Column: If Cardinals miss on Stanton, what’s next?

It’s been over a month now since I wrote my initial “Rumor Mill” post on Giancarlo Stanton and the odds that he might come to St. Louis. And we’re still waiting on Stanton to decide what he’s going to do.

The latest reports are that the St. Louis Cardinals and San Francisco Giants have both made offers that the Miami Marlins have accepted. Those offers now rest in the hands of Giancarlo Stanton as to whether to take either one and head out of town or stay in Miami or hope that another team, such as his hometown Los Angeles Dodgers, get involved. And if some reports are to be believed, they’re still in contact with the Marlins.

The Giants expect resolution by the end of the week while the Cardinals have declined to talk about it but are preaching patience. And now it seems that when Stanton gave the Marlins his list of teams he’d approve a trade to, that neither the Giants nor the Cardinals were on it. Which would certainly explain quite a lot of what’s gone on over the last month because there were a number of things that weren’t adding up.

But if Stanton does decide to go elsewhere, what do I think the Cardinals should do next?

First, trade for Alex Colome. The Cardinals have already checked in on Alex Colome this winter and have been interested in him for awhile now. If Stanton falls through, it will be time to complete this deal.

Over the past two seasons as Tampa’s closer, Colome has a 2.63 ERA, a 1.12 WHIP, and 84 saves. For comparison, Trevor Rosenthal‘s best two year stretch as St. Louis’ closer featured a 2.65 ERA, a 1.34 WHIP, and 93 saves from 2014 to 2015.

The negatives on Colome would be that his ERA did jump from 1.91 in 2016 to 3.24 last season. Looking at the numbers, he got hit harder on his four seam fastball in 2017 than he did the year before, which saw him feature his cutter much more often. The result was a drop in strikeout rates. But his HR/9 also dropped too. In an era where most pitchers are seeing that increase and in a division that features two of the more home run happy ball parks in baseball, I find that promising.

Colome is first year arbitration eligible this season, so he has three years of control remaining.

I know there’s been a lot of speculation about bringing in Chris Archer as well, but if I were the Rays, there is no way I’d trade those two players together. Archer and Colome likely represent two of their most valuable trade pieces and would net them a larger overall return if traded separately. I place the need for a closer slightly ahead of starter right now, so I go with Colome.

Then go horsetrading for Marcell Ozuna. With much of the groundwork already laid in the discussions for Giancarlo Stanton, the Cardinals could and should work towards acquiring another of the Marlins’ outfielders. Splitting from what seems to be most of Cardinals nation, I prefer Marcell Ozuna to Christian Yelich.

This isn’t new for me. If you read last winter, I had Ozuna on my list of five players that the Cardinals should acquire last winter. He fulfilled his promise with a career year in 2017, slashing .312/.376/.548 with 37 home runs and a 142 wRC+. He also added a gold glove to boot. The question on Ozuna is whether that’s what we’ll see going forward or if it’ll be closer to the .265/.316/.433 and average 22 home runs we saw over the last three years.

There are some things that give me hope. Primarily that his 2017 season was exceptionally consistent. His worst month last year was in June where he hit .297/.349/.525. He also mirrored his performance in the first and second halves really well. A season is an incredibly long time to maintain that level of performance which has me leaning towards the explanation that he just put all the tools together at 26.

As far as Yelich, my main complaint is that he is a stereotypical Cardinal. He is a high floor player who is good enough to be good, but not good enough to be great. And too many players you can describe like that is the Cardinals’ problem. Outside of 2016, Yelich has settled in around a 118 wRC+ player overall. The confounding factor may be that he’s been a much better hitter on the road in his career. The argument many make is that this is more representative of the player he would be in St. Louis.

Trying not to turn this into an Ozuna versus Yelich column, I take Ozuna because 1) his ceiling is higher, 2) he would cost less, and 3) you’re only attached to him for two years instead of four if he busts because we know what neither of these two are capable of doing once they don’t have Stanton around them in the lineup.

We’ll still need a setup guy, so show Juan Nicasio the money. When the season wrapped up it seemed like a foregone conclusion that Nicasio was going to return to St. Louis. Then the Cardinals made it clear they were going to look at acquiring a proven closer and Nicasio’s interest waned. I think he wants to close and would like to go somewhere and prove that he can. He thought that was going to be St. Louis, but then learned that it would not be.

I’m not sure what he’s looking for dollar-wise, but it’s time to give it to him. The Rangers set the market when they gave LHP MIke Minor a 3 year, $28 million deal this week. Minor, while a better starting pitcher than Nicasio was, is a similar story. Started for his first five years in the Majors and then reinvented himself as a reliever, posting a 2.55 ERA over 65 appearances.

Nicasio started and relieved for a few years before posting a 2.61 ERA over 76 appearances last year exclusively out of the bullpen, including a dominating stint as the Cardinals’ closer last September.

You can’t make him the closer, but you can show him the money. I’ve suggested 2 years, $12 million for him since September, but understandably the cost could go higher as relief pitching is being more highly valued than ever before.

For the last piece, I go get Zack Cozart. At 32, Zack Cozart hits free agency for the first time coming off a tremendous career year as he slashed .297/.385/.548 with 24 home runs and a 141 wRC+ for the Reds and once again played plus defense at shortstop.

Such a move would allow the club to move Paul DeJong back to his primary position, third base. While DeJong impressed me with his ability to play shortstop last season, signing a plus shortstop would arguably give the Cardinals plus defense all the way around the infield.

I always hate acquiring guys off career years, but I think this one could be okay. MLB Trade Rumors projects that Cozart would find a 3 year, $42 million deal this winter. That’s an AAV of $14 million, which I think is fair. If Cozart can continue to play plus defense and give you average offensive production relative to his position, which he has managed to do so far, I think this could be a good move.

And there’s always the possibility that he produces somewhere between what he’s done the last two years, slashing .274/.346/.484, it could turn out to be a very good move indeed.

The focus of these moves is really not to focus all in on 2018. I think if you miss out on Stanton and adding an elite bat like his becomes unlikely, I think the best strategy is to acquire what you need while you can to position the team towards 2019 and beyond.

The deals I’ve laid out, assuming that they don’t find ways to trim additional salary for guys like Stephen Piscotty, Randal Grichuk, or Jedd Gyorko would put them around $170 million in payroll. That, combined with the contracts they have hitting free agency after next year, leave themselves with plenty of room to pursue free agents or add a big contract.

It’s not so much about keeping “dry powder” at the ready, but so that a club without a feature hitter has the ability to add one should one become available.

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