I’m not a big fan of having several prominent players reach free agency at the same time, but it might actually pay off for the St. Louis Cardinals to ride out 2019 in the last year of control over Paul Goldschmidt, Marcell Ozuna, Michael Wacha and others.
First, it’s a big motivating factor for players to know they’re trying to set themselves up for a big contract. That’s good news because, if they’re going to compete in the upcoming season, the Redbirds need their pending free agents to have big years.
According to Baseball Reference, Ozuna is expected to hit .279 with 24 homers and 84 runs driven in during the 2019 campaign. He’s pegged at a .325 on-base percentage. A lot of that projection is probably based on the left fielder’s so-so 2018 season in which he was hampered by a shoulder problem that sapped his power at the plate and rendered his strong throwing arm a shadow of its former self. He also probably suffered from not being supported in the St. Louis lineup as he was in Miami when Giancarlo Stanton batted next to him in the lineup.
I’m hopeful that Ozuna’s shoulder will be back to normal — and we know Goldschmidt will be helping him out in the middle of the batting order. Adding those factors to Ozuna’s desire to land a big contract, I’m hoping he can outperform the projections and turn in a season closer to what he did in 2017, a year that saw him bat .312 with 37 homers and 124 drive in. He had a whopping .376 on-base percentage that year compared with a projected .325 mark for 2019.
It may be that 2017 was a career year for Ozuna that he can never quite match. But he wants to show prospective bidders for his services that it wasn’t — that those all-star numbers are who he really is. The left fielder could be perceived as a player like Juan Encarnacion, a nice supporting cast member who was never really a star. Or he could prove to be one of the top 25 hitters in baseball and earn himself a mega contract for 2020 and beyond.
A season like his 2017 might not be realistic. But if Ozuna batted .285 with 30 plus homers and drives in close to 100 runs, it would definitely enhance his earning power significantly.
Goldschmidt has been a more consistent high performer than Ozuna. But he’s also two years older. That means he’ll be out in 2019 to prove that the slow start he got off to last season with the Arizona Diamondbacks was a fluke so he can give teams confidence he’s worthy of a lengthier contract. He’s going to watch a couple of $300 million pacts be passed out this year and, while he may not get a 10-year deal because of his age, he’s surely going to want to average more than $30 million a season, the going rate for premium players.
Michael Wacha was brilliant for part of 2018. But, as has been the case too often, he broke down and finished the season with question marks hanging over his head. He needs to have a big year to convince St. Louis — or another team — to give him the security of a long term contract that other players of his age — and younger — have already landed. I don’t see much of a chance for Wacha to continue with the Cardinals because of his health. It’s a shame because he was so brilliant when he was an up and coming hurler. But, hopefully, he’ll save his best for last and leave us with something great to remember.
Second, while it would be nice to have the foundation of the team locked in for 2020 and beyond, having some payroll flexibility may give the Cardinals a chance to improve their team in other ways next winter. Where there is uncertainty there is also opportunity. While the Birds can’t keep all of their pieces, I’m hopeful they can keep the right ones.
What if Nolan Arenado makes it to free agency without a new contract from the Colorado Rockies? The Birds could sign him and move Matt Carpenter back to first or, dare I say, St. Louis could sign Arenado, extend Goldschmidt, let Ozuna walk and decline Matt Carpenter’s option to improve the defense, make the team younger and lock the long term offensive core in place. An infield of Arenado, Paul DeJong, Kolten Wong and Goldschmidt would be a great foundation for a team. Lots of power, much better defense than we’ve been used to lately. It would be worth a year of uncertainty to end up with something like that in the end.