Springer and Brantley

Houston Astros' Michael Brantley (23) celebrates with George Springer (4) after hitting a home run against the Texas Rangers during the first inning of a baseball game Wednesday, Sept. 2, 2020, in Houston. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

(KMOV.com) — If you’re reading tea leaves in these early days of the MLB offseason, you’ve noticed reports of the Cardinals’ marquee free agents drawing considerable interest from other teams.

St. Louis let Kolten Wong walk over $11.5 million in payroll savings for 2021; Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that Wong has heard interest from at least six teams. Even if the Cardinals had interest in bringing back Wong, it’s clear they’d have some competition. Assuming the team is interested, though, might also be a mistake.

The Cardinals gave Wong a phone call the day after the World Series to inform him the team would not exercise his option.

“I told him that with some of the uncertainties, we’re just not in a position to do that,” John Mozeliak said. Rather than attempt to re-negotiate Wong’s salary for 2021, it seems they left it at that.

Then there’s the situation surrounding Yadier Molina and Adam Wainwright.

The St. Louis Cardinals have historically valued legacy. If you’re a Cardinals legend, the team wants to build you a statue. The team wants to parade you around in your red jacket on Opening Day, even decades following your retirement. Cardinals owner Bill DeWitt Jr. has been clear about the way he values these kinds of players.

"When we get a core player, we like to keep him here," Cardinals owner Bill DeWitt Jr. said in 2019. "We've made every effort to do that since I've been here and before."

The Cardinals gave Matt Carpenter $37 million in additional guarantees in 2019—before they had to do so—because they valued his legacy wearing the birds on the bat. But entering this winter, the COVID-19 pandemic has changed the Cardinals’ level of comfort with their payroll obligations.

Uncertainty surrounding revenues for 2021 is a major reason the team declined Wong’s option. It’s a major reason the futures of Molina and Wainwright in St. Louis weren’t secured before they reached free agency. Now that they've reached the market, though, the Cardinals will have to match or exceed what it bears for those players. That was certainly a reality of which the team had to be aware. But in a market that is expected to be rather quiet, Wainwright has already drawn interest from the Atlanta Braves, among possible others. Molina has drawn interest from three times in addition to the Cardinals.

If the Cardinals aren’t willing to spend what it takes this offseason to retain two of the most iconic players in the history of the organization for the twilight of their careers, it seems unlikely they would turn around and spend heavily in free agency.

So, while the above preamble to a discussion on free-agent fits for the Cardinals understandably throws a bucket of cold water on the words that follow, it’s necessary to contextualize the club’s level of anticipated activity in the market in the coming weeks and months.

Now that we’ve done so, though, let’s speculate on who could make sense if the team is willing to make an addition. The Cardinals ranked 28th in runs scored and 26th in OPS across MLB this season. Their offensive blueprint to revitalize behind incremental improvements from their internal options simply did not pan out.

There were, of course, extenuating circumstances involving the club’s COVID-19 outbreak that contributed to the bottom-rung finish in most statistical categories. Still, it’s hard to look at what the Cardinals have done at the plate over the past couple years and feel confident that they have the horses in the stable necessary for dramatic offensive improvement next season.

Whether the Cardinals bring back any of their current free agents or make any outside additions to strengthen the roster this winter remains to be seen. If they do wade into the waters for free agency, it would make sense to add a bat that could provide some production to a struggling lineup. Here are a few of the names that would seem to fit.

OF George Springer

In any other year, in any other time, and under any other circumstances, George Springer would be such a great fit for the 2021 Cardinals. 

Though the difficulty of evaluating individual player performance during the COVID-impacted 2020 season will be a topic of conversation surrounding free agents like Marcell Ozuna, whose merits will be debated after a sudden uptick in his production this year, Springer should be spared from such scrutiny. The 31-year-old outfielder has been a consistent producer for his entire big-league career. He had the best year of his life in 2019 when he hit 39 home runs with a .974 OPS for the American League Champion Houston Astros, and followed it up in the shortened season with a strong .265/.359/.540 batting line. He wields the type of bat that would make a legitimate impact on any team’s production.

Though Springer served as the primary leadoff hitter for Houston this season, he could conceivably bat in the two-hole or cleanup to provide quality protection for Paul Goldschmidt in the Cardinals lineup. Unfortunately, there is virtually no expectation that a free agent of Springer’s caliber could be in the cards for St. Louis this offseason. MLB Trade Rumors projects Springer to receive a five-year, $125 million contract this winter as the third-most significant free agent of the offseason.

Given the team’s recent statements about the payroll, a run at Springer is unlikely.

Fit for the Cardinals roster: 10/10

Fit given the expected contract: 0/10

OF Michael Brantley

A couple winters ago, when Bryce Harper was a free agent, Cardinals fans were clamoring for their team to make a run at the slugging outfielder. Though rumors persisted, St. Louis never really emerged as a legitimate contender for Harper’s services. Another player that seemed attractive, and more reasonably within the Cardinals’ comfort level, was Michael Brantley. He wasn’t the flashy name at the time, but time has shown St. Louis would have done well to have signed him. He landed with the Astros for $32 million over two years.

In the last two seasons, Brantley proceeded to compile 27 home runs, 112 RBIs and an .867 OPS for Houston. In an age where .300 hitters in MLB have become more of a rare occurrence, Brantley cleared that number in both seasons, batting .309 overall. It’s not too far out of line with his career batting line of .297. Though Brantley dealt with the ‘injury prone’ label earlier in his career, he has established himself as a consistent offensive force when he’s in the lineup—and he mostly has been over his last four seasons.

Brantley turns 34 in May, leading to the question of whether he can sustain his recent production trends as he continues to age. In an offseason that doesn’t figure to produce too many major multi-year contracts, though, a two-year wager on Brantley could be a worthy one for teams seeking a sturdy lefty bat.

If you’re the Cardinals, adding a strong hitter should be attractive, regardless of handedness. MLB Trade Rumors projects a two-year deal at $28 million for Brantley. That’s probably more than the Cardinals intend to spend on an outside addition, but Brantley would represent a savvy improvement for a unit that needs it.

Fit for the Cardinals roster: 9/10

Fit given the expected contract: 2/10

OF Joc Pederson

Now we’ve entered the territory of free agents that could be more feasible for the Cardinals, with questions, though, as to whether it would be worthwhile. Joc Pederson is a 28-year-old slugger with 130 home runs and a strong .806 OPS in his MLB career. From that perspective, he would seem like a good bet to add production to the St. Louis outfield. When you look just at his numbers from the shortened 2020 campaign, however, you’d be forgiven if you thought you were looking at Tyler O’Neill’s stat line from the season. 

Pederson hit seven home runs with a .190/.285/.397 batting line. O’Neill checked in with seven home runs and a .173/.261/.360 line. One could make the argument that a mulligan for O’Neill—who was named a Gold Glover this week—would be just as compelling as a free-agent signing like Pederson, who also struggled this year at the plate. Pederson’s body of work, though, is a factor O’Neill just doesn’t boast as a big-leaguer. Depending on the price, Pederson would be an intriguing name to add to the outfield mix competing for playing time in St. Louis.

MLB Trade Rumors actually predicts Pederson to land with the Cardinals on two-year contract worth $18 million. Pederson does have a connection to the organization as his brother, Tyger, has served as a hitting instructor in the St. Louis organization since 2019. If the Cardinals omit themselves from a more attractive tier of free agents based on their unwillingness to spend, Pederson could be a lottery ticket that makes some sense if he stays on the market for a while.

Fit for the Cardinals roster: 5/10

Fit given the expected contract: 5/10

Copyright 2020 KMOV (Meredith Corporation). All rights reserved.

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