St. Louis, Moustakas would be a much better fit for the Cardinals as a cleanup hitter because he has much more power than Martinez. But he also would affect the run differential because he's better at third than Carpenter and Carpenter is better at first than Martinez.
Hopefully, with the pressure off Carpenter to play a position he's not suited to play, his bat will come back to life and you'll have a much better all-around team.
Every time I bring up Moustakas, I hear lots of howling about it. No, I don't think he is the new Scott Rolen or Mike Schmidt. But he's a lot better than what the Cardinals currently have, he's insanely cheap by major league standards, and this team is right in the thick of things. I think they might win five more games over the remainder of the season with Moustakas in the middle of the order and at third base plus the residual defensive improvements that come with it. And five games, in a tight National League Central, could make all the difference.