It doesn't happen often, but with the hot stove in full swing Wednesday, the Cardinals stole all the headlines. Their big splash for Paul Goldschmidt put the league on notice: It took 'em a while, but the Cards have a legitimate three-hole slugger once again.
It was an exciting day to be a Cardinals fan. Swirling rumors of a true impact bat on the move culminated with that player wearing the birds on the bat. That's pretty cool.
An offensive upgrade at a corner infield spot was the top priority for St. Louis coming into the winter. You can check that one off the list. But before the cyber-ink could dry on the Cardinals press release announcing the Goldschmidt trade—the introductory press conference is scheduled for Friday, by the way—many on social media, the writer of this article included, were already clamoring for more from Mo and Co. in the front office.
If the Cardinals want to twist the knife on the rest of the NL Central, they back up the Brinks truck for Bryce Harper, and they do it swiftly.— Brenden Schaeffer (@bschaeffer12) December 5, 2018
Could you imagine?
The premise: A trade for Paul Goldschmidt shouldn't preclude the Cardinals from a heavy-handed pursuit of Bryce Harper in free agency. There's ample logic to support that premise, too.
If the Cardinals entered the off-season with plenty of flexibility in the payroll, willing to flex it for the right player, why in the world should a one-year, $14.5 million commitment to Paul Goldschmidt even remotely influence that willingness in a negative direction?
Heck, Adam Wainwright took pay cut greater than the amount the Cardinals will pay Goldschmidt in 2019. Sure, a long-term contract could be in the cards down the road for the new Cards first baseman, but that's far from certain; when the time comes, St. Louis may not even want the burden of a lengthy new deal for Goldschmidt, who will be 32 years old when that conversation takes place after the 2019 season.
Why wouldn't the team operate in the present, especially with a 26-year-old superstar available at a position of weakness for the Cardinals last season?
Despite what I consider to be a pretty convincing argument in favor of Bill DeWitt Jr. pledging a third of a billion dollars to Mr. Harper, it doesn't sound like the Cardinals are picking up what I'm putting down. According to multiple reports Wednesday night, the Cardinals aren't expected to participate in the Bryce Harper sweepstakes.
It's disappointing, it's even a tad bit frustrating, but it's not especially surprising considering the Cardinals' m.o. under, well, Mo. Though I could argue until I'm blue in the face that a bid for Harper jibes with the short-term and long-term health of the organization, the Cardinals aren't inclined to commit $300 million to right field on top of the $49.5 million they still owe Dexter Fowler. Not with Tyler O'Neill and Jose Martinez both needing homes on the roster, as well.
They got their impact bat via more palatable means, its name is Paul Goldschmidt, and it's the best bat the Cardinals are going to acquire this winter. Life could be worse.
That doesn't mean Goldy's is the only bat the Cardinals are going to acquire this winter—and he's certainly not the only player.
For one, the trade of Carson Kelly to Arizona means the Cardinals are in the market for a back-up catcher. Evidently, we're all supposed to be fine with the Cardinals rushing out to reunite with Francisco Pena to fill that role again—what, with the abundance of rival suitors vying for the privilege—despite his being the second-worst catcher in the National League by FanGraphs WAR last season. It doesn't make any sense at all, but the Cardinals haven't really prioritized the position in years, so it would hardly come as a surprise if that trend continued with a Pena sequel.
Where the Cardinals' real attention turns, however, could end up being pretty interesting. With the exception of Jordan Hicks' presence, the back-end of the St. Louis bullpen is a blank slate right now, ready to be filled by multiple quality arms from the free agent market.
After all, if the Cardinals aren't spending on another impact bat, they might as well spend on fixing a relief unit that ranked 20th in ERA, 22nd in batting average against and 27th in WHIP across MLB last season. More specifically, left-handed relievers for the Cardinals combined to be... well, straight up embarrassing in 2018. Like, it was borderline offensive how awful lefties were out of the Cardinals bullpen. Put it this way: three lefties posted worse ERAs out of the 'pen than Austin Gomber's 5.00. One of them happens to have been paid $7.75 million to do it—can you guess who that might've been?
Zach Britton and Andrew Miller are the sexy names in free agency. If the Cardinals can convince one of them to sign for fewer than four years, I'd be into it. Tony Sipp could offer excellent value without as much of the name-brand sticker shock. St. Louis also maintains plenty of ammunition to delve back into the trade market—the Giants make for an intriguing partner, in that case, as San Francisco possesses a pair of capable lefties on expiring contracts in Tony Watson and Will Smith.
The way I see it, the Cardinals ought to land one of the above to give them a proven lefty ahead of Brett Cecil, Chasen Shreve and Tyler Webb (Doesn't it just kind of feel like they'll sign Oliver Perez and call it good, though?).
There are plenty of right-handed relievers worth pursuing, too. The only one the Cards don't even need to check in on is Craig Kimbrel—if he's asking for six years, he'll probably get four or five. At the inevitably high AAV, I think I'll pass. Still, two quality relief additions should be the expectation considering the current state of the Cardinals bullpen.
That is, unless the Cardinals splash for a starting pitcher. Such a strategy was my preference a few weeks ago, but my target was lefty Patrick Corbin. His signing with Washington should remove the Cardinals from consideration for any big-time free agent starting pitchers—low-risk reclamations of the Shelby Miller ilk are probably as active as we'll see the Cardinals on that front. Although aces like Corey Kluber and Madison Bumgarner are reportedly being dangled, it would be a shock to see St. Louis sacrifice the type of prospect haul those names would command.
The Cardinals always seem to have a knack for identifying the diamonds in the rough on the pitching side—expect to see them go mining for another one or two before spring training gets too far along (e.g. Bud Norris last year).
Finally, as an ancillary consideration to the Cardinals pitching needs, we keep hearing talk of the perceived need for a left-handed bat off the bench. By my count, the Cardinals currently would have to account for Jose Martinez, Tyler O'Neill, Jedd Gyorko, Yairo Munoz and a back-up catcher on their major-league bench (assuming Dexter Fowler as the starting right fielder, though that role could vary by the day). If they do make a move for another bat off the bench, it would suggest to me that either one of the above names is traded, or Tyler O'Neill begins the season in Memphis (which would be pretty senseless).
Regardless, it doesn't seems as though a starting-caliber acquisition is likely in right field because of the presence of Fowler on the roster. If the Cardinals were to find a taker for even a portion of his contract, that could free up the team to make a play for a free agent outfielder more affordable than Harper—someone like AJ Pollock or Michael Brantley, for instance. The likelihood of finding somewhere to send Fowler without eating the bulk of his remaining salary, however, is low. So too is the addition of another everyday player to the Cardinals lineup.
And that might just be okay. An off-season approach that hangs its hat on the Goldschmidt trade on the position player side of the equation is acceptable if the Cardinals remain aggressive in their pursuit of improvements on the other side of the ball. Even without further upgrades to the lineup, the Cardinals can field a legitimate National League contender by shoring up the pitching staff—they just have to bet on the right horses in reliever roulette, and commit the necessary resources to lock them down.