(KMOV.com) — When John Mozeliak coined the phrase ‘January is the new December,’ his intent was to press the point of patience among Cardinals fans.
Since he didn’t specify what part of January the masses could reasonably expect St. Louis to dive into the talent market, he’s technically still in the clear as we near the midpoint of the first month of the new year. Of course, the natives are restless as the team has only subtracted from its 2020 roster without any meaningful additions as a counterweight.
All along, the Cardinals’ plan has been to calmly wait out the market, observant of the opportunities that may emerge. For that strategy to pan out, though, we have to see a pay-off, eventually.
Could the latest grind of the rumor mill contain the market shift that inspires the Cardinals to take action?
Reports this week have indicated the Red Sox are engaged in trade discussions involving outfielder Andrew Benintendi. Benintendi, who has made his home in St. Louis in recent years, is the kind of talent that could add intrigue and upside to the Cardinals outfield mix.
According to multiple sources the #RedSox have been in serious trade talks with multiple teams re: OF Andrew Benintendi looking for prospect(s) type return with emphasis on P & OF....nothing imminent though— Jim Bowden (@JimBowdenGM) January 9, 2021
The 2015 first round draft pick has always been a solid big-league hitter, but the nature of the draft capital attached to his name has inspired elevated expectations for his performance throughout his career. So far, he’s been a classic example of a pretty good player whose numbers are perceived as a letdown relative to his previous status as the number one prospect in all of baseball in 2017.
Over his first four MLB seasons, Benintendi alternated every other year between an OPS in the .830s and the .770s. That’s the difference between strong offensive seasons—around 20 percent better than league-average—and seasons decidedly average season compared to his peers. Instead of progressing to his potential and establishing himself as a consistent star and lineup anchor, Benintendi spun his wheels in 2020. He played in just 14 games, hitting .103 with a .128 slugging percentage—the epitome of a lost season.
With the 26-year-old set to earn $6.6 million this season in year two of a two-year pact with Boston, has his salary already outpaced his value to a lineup? It’s hard to read much into the small but horrifying sample of his 2020 season, but then again, in a climate where quality players slated for similar salaries have been cut loose at an alarming rate this winter, it’s hard to completely ignore the backward step Benintendi just took.
Benintendi will be eligible for arbitration again in 2022, after which he is due to hit free agency. So any team looking to acquire him would be placing a bet on a rebound campaign in 2021—otherwise, Benintendi enters surefire non-tender territory after the season. Wherever he plays, Benintendi has to justify the $6.6 million salary this year to avoid that scenario. His performance in 2021 will shape the narrative for his future.
Still relatively young by baseball standards at 26, two controllable years of Benintendi could be attractive. But this winter, the few teams willing to buy have leverage in the market; not even Yu Darvish or Francisco Lindor fetched elite-caliber prospects when traded by the Cubs and Indians. And neither of them struggled like Benintendi last year. So what do the Sox expect to accomplish by trading him now?
Though Boston shouldn't be desperate to dump the capable contributor, the Red Sox must also recognize that Benintendi’s trade value likely won’t match the allure his name carried a couple years ago. Specific to the Cardinals roster, a match could theoretically be achieved in a swap for pitching or a less proven, cheaper outfielder.
While the Cardinals have their own questions in the starting rotation as of this point in the winter, affordable pitchers like Austin Gomber or Daniel Ponce de Leon should be attractive to the Red Sox. Might they even be willing to consider younger pitchers of the Jake Woodford or Johan Oviedo class? Boston could ask, but it’s conceivable St. Louis would consider any of the above to be an overpay, considering the circumstances. Again, this guy hit .103 last year.
The Cardinals current outfield matrix features Dylan Carlson, Dexter Fowler, Harrison Bader, Tyler O’Neill, Lane Thomas—with some consideration for Justin Williams. Adding an outfielder, if the Cardinals were to go that route, might require getting rid of one. While outsiders debate which of the Cardinals outfielders should merit consideration for playing time and which should be traded for a 55-gallon drum of bubble gum, the Cardinals surely have an internal hierarchy of the names they're most willing to rely upon for the upcoming season.
Where would Benintendi land among that group? The Cardinals have, in the past, lamented the concept of making a move just to make one. If St. Louis maintains the internal belief in their players that has been outwardly expressed throughout the last few months over Zoom calls, it's possible the Cardinals would view Benintendi as yet another complication rather than a clear upgrade to the status quo.
Then there's the narrative surrounding the risk if the Cardinals do make a move, like a one-for-one outfielder swap, for instance. To jettison the wrong player—while increasing the payroll in the process—would be another demerit on a front office that has struggled in recent years to effectively predict which players are due for a breakout.
As Mozeliak said in his end-of-year Zoom press conference, the Cardinals need to be better at evaluating their own players—they don’t want to let another Randy Arozarena go. That’s not to say the front office can afford to get gun-shy based on past misses, but if one of their young players is due to emerge as a solid big-league regular, the Cardinals need to ensure it happens in St. Louis, this time. Guessing wrong again would not make for a pretty sight.
Ultimately, though, the Red Sox might not be positioned to add a player or prospect of significance in a Benintendi trade. This is the team that just last year traded away a former American League MVP because they didn’t want to pay him. If Boston is willing to shed Benintendi just to save a buck, that’s really where it would make sense for the Cardinals to swoop in. A couple low-level prospects for the chance that Benintendi performs in the neighborhood of his .789-career OPS for 2021? That would be an opportunistic gamble.
Given the Cardinals’ intention to decrease payroll in 2021, however, taking a chance on Andrew Benintendi might not be a very legitimate consideration for a team still combing through the ledger to find whether it can afford another year of Yadier Molina or Adam Wainwright. Speculatively, one path toward a deal that alleviates the spending issue for St. Louis could include the Cardinals sending Carlos Martinez to Boston. Of course, that's not a fit if the Red Sox are also determined to shed salary. Fittingly, Martinez had the pitching version of Benintendi's 2020 season; he's owed $11.5 million this season in the final guaranteed year of his contract.
Various routes exist to a deal, but at the end of the day, it comes down to where the Cardinals ultimately want to push their chips for 2021. If the Cardinals still like Benintendi from a scouting perspective—if they still believe in the talent, internally—executing a move that could potentially cost little more than money would be a perfect example of being opportunistic in the market.
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