As the calendar flips to December, rumors and reports on MLB's hot stove have begun to trickle in with increased frequency. By the time the Winter Meetings in San Diego roll around next week, perhaps we'll be lucky enough to enjoy a steady flow of signings and trades to whet our appetites for the return of baseball in the spring.
The Cardinals enter this offseason with few glaring needs, but with plenty of room to improve their roster before pitchers and catchers report to Jupiter, Florida in mid-February.
Here are four free-agent moves the Cardinals should make this winter:
1. Land one of the following starters: Madison Bumgarner, Hyun-Jin Ryu, Dallas Keuchel
The Cardinals need to acquire a starting pitcher.
Not since Jaime Garcia have the Cardinals had a left-hander in their regular starting rotation.
This winter, three quality veteran southpaws are available on the free-agent market in Hyun-Jin Ryu, Madison Bumgarner and Dallas Keuchel. For the reasons listed above, any of them would make a lot of sense for a Cardinals team that was hungry for quality rotation depth even before allowing Michael Wacha to walk in free agency.
Probably due to his injury history, Ryu’s name seems to play second or third fiddle when it comes to hot stove chatter surrounding available starting pitchers this winter. Gerrit Cole and Stephen Strasburg are the big fish. You’ll hear them connected to big-market titans like the Dodgers or Yankees, perhaps even the Phillies. Finally healthy, Zack Wheeler is reportedly garnering aggressive attention from several teams at the moment. He’s finally healthy enough to live up to his potential and he’s still young enough that a five-year contract is a feasible risk.
With Bumgarner, you’re likely to pay a premium for name recognition. It’s easy to drift into a daydream featuring his past postseason heroics, imagining he could do something similar for your franchise in Octobers yet to come. His overall numbers in 2019 (9-9, 3.90 ERA) weren’t quite at his previous level, but Bumgarner showed stretches of dominance during the season’s second half. He also gobbled up 207.1 innings in 34 starts, indicating he could still be a workhorse for whichever team adds him this winter.
At 30 years old, it would make sense for Bumgarner to chase every last dollar on a multi-year contract. The Cardinals have the capacity to be competitive in such a bidding war, but will they do so for a big-name hurler who could command attention from fat-walleted clubs as the winter unfolds?
Most projections have the elder Ryu—he’ll turn 33 in March—likely to receive a lesser contract than Bumgarner. For Cardinals fans who grimaced at the mention of Jaime Garcia above, Ryu might not be for you. With a checkered injury history, Ryu’s 2019 was the first season since 2013 in which he eclipsed 180 innings pitched. In many of the other years, he didn’t even come close.
When Ryu’s been on the mound, though, he's been one of the best pitchers in the game.
In 265 innings over his past two seasons, Ryu has an almost-unbelievable 2.22 ERA. He’s not a massive strikeout guy (252 in that span) but he gets his fair share of them and then relies upon his fielders for the rest—which could mesh well with the Cardinals’ league-best defense. Another feather in his cap: Ryu doesn’t walk guys. His miniscule 1.2 walks per nine innings last season was tops among all MLB starters.
The nature of injury history is a concern, but that's a risk with any pitcher nowadays. If Ryu can be had on a three-year deal, he would be an attractive addition for St. Louis.
Then there’s Keuchel, who showed last year he’s still pretty effective, posting a 3.75 ERA in 19 starts with the Braves under circumstances that were definitely unique. How will teams evaluate him this winter after their collective freeze-out of the now 29-year-old caused Keuchel to miss the first couple months of last season? If there’s any hint of another cold market for Keuchel this time around, the Cardinals should position themselves as the team to benefit from it.
All three of these guys should interest the Cardinals. They ought to leave the offseason with one of them.
2. Sign Yasiel Puig
With outgoing left fielder Marcell Ozuna seeking a multi-year windfall in free agency, the Cardinals aren’t expected to make a run at bringing him back. St. Louis has a plethora of young, toolsy outfielders to battle for playing time, but it’s unclear whether any of them can establish themselves as MLB regulars. The closest to a sure-thing among the group is top-prospect Dylan Carlson, but it remains to be seen how quickly the Cardinals intend to expedite the 21-year-old’s progress toward becoming an everyday MLB outfielder.
Not to mention, the incumbents elsewhere in the Cardinals outfield—Harrison Bader, Dexter Fowler—didn’t exactly light the world on fire in 2019. Frankly, there’s uncertainty here, so it doesn’t bother me that Puig’s primary position throughout his career has been right field. I’m not after Puig for his defense and his potential predecessor in St. Louis wasn’t exactly a Gold Glover (Okay, so once upon a time, he technically was, but… come on, now). A high-upside veteran on a low-risk contract would seem sensible as the Cardinals attempt to parse through this outfield group for the upcoming season.
Does any outfielder in this free-agent class fit that description better than Yasiel Puig?
There’s no doubting Puig’s raw ability, but inconsistency has been an element of his game for as long as he’s been in the big leagues. Still, he’s posted strong offensive stats for the majority of seasons in his seven-year MLB career.
2019 wasn’t one of them. Traded twice in the past calendar year, Puig endured a down season by his standards, finishing with a narrowly above-average 101 wRC+ in 611 plate appearances between the Reds and Indians. He still mashed 24 home runs, driving in 84, but his .785 OPS was underwhelming for a contract-year.
It’s not hard to envision the potential for more still exists within the 28-year-old lightning rod.
MLB Trade Rumors predicted Puig would sign a one-year, $8 million contract with the Tigers. If that’s the general price range for a player with Puig’s upside, the Cardinals should absolutely wade into those waters—if for no other reason than to ensure he isn’t signed by an NL rival (like the Cubs) where he could continue to torment St. Louis. Puig’s .904 career-OPS against the Cardinals is 81 points higher than his overall career-mark of .823.
In 2015 and 2016, Puig posted consecutive OPS numbers of .758 and .740 before bouncing back to .833 and .820 in the following seasons. With the potential for another rebound closer to his career norms in 2020, Puig would be a fascinating and affordable addition to the Cardinals outfield mix.
3. Bring back Matt Wieters
There are three constants in life: Death, taxes and Yadier Molina. Entering the final year of his most recent contract extension, there are reports that the Cardinals longtime backstop is seeking another one; contrary to what we all assumed when he signed the extension, Molina doesn’t necessarily plan to retire when it expires after 2020.
Still, as he advances in age, Yadi’s ability to take on an iron-man role has decreased. Over the past four seasons, Molina’s games played have declined annually: 147, 136, 123, 113. Though the Cardinals pitching staff is still in excellent hands when he’s on the field, it’s imprudent to assume at this stage of his career that Molina will play 136+ games a year, as he did every season from 2009 to 2013.
Catcher is a demanding position. Even if Molina intends to play forever, the Cardinals should realize his potential to miss time and prioritize his backup accordingly.
With St. Louis seemingly content to begin another season with light-hitting Francisco Pena as Yadi’s backup last spring, a better option fell into its lap. Of 30 MLB clubs, the Cardinals were the only one to call former All-Star and Gold Glover Matt Wieters. Wieters inked a minor-league deal with St. Louis before ultimately winning the backup gig behind Molina.
Wieters didn’t hit for much of an average and he didn’t get on base with frequency, but he proved to have the clutch gene last season with the Cardinals, blasting 11 home runs in 183 plate appearances. As a switch-hitter, Wieters was also used strategically off the bench when the situation called for it. And with two Gold Gloves in his pocket, Wieters was trusted to handle defensive duties in Molina’s absence.
Andrew Knizner’s time may eventually arrive, but with Molina still commanding the bulk of the action behind the plate in St. Louis, the best thing for his development might be to log as many innings as possible down in Memphis.
That would leave the Cardinals in need of a backup catcher. Given Wieters’ pedigree and the benefit of continuity, a reunion would make sense.
4. Take a flier on Jeremy Jeffress
Formerly a dominant back-end reliever for the Brewers, Jeremy Jeffress struggled mightily in 2019, ultimately leading to his release from Milwaukee at the beginning of September. He began the season on the injured list with a shoulder issue and ended it on the injured list with a left hip problem; it’s easy to imagine his various maladies factored into his poor performance.
The now 32-year-old Jeffress carried a 5.02 ERA across 48 appearances last season, but his Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) was a more palatable 3.96. After being released in early September by the Brewers, Jeffress elected to begin preparations for a healthy 2020 rather than sign with another team for the stretch run.
Jeffress changed agents last month to Kyle Thousand of Roc Nation Sports and will likely seek a major-league deal if everything with his health is progressing positively. There’s a bit of risk in extending a multi-million dollar deal to Jeffress given the cliff off which he fell last season, but he’s only a year removed from performing as one of the most dominant relievers in baseball.
Since the Cardinals haven’t fared well lately signing relievers to substantial, multi-year contracts, taking a shot at a reclamation project with obvious upside could be a sensible shift in approach. At the right price, a reinvigorated Jeffress would provide quality value to the team that signs him in 2020.
And a bonus mid-season target...
Keep Aaron Sanchez in mind
Aaron Sanchez is the Astros reclamation project cut short by injury.
When Houston acquired the flamethrowing right-hander at last year’s trade deadline, his ERA as a starter for Toronto was 6.07. He found quick success with the Astros, taking part in a combined no-hitter in his first start for Houston, but then saw his season cut short by shoulder surgery.
Whether Sanchez can return healthy from this injury—and whether he can do so in time to pitch in 2020—is anybody's guess, so this suggestion may not look as relevant when the time arrives to pull the trigger on it. As he progresses in his rehab next summer, however, Sanchez would be an interesting guy for the Cardinals to monitor.
Sanchez burst onto the scene in 2014 as a 21-year-old rookie with an upper-90s fastball and nasty off-speed stuff. He finished that partial season with the Blue Jays with a 1.09 ERA in 33 innings as a reliever. The next season, he started 11 games and appeared as a reliever for 30; his ERA out of the bullpen that season was 2.39.
After one excellent full season as a starter in 2016, Sanchez has battled injuries and inconsistent performance. Still, last fall he was flashing triple-digit heat—as a starter!—before his injury. Is that not the kind of stuff you'd like to see in a late-inning reliever?
Somehow, not since 2015 has a team tried to recapture his mojo by moving him back to the bullpen. If he gets back to health, Sanchez could be an intriguing weapon in such a role by the stretch run of 2020.
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