We continue our series in which we look at how each 2015 playoff team can go about the offseason in order to chase a ring in 2016. For more of an introduction, see the first piece in the series about the Yankees. We continue here with a team that often finds itself in a good position by the end of September: the St. Louis Cardinals.
Since so much has already happened in the offseason, I will be looking at the deals each team has already made and giving my input. I will keep the mostly inconsequential ones, but for the most part I will be making my moves as though the offseason has not yet started and all of the free agents are still out there and all the traded players are put back on their original teams.
1. Signed Brayan Peña to a two-year contract and traded Tony Cruz to the Kansas City Royals for a minor league infielder
We’ll keep this one here as the switch from Cruz to Peña does not mean much. Either one could be viewed as a solid backup catcher, but neither will provide much value, if any, during the course of the season in the 30 or 40 games that they are asked to play. I probably like Peña a little bit better as a player, but there is something to be said for continuity, so this one is pretty much a push for me.
Gyorko has good power for a second baseman, but that is about it. In his three seasons, the highest on-base percentage that he has recorded is .301. I realize that the Cardinals are loaded in the outfield right now, but Jay is more valuable as a backup than Gyorko is because of his stellar defense at all three outfield positions. If the Cardinals were looking for a backup middle infielder, I find it hard to believe that they couldn’t have done better than Gyorko, especially since Greg Garcia has hit well in the high levels of the minors for them.
3. Re-signed Jonathan Broxton to a two-year contract
I actually find this one a bit baffling. I realize that the Cardinals had a lot of middle relief pitchers hitting free agency and that Broxton pitched really well for them in 26 games last season, but he has had a lot more bad seasons recently than good ones. I would have at least waited for the relief pitching market to settle before making this deal. There are reasons to think that Broxton could be good, as he had 9.4 strikeouts per nine innings and about five ground balls per four fly balls, but those were the best numbers he had posted in five seasons. How do we know that they are for real? Again, he could be good, but we have seen what it looks like when he’s not, so this one comes with a good deal of risk. It seems unnecessary to take that risk so early into the free agency period with a middle relief pitcher.
4. Signed Mike Leake to a five-year contract
As I mentioned in the article on the Yankees, I am a huge Mike Leake fan. He is one of the more reliable and consistent number three or four starters in baseball. While he doesn't strike out many batters, he rarely gives up free bases. His career walk rate is around one free pass for every four innings pitched, which puts him towards the top of the league in that category. He maintains a high ground ball to fly ball ratio, so batters have a tough time getting too many extra base hits against him even though they are able to put the ball in play. I think the length of this deal is about right considering that he is only 28 years old and he doesn't rely on velocity. In fact, he throws far more sinkers than he does four-seam fastballs and even throws a cutter about twice as often as a straight fastball. He has recently started using a knuckle-curve that adds even more movement to his repertoire, and he keeps changing speeds just enough to keep hitters' timing a little bit off. Leake should fit nicely behind Adam Wainwright, Carlos Martinez, and Michael Wacha, as a pitcher who will provide a lot of innings and an ERA in the high 3's.
5. Signed Seung-hwan Oh to a one-year contract
Oh was signed out of the Japan Central League, where he played baseball for two seasons after nine seasons in the Korean Baseball Organization. Obviously, there is no perfect way to predict MLB numbers based on performance in other leagues, but I believe that we need to stop treating players who played in baseball leagues from other countries like they were playing a different sport. We are always asked to temper expectations for these players, but they seem to be performing just fine in the United States. Sure, there are some notable busts along the way, but it's not like that doesn't happen with MLB free agents. With Masahiro Tanaka and Yu Darvish quickly becoming aces for their respective pitching staffs, it is time to realize that pitchers from other baseball organizations have enough talent to pitch well in Major League Baseball. Oh was a closer for his teams in Japan and Korea, and he was a very good one. He posted incredible walk and strikeout rates while keeping home runs to a minimum. Batters have had a really tough time solving this guy, and we should see more of the same now that he will be pitching for the Cardinals. St. Louis made a smart move by taking advantage of the fact that teams are too skeptical of how pitchers from other leagues will play in MLB and picking up a good relief pitcher for little money.
Just as a reminder, here are the cutoffs that we are looking at:
Last year’s recap:
Lost in National League Division Series in 4 games to the Chicago Cubs.
Total WAR: 49.9
Top 12 WAR: 42.5
Top 16 WAR: 47.5
The good news is that WAR had the Cardinals as the best team in the National League last season and they have some good, young players making a difference for their entire team. The bad news is that between just the pair of Jason Heyward and John Lackey, they lose 12 wins to free agency and are unlikely to get those wins back even if they re-sign those two. Lackey is very unlikely to repeat his 2015 season. However, they do get Adam Wainwright back plus Randal Grichuk and Thomas Pham for the whole season, so some of those wins come back without doing anything. With just a few moves this offseason, the Cardinals will be competing with the Pirates and Cubs for the NL Central at the end of the season.
1. Trade Stephen Piscotty to the Miami Marlins for Marcell Ozuna
This is the only really big move that I will be suggesting for the Cardinals so let’s start right here. Piscotty was fantastic at the plate last season, slashing .305/.359/.494 in 63 games at the age of 24. Throw in three home runs in four postseason games and he looks like he might be a good middle-of-the-order hitter for years to come. So why do I think that the Cardinals should trade him? Well, there is the issue that he might not have a position. He cost his team four runs in the outfield in just under 500 innings out there, and didn’t fare any better at first base when the Cardinals tried him there. Despite those great hitting numbers, Piscotty ended the season at just .9 WAR with a DWAR of -1.0. In other words, he took away more than half of his value just by playing the field. Is it possible that he can hit well enough throughout his career that his fielding doesn’t matter? Yes, but it isn’t probable. His minor league on-base percentage hovered around .360 and he showed above average but not great power in the minor leagues. It is more likely that Piscotty is a 25 home run hitter with a good average and on-base percentage. That is certainly a coveted asset, but combine that with horrendous fielding and it doesn’t look as good anymore. My recommendation for the Cardinals is that they trade him for a more well-rounded player right now, before his fielding gets to be a real problem. Miami seems like a good destination for Piscotty because, although they don’t have a designated hitter, their offense was a huge problem for them last season and their infield defense was very good, anchored by shortstop Adeiny Hechavarria. They could slot Piscotty in at first base and give the Marlins a great top of the order in Christian Yelich, Piscotty, and Giancarlo Stanton. While they’re at it, Justin Bour might make an intriguing trade target for other teams. Piscotty’s defensive limitations would not hurt a team as much if he was paired with a good infield, which the Marlins do have. As for Ozuna, he was a pretty big disappointment last season after posting a 4.4 WAR in his sophomore campaign. His home runs went way down and his fielding wasn’t nearly as good. However, I think there are a lot of signs pointing towards a bounce back campaign. Although he has never had a high on-base percentage, Ozuna consistently hit 20-25 home runs each year in the minor leagues. Seeing that he did that in the majors in 2014, Ozuna should be able to get back to that range for next season and throughout his career. Also, his line drive rate actually increased even though his average went down, so there may have been some bad luck involved. His fly ball percentage didn’t drop nearly enough to warrant the decline in power, so those numbers should rebound back to his career norms. Finally, we get to his fielding, where he saved 11 runs in the outfield in 2014 but cost his team 3 runs in 2015. In DWAR, he went from 1.4 to -.2. Although this is a huge drop off, you can’t be an average fielder and get lucky to the point where you are saving 11 runs and getting 1.4 wins for your team. Some interesting trends that may not be unrelated are that he went from 9 triples in 2013 and 2014 combined to 0 in 2015 and went from 8/10 stolen bases in his first two seasons to 2/5 in 2015. It sure looks like something was hampering his speed, given these numbers. It could just be a coincidence, but I don’t think it’s dumb to assume that he was battling some minor injuries all year long that affected the way he played. He is only 25 years old, so there would be no worry of a natural decline in speed, and if he did have any injuries they clearly are not serious. Either way, I would be pretty surprised if he did not at least get back to the average of the past two seasons defensively, although I am expecting that 2015 was more of a fluke. If he does this and gets his power back to where it should be, then Ozuna will go back to being a 3-4 WAR player, which is something that I don’t think Piscotty can accomplish given his defensive limitations.
2. Sign Ryan Madson and Jason Frasor
As I mentioned earlier, the Cardinals have a lot of relief pitchers hitting free agency this winter. Luckily for them, the free agent relief market is pretty deep (another reason they could have waited on Broxton.) Madson might cost some money, but he was very effective for the Royals last season and could team up with Kevin Siegrist and Trevor Rosenthal to form an incredible last three innings. The other reason that Madson is worth it is that the remaining pieces that the Cardinals have are hit-or-miss in terms of whether or not they can get the job done on any given night. If they don’t want to make him a 7th inning guy, then he could be their most reliable middle reliever. As for Frasor, he may be 38 years old, but he is still striking out batters at a good clip. He managed to be worth one full win above replacement in just 28 innings last season, and if he gets injured the Cardinals do have some young arms that can fill in. If he stays healthy, then he will get the job done. The Cardinals are in a position where they can take that risk.
3. Sign Steve Pearce to a two-year contract
Mark Reynolds was fun last season, but the Cardinals could use a more versatile backup who can cover multiple positions adequately. Yes, Pearce did hurt his team by being on the field last season according to WAR but Pearce has shown throughout his career that he is not that bad. Even if we throw out his surprisingly great 2014 season, his batting average dropped more than 20 points and his on-base percentage by 30 points relative to his career line. However, his strikeout rate was just about in line with where he usually is. His ground ball rate actually decreased, so the decline in power is probably nothing to worry about, and he can hit lefties and righties equally well. Defensively, however, it is difficult to understand exactly what happened. Before 2014 he was just an average fielder at multiple positions, maybe slightly below average. He then jumped all the way to 1.5 DWAR in 2014 and then back down to -1.0 DWAR in 2015. The most likely scenario is that he is still just an average fielder and that those two seasons more or less balance each other out. He can handle first base and both the corner outfield positions adequately and can be a good pinch hitter. All of these tools make him a nice backup to have, especially for a team with so many positions already set.
The Final Team and Projections
Yadier Molina (2.3 WAR) – Although he is on the downside of his career, WAR still doesn’t appreciate his ability to control a game enough.
Brayan Peña (0.0) – He is a decent backup but probably won’t add any wins.
Matt Adams (2.5) – He has more power than he has shown, as his home run per fly ball ratio is lower than it should be.
Steve Pearce (.9) – His walk rate should go back to normal, and he’ll provide good value off the bench.
Kolten Wong (2.7) – He is a very good fielder who made strides at the plate last season.
Greg Garcia (1.1) – Versatile infielder who is a patient hitter and doesn’t strike out much.
Matt Carpenter (3.2) – I don’t fully buy into his power surge, but his fly ball rate did spike last season.
Jhonny Peralta (2.2) – Still provides solid play at a position where that is hard to find, but his decrease in power is concerning.
Randal Grichuk (4.8) – This is just a little bit above what he would have done last season in 150 games.
Thomas Pham (3.8) – He will also look much better after a full season.
Marcell Ozuna (3.1) – His bad luck in the power department will go away and this will be a good looking outfield.
Matt Holliday (.4) – He still gets on base at a very good clip but he can’t play the field at all anymore.
Jon Jay (.6) – He can play all three outfield positions well, which is a need with Holliday still on the roster.
Adam Wainwright (4.7) – He has never relied on velocity, so I am not too worried about his upcoming season.
Michael Wacha (3.0) – He should continue to pitch well, if erratically, but he won’t be a great pitcher.
Carlos Martinez (3.7) – Given how impressive his strikeout and home run numbers were, Martinez just might be great.
Jaime Garcia (2.6) – When he’s healthy he does not walk batters and rarely lets the ball go out of the park.
Marco Gonzales (1.6) – He rarely walked batters in the minor leagues and none of his catchers there were named Yadier Molina.
Trevor Rosenthal (2.2) – He may walk some batters, but good luck catching up to his heater.
Kevin Siegrist (1.8) – Quickly emerging as a great setup man, Seigrist struck out 90 batters in 75 innings last year.
Tim Cooney (1.5) – He has shown great command throughout the minors both in terms of strikeouts and walks and he could even move to the rotation if necessary.
Ryan Madson (1.6) – Despite missing three full seasons, he picked up right where he left off.
Jason Frasor (.7) – If he can continue to find a way to strike out batters, he will continue to be effective.
Steve Cishek (.8) – They have let him go, but Cishek really was not as bad as his numbers appeared the past two seasons.
Jordan Walden (1.0) – He has control issues but makes up for it by striking out 11 batters per nine innings.
Here are the numbers for the Cardinals: