Another year without postseason baseball in St. Louis in 2018 was disappointing for the team and its fans. What will the Cardinals do to improve their roster this off-season?
Here's a look at five free agents that best fit what the Cardinals need:
5. Kelvin Herrera
Relief pitching is certainly a need for the Cardinals. Outside the top few names, though, I'm not so sure big spending in free agency is the way to fill it, as I'll explain further below. Still, the bullpen was perhaps the worst phase of the game for the Cardinals last season--20th in ERA, 22nd in opponents' batting average, 27th in WHIP--so it's worth selectively exploring the market. Kelvin Herrera is an interesting name that could be acquired without breaking the bank after his performance declined following a June trade from the Royals (1.05 ERA) to the Nats (4.34 ERA).
The track record is a good one, and he's got closing experience the Cardinals could consider valuable as they begin to usher Jordan Hicks into the role. Only 29 years old this December, Herrera would be one of the few relievers for which I might consider an extended contract. I'm leery of breaking the bank on a reliever, but I'd like to see the Cardinals check in on Herrera.
4. Andrew Miller or Zach Britton
Hey, it's a two-fer! This is my way of saying the Cardinals were bad in the bullpen in 2018, but they were even worse from the left side of that bullpen. While the team's 4.38 ERA in relief ranked 20th in MLB, lefties out of the Cardinals bullpen combined to allow 63 earned runs in 103 innings--a brutal 5.50 ERA.
Neither Miller nor Britton were up to their usual performance standards in 2018, but the track record for both will surely put them high on the radar for relief-needy clubs this winter. I imagine Britton and Miller will have no trouble commanding multi-year contracts, perhaps even in the four or five-year range.
That might be a little steep for the Cardinals liking, but it sure would be nice to go into the new season with a better plan of attack from the left side than Brett Cecil and Chasen Shreve.
3. Patrick Corbin
Okay, we just talked about the needs in the bullpen, meanwhile the Cardinals starting rotation was 5th in MLB in ERA last season, even with massive attrition throughout the year (none of these names finished the year in the rotation: Carlos Martinez, Michael Wacha, Adam Wainwright, Alex Reyes, Luke Weaver). So why would a starter be higher on this list than any reliever?
It boils down to allocation of resources. The Cardinals have tried spending on free-agent relievers in recent years, and the more significant examples of this strategy--Greg Holland, Brett Cecil, even Luke Gregerson got $11 million guaranteed--haven't panned out. That doesn't mean it won't in the future, but as it stands, spending big money on the bullpen feels like a crap shoot due to the fickle nature of relievers.
So if the Cardinals are going to offer a significant contract to a pitcher, I'd prefer it be another starter, with the goal being that the additional quality arm would ease the burden on young starters--and by extension, the bullpen, too!--when the inevitability of in-season attrition to the rotation arrives again, as it always does.
Corbin seems unlikely to end up a Cardinal in reality--especially given the Yankees reported affinity for him--but he checks all the boxes as a fit for the team. For one, he's left-handed, something the Cardinals don't have among their starters outside fringe-guy Austin Gomber.
Not to mention, Corbin is really good! He accumulated 6.3 WAR per FanGraphs (4.8 WAR per Baseball Reference) with a 3.15 ERA in 33 starts for Arizona this past season. Corbin also posted a massive strikeout total of 246, and did so in a workmanlike 200 innings. That durability, even at something in the neighborhood of five years and $100 million, is more attractive to me than spending half as much on a free-agent closer likely to flame out in a year or two.
2. Josh Donaldson
If the Cardinals really wanted to go all-in on a championship caliber club this off-season, they would sign the top name on this list (seen below), and then they'd carefully monitor the market for Josh Donaldson, too. Donaldson is a former American League MVP whose body picked a dreadful time to break down. Calf issues had the third baseman on the mend for the majority of the 2018 season, but he did return to the field for a couple weeks in September after Toronto traded him to Cleveland.
In that minuscule sample of 16 games and 60 plate appearances, Donaldson resembled his vintage self with a .280/.400/.520 batting line and three home runs. Prior to his injury-riddled campaign, Donaldson projected to earn upwards of $100 million in free agency.
Is that still the case? It's always possible one team goes nuts for a guy, but it's not likely. Most industry speculation seems to indicate Donaldson may be boxed into a shorter 'prove-it' contract due to his age and injury risk. If that indeed is the way the market for JD plays out, that's when the Cardinals have to strike.
The Cardinals got solid production from third base overall in 2018, but their interest in an upgrade at one of the corner infield spots--with Matt Carpenter filling the other--has been widely reported in recent days. If Donaldson can be acquired at an average annual value to reflect his MVP potential, but on a short-term deal to reflect his injury risk, the Cardinals would be a splendid fit.
1. Bryce Harper
If ever there were a player for which you'd want to back up the Brink's truck, this is that player. If ever there were a situation to finally, actually back up the Brink's truck for a player, this is that situation. St. Louis in the winter of 2018-2019. There are surely more reasons than these, but I'll just give you three so you can go on with your day.
Right off the top, the Cardinals haven't really had that MVP-caliber player in the middle of their lineup since Albert Pujols, and it's gotten worse as the years have gone on. Pujols took up residence in the three-hole in the Cardinals lineup for the bulk of his time in St. Louis, and that's precisely where the Cardinals struggled most in 2018.
St. Louis ranked 28th in MLB with a .716 OPS from the third spot in the order last season. Marcell Ozuna didn't fix the clean-up spot, either, as the Cardinals ranked 18th across baseball in OPS from that slot. While the Cardinals fared better from the two-hole--which is where advanced stats would recommend a team's best batter to hit--the lack of power in the middle is alarming.
So Harper is an obvious fit from that perspective; even if he were to take his .900 career OPS and hunker down behind Carpenter in the two-spot, that would, in theory, allow other quality hitters to slide down toward the middle of the lineup, providing a more menacing heart of the order than St. Louis lineups have seen of late.
Secondly, the position Harper happens to play was an inescapable black hole for St. Louis last season. The Cardinals ranked 26th in OPS from right fielders (primarily because Dexter Fowler started 74 games as one). So the Cardinals' worst position offensively from the season prior is the same position as the one played by one of the most attractive free agents in the history of the league. Feels like fate, doesn't it?
Finally, Bryce Harper is 26 years old. That's a critical detail when deliberating offering a player the richest contract the sport has ever seen.
As they've watched Pujols decline with the Angels, some fans might feel that the Cardinals caught a break when Albert decided to head west instead of accepting a massive deal from St. Louis. But Pujols was 32, on the back-side of his prime, when he left. With Harper, the Cardinals would conceivably get five or six of his best years before an age-related decline in skills would become a factor. The circumstances are entirely different.
The Cardinals were reportedly willing to take on Giancarlo Stanton's massive contract in trade talks last winter. Harper is younger than Stanton, arguably better than Stanton, and all it takes to get him here is money.
Bryce Harper should be the face of the Cardinals for the next decade. The only question is whether ownership and the front office will make it happen.