Five Things: The Offseason

So to riff off a popular joke from this week, I’d like to confirm that I am not taking a job writing for The Athletic like the rest of the baseball world. Because of that, you can continue to receive the same mediocre Cardinals coverage free of charge here at Redbird Dugout for the foreseeable future.

With that said, pitchers and catchers have all officially reported. It appears that Matthew Bowman was the final pitcher and/or catcher to arrive to spring training, as he did yesterday afternoon. This morning holds the first official workouts. Before long, pitchers will be firing several pitchers wide in the bullpens at Roger Dean Stadium.

With that, I figured with the first “Five Things” column of the season, I would review the offseason and set up the early season storylines.

Ozuna addition steadies a potentially potent lineup

For all the complaints about the Cardinals’ offense last season, their 100 team wRC+ was 9th in the Majors last season and the 3rd in the National League behind the Dodgers (104 wRC+) and the Cubs (101 wRC+). Unfortunately when it came to converting that production into actual runs scored, the team struggled placing 13th in runs scored in all of baseball and 7th in the National League. That would seem to point more towards a lineup that wasn’t optimized than one that lacked talent.

The addition of Marcell Ozuna from the Marlins will bring some much needed depth to a middle of the lineup that lacked a true middle of the order hitter. I still think the lineup needs one more, but it seems like we’re going to try the ‘Matt Carpenter as a middle of the order hitter’ experiment again to begin the 2018 season as Mike Matheny has suggested he prefers Carpenter in the three spot. If it works, that might be the answer the team has needed.

Offensively, I see three guys whose 2018 will dictate just how far the offense goes. Those guys are Ozuna, Tommy Pham, and Paul DeJong.

Pham’s 148 wRC+ was tied for 8th in baseball while Ozuna’s 142 wRC+ ranked 13th among qualified hitters last season. Projection systems universally don’t like either of them to reproduce those kind of numbers. ZiPS for example puts the two at 115 wRC+ for Pham and 116 wRC+ for Ozuna. I agree that they won’t duplicate those kind of offensive numbers, but I think they are both capable of coming in above 120 wRC+ this season, which still makes them top-50 talents offensively.

Combine that with Ozuna’s Gold Glove defense in left field and Pham’s peeks at being Gold Glove caliber, and they should be well rounded players who contribute on both sides of the ball and be solid cornerstones for the lineup.

That brings us to Paul DeJong in his effort to not follow the path of the man he replaced, Aledmys Diaz. Diaz broke onto the scene in 2016 and appeared to be a lineup cornerstone before a sophomore slump allowed DeJong to take his job and ended up with a demotion. Diaz is now with the Blue Jays as the team takes its shot with DeJong.

DeJong hit 25 home runs behind his 122 wRC+ last season. Most projection systems see regression ahead of him with ZiPS projecting a 97 wRC+. I tend to agree that a league average number is most likely for DeJong going forward. His early defensive numbers at shortstop were good last year, but regressed as the season went on to put him just a touch negative. It’s still well ahead of Diaz defensively, but at shortstop, DeJong’s defense will be the most important part of his game.

The bullpen approach is throw everything at the wall and see what sticks

Entering this winter the front office once again spoke a big game, talking about their coming pursuit of a big name free agent since they had nobody in-house prepared to assume the closer’s role after they parted ways with Trevor Rosenthal following his surgery. Instead their approach has seemed to been more “Quantity over quality.”

To an extent, I get it. The bullpen is a volatile place for pitchers. You can look at new acquisition Dominic Leone to understand this. He was great in his rookie year and part of a dominant bullpen last year, but in the two years in between he struggled to stay in the Majors as he had control issues. Another is last winter’s $30 million man Brett Cecil who had great numbers out of the bullpen in Toronto, but struggled in St. Louis last season.

Leone joins free agent signees Luke Gregerson and Bud Norris as part of the group the Cardinals brought in instead of an elite closer. None are confidence inspiring on their own, but the Cardinals are placing their confidence in new pitching coach Mike Maddux and the amount of pitchers they have who could step into the bullpen.

Those four will join Matthew Bowman, John Brebbia, Tyler Lyons, and Sam Tuivailala who all had big years for the Cardinals last season. Those are the eight relievers you’re looking at on the Opening Day roster.

Behind those eight guys you have Alex Reyes due back in May from Tommy John surgery. They’ve also got Jack Flaherty, John Gant, Mike Mayers and Josh Lucas who appeared out there for the Cardinals last year.

They’ve got non-roster guys like former closer Edward Mujica and Preston Guilmet to go along with big name prospects like Jordan Hicks, Ryan Helsley, Dakota Hudson, and Connor Greene who could all get looks this summer if it comes to that.

The plan seems to be to throw it all at the wall and hope something sticks with someone stepping up and stepping into those important roles in the bullpen.

Low floor, high ceiling as Cardinals gamble

I think that the most frustrating thing about this winter is that the Cardinals could have come in and left no doubt about who was the king of the NL Central. They have the money, they have the prospects, and they have the needs. The specifically singled out a middle of the order hitter and an elite closer as their needs and came up with only one of them, bowing out of the other over costs.

I’ve talked before this winter where the Cardinals stand payroll-wise and currently they will be spending less on their Opening Day 25 this year than they did last year. They could have added whoever they wanted from free agency without batting an eye financially, but they’ve specifically chosen to gamble in a division they finished third in last year and where the teams ahead of them have done at least as much to address their needs.

But the potential is there and the potential is legit. It’s both a good thing and bad thing because if you came back from the future and told me the Cardinals won 75 games this year, I wouldn’t be surprised. Likewise, if you came back and told me they won 95 games, I wouldn’t be surprised either. If their bets pay off, this is the best team in the Central, however it’s a free fall if they don’t.

Slow free agency opens the door to late additions

While the Cardinals might officially consider themselves done, they did so earlier this winter and still signed Bud Norris to a one year deal as the front office said that they will be “opportunistic” with the free agent market that’s developing. There’s always the possibility that it could create some interesting opportunities for the Cardinals to step in and pick someone up on a shorter term deal.

There are still players out there who could help this team. Jake Arrieta and Lance Lynn would bring some stability to a rotation that has a big innings question. Logan Morrison is a player the Cardinals expressed some interest in early in the winter, and reportedly offered a contract to. But he is still on the market as well.

An acquisition like Morrison would almost certainly require the Cardinals to rethink their other bench spots as well. A role for Jose Martinez would be in question or the club would have to go with seven relievers instead of Matheny’s preferred eight. And with the strategy for working out the bullpen, I fully expect them to go with eight relievers. However, it is still something to watch as the spring progresses.

And even if a player were to get injured, could you see a move for a free agent in spring training? That’s something to watch too as we’re in a bit of uncharted territory.

Bench mix might be most interesting battle of the spring

The makeup of the Cardinals’ bench might be the most interesting battle to watch in Spring Training this year. There are certain guys already locked in. Carson Kelly will be the backup catcher. Jose Martinez will be the backup first baseman and reserve outfielder. Greg Garcia is probably going to be the infield utility guy. And then you have one spot remaining.

That spot likely goes to an outfielder, which makes the battle most likely to be Harrison Bader versus Tyler O’Neill. But having options and flexibility could open the door for a guy like Breyvic Valera, who can play anywhere.

Projection systems seem to like O’Neill better than Bader. According to ZiPS, O’Neill is projected for a 104 wRC+ while Bader is just an 84 wRC+. Part of that can be that Bader had more exposure last year and struggled to finish up the season while O’Neill only struggled, but still managed to mash, to finish up the AAA season in Memphis.

But an outfielder isn’t a requirement. In past years you’d need an outfielder who could play center field on the bench, but this year all three starting outfielders have been starting center fielders in the Majors at some point in their career. If we’re talking about spot starts in center, Ozuna and Fowler are both capable of doing the job.

That opens the door for a guy like Valera who has played 800 games in the minors for the Cardinals before making his debut last year. He is a classical switch hitting utility player who can play anywhere on the field. In many ways, I’ve heard him compared to Jose Oquendo for many of those same reasons.

I expect the club will take four bench players and eight relievers, as that’s Matheny’s preference and because of how they intend to approach their bullpen I think they’ll opt for more arms there. Especially with a position player roster that has some actual positional flexibility, rather than just the ability to be equally horrible defensively at multiple positions.

News: Cardinals sign RHP Bud Norris

What happened. The St. Louis Cardinals have agreed to terms with free agent RHP Bud Norris on a one-year, $3 million deal plus incentives to join their bullpen (credit to original reporting from The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal). RHP Rowan Wick has been designed for assignment to make room on the 40 man roster.

The story. The Cardinals have been on the hunt for additional bullpen help, the addition of Norris gives them another veteran arm.

The numbers. Bud Norris, 32, posted a 4.21 ERA over 62 innings last season in 3 starts and 57 relief appearances for the Los Angeles Angels. He was also 19-for-23 in save opportunities for the Angels last season.

Norris pitched well early in 2017, carrying a 2.23 ERA into the All Star Break, but struggled in the second half with knee inflammation which saw his ERA balloon. He had a 7.01 ERA in the second half. He did finish out the season strong, making two spot starts for the Angels and throwing a combined 6.1 innings, allowing 1 run on 5 hits.

Rowan Wick, 25, was drafted in the 9th round of the 2012 draft by the Cardinals as a catcher. After three rough seasons, he tried be the next Jason Motte and make the transition to pitcher. Early returns were good, but he struggled in Memphis last year. Overall he posted a 3.19 ERA in 42.1 relief innings between Memphis, Springfield, and the Gulf Coast League.

The impact. 5/10. The impact is more because it solidifies the eight men who should be headed to New York for the season opener against the Mets than the impact that I feel Norris can bring to the table.

Norris, he of #BudChuck fame, originally made the Angels club last season as a long reliever before injuries pushed him into the closer’s role. He posted a 3.60 ERA over 35 innings and 38 appearances as the Angels’ closer, going 18-for-19 in saves over that stretch before the team’s original closer returned to the job.

Even that was front heavy. In his first two and a half months as the Angels’ closer he had a 1.57 ERA, but the final three months the knee injury came into play and he had a 12.79 ERA, including a pair of games where he allowed walk off grand slams, taking the hit for all four earned runs both times.

As far as the guys going north, I feel like you had Matthew Bowman, John Brebbia, Brett Cecil, Luke Gregerson, Dominic Leone, Tyler Lyons, and Sam Tuivailala locked in to the seven main spots with an eighth spot still in play. The addition of Norris likely puts him in that spot with John Gant and Ryan Sherriff as the next man up until Alex Reyes is ready to arrive where needed.

Wick might still have a future, as he won’t be done. With such a late transition to pitcher, he is behind the eight ball, so to speak, but he has done well in his second time around at each level. He struggled in Double-A in 2016, but was strong there in 2017. He struggled in Triple-A in 2017, and perhaps this is the year he puts it together there.

News: Cardinals place four on MLB Pipeline’s preseason Top-100 Prospects

What happened. MLB Pipeline revealed their preseason top-100 on Saturday night and the Cardinals once again placed four players on the list. These are the same four players from Baseball America’s list released earlier this week. RHP Alex Reyes leads the way again at #18 with RHP Jack Flaherty at #38, C Carson Kelly at #46, and OF Tyler O’Neill at #94.

The numbers. This is Alex Reyes’ second time on the list, debuting on MLB Pipeline’s list at #6 prior to the 2017 season. Having spent the season on the sidelines has dropped him twelve spots to #18.

Jack Flaherty, 22, returns to the list for the second time after not having been ranked last season. He was #80 on the 2016 preseason edition, but after stumbling a bit with a 3.56 ERA over 23 starts for High A Palm Beach, he dropped off. But a strong season between Double-A Springfield and Triple-A Memphis put him back on the list at a very solid #38.

Carson Kelly, 23, is on the list for the second time as well, debuting last year at #39. He falls seven spots despite improving in every major offensive category in 2017 compared to his 2016 season. He did struggle upon promotion to the Cardinals, but what backup to Yadier Molina hasn’t?

And finally, Tyler O’Neill, 22, is yet another two-time player on the list. Prior to the 2017 season he was ranked #36 but has fallen to #94 after running into some troubles in Triple-A last year.

The impact. 0/10. Yet again a 0/10. This is the second straight season the Cardinals have had four prospects on MLB’s top 100 prospects list thanks to the acquisition of Tyler O’Neill. O’Niell replaced RHP Luke Weaver who was #68 last year and graduated from the list after posting a 3.88 ERA over 60 innings, including 10 starts, for the big league Cardinals last season.

News: Four Cardinals on Baseball America’s Preseason Top-100 Prospects

What happened. Baseball America released their annual preseason rankings of the top-100 prospects in baseball. RHP Alex Reyes once again leads the way, this time at #17. Others on the list are RHP Jack Flaherty at #53, C Carson Kelly at #55, and OF Tyler O’Neill at #86.

The numbers. Alex Reyes, 23, is on Baseball America’s preseason top-100 list for the fourth straight season after peaking at #4 last season. He missed the entire 2017 season rehabbing from a February Tommy John surgery. In limited action in St. Louis in 2016, Reyes had a 1.57 ERA over 46 innings as both a starter and reliever. He is not expected to return to the mound until May 2018.

Jack Flaherty, 22, made his big league debut in 2017 after posting a 2.18 ERA in 25 starts between Double-A Springfield and Triple-A Memphis. However he struggled upon arrival in St. Louis, posting a 6.33 ERA over 5 starts and a relief appearance. He will compete with Luke Weaver for the Cardinals’ fifth starter spot and potentially a spot in the bullpen. This is his first appearance on Baseball America’s preseason prospect rankings. He was #57 on their mid-season update.

Carson Kelly, 23, makes his second appearance on Baseball America’s preseason top-100 list, moving up from #65 last season as he debuted as a consensus top-100 prospect. Kelly hit .283/.375/.459 with 10 home runs in 68 games for Memphis last season before receiving a midseason call up to the big leagues where he served as Yadier Molina‘s backup. He hit .174/.240/.217 over 34 games in the big leagues.

Tyler O’Neill, 22, was able to hold onto a spot in the top-100, sliding from #38 to #86 this season after early season struggles upon the promotion to AAA. He was acquired by the Cardinals over the summer for Marco Gonzales. Over 130 games between Triple-As Tacoma and Memphis, O’Neill hit .246/.321/.499 with 31 home runs and 95 RBI.

The impact. 0/10. No real impact here, just some validation for the organization. Three of these four players should graduate off the list this season with Reyes expected to arrive in St. Louis in May, Kelly expected to spend the season as Molina’s backup, and Flaherty likely to play a Luke Weaver (#50 on last year’s preseason list) role this year.

Falling off the list is shortstop prospect Delvin Perez, who had been a consensus top-100 prospect before the 2017 season and #86 on Baseball America’s list. Most of that carried on him projecting as a toolsy shortstop who had a great age 17 season in his debut in rookie league. However, he struggled in his age 18 season and just turned 19 a couple months ago. It’s less of a reflection on Perez and more on the difficulty in projecting a teenage player’s development. Kyle Reis at Birds on the Black wrote a nice piece on this a couple weeks ago.

Further, I can’t help but chuckle a bit at the positioning of Alex Reyes. Reyes was #4 last year before going to the disabled list with Tommy John. He was #12 at the midseason update in July and has fallen even further despite four guys ahead of him in the midseason rankings either graduated or dropped below him. It’s like, what happened in those six months that convinced them that Reyes at #12 was too high and that he needed to drop five more spots?

News: Cardinals send Grichuk to Blue Jays for pair of pitchers

What happened. The St. Louis Cardinals traded OF Randal Grichuk to the Toronto Blue Jays in exchange for RHP Dominic Leone and RHP Conner Greene.

The story. The aim here was to open up the fourth outfielder spot off the bench while adding an arm to a questionable St. Louis bullpen.

The numbers.  Randal Grichuk, 26, hit .238/.285/.473 with 22 home runs in 122 games with the Cardinals last year. It was his second straight 20+ home run season, making him one of 67 players in Major League Baseball with back-to-back 20 home run seasons. His 11.3% extra base hit rate was 21st of the 216 players who had at least 400 plate appearances last season. He was arbitration eligible for the first time this season, settling on a $2.6 million salary.

Dominic Leone, 26, posted a 2.56 ERA over 65 appearances and 70.1 innings for the Blue Jays last season. Among Blue Jays relievers with more than 20 innings pitched, Leone’s 6.5 H/9 and 10.4 K/9 ranked third. Just 22% of inherited base runners scored on Leone last season, fourth best in the American League among relievers who inherited at least 50. He was arbitration eligible for the first time this season, settling on a $1.085 million salary. He is a “Super Two” so he has three years of team control remaining.

Connor Greene, 22, posted a 5.29 ERA over 25 starts and 132.2 innings for Double-A New Hampshire. In 42 starts in Double-A, Greene has a 4.89 ERA over 226.1 innings. Scouting reports indicate that he has a high-90s fastball though seemingly like all pitchers with a great fastball, he struggles with control, walking 5.6 per nine innings last season. But the strikeouts have not really come for Greene’s fastball, posting just a 6.8 K/9 in his minor league career. He was rated the #100 prospect by Baseball Prospectus before the 2016 season.

The impact. 8/10. This is one of those baseball trades that makes a great deal of sense to both sides immediately, but not without it’s own set of question marks. The Blue Jays had a number of solid relievers last season and were in desperate need for offensive pieces to help that lineup that they intend to contend with in 2018. Enter the Cardinals who had an extra starting outfielder and needed bullpen help.

In Grichuk the Blue Jays will add one of the league’s best extra base hitters. In each of the past two seasons Grichuk reached 20 home runs without being a qualified hitter. Playing every day in the AL East where he can play 81 games in the Rogers Centre and then a handful of others in Camden Yards, I’ve said before that I think Grichuk is a 40 HR player if he plays everyday in the AL East. It seems like he could get that opportunity now. He needs to take that next step in his development, but its not beyond the realm of possibility.

For the Cardinals, this trade reveals that their approach to the 2018 bullpen seems to be throwing everything at the wall and seeing what sticks. Dominic Leone is coming off a great season, but can the Blue Jays’ seventh inning man turn into a late inning guy? And for Greene, a move to the bullpen could be just what the doctor ordered to resurrect his career, but even still at 22 time is on his side.

The question for the Cardinals following this trade is where they expect to see Leone slotting in at this point. Is he the closer? Is he the eighth inning guy? Do they like Luke Gregerson over Leone?

Leone was dominant last season and had a good rookie campaign in 2014 with Seattle, but in between he struggled mightily with his command, posting a 7+ ERA in 2015 and 2016 combined. At 26 and entering his fifth season since debuting in the big leagues he’s also on his fourth big league club. That’s more typical of the resume of a reliever that’s about to wash out rather than one who is poised to be a late inning option for a team intending to contend for a division.

News: Cardinals agree to terms with Ozuna, Wacha, and Lyons

What happened. The St. Louis Cardinals agreed to terms with their remaining salary arbitration eligible players. OF Marcell Ozuna will get $9 million per Jon Heyman, RHP Michael Wacha will get $5.3 million per Derrick Goold, and LHP Tyler Lyons will get $1.2 million on their one year deals to avoid arbitration.

The story. This afternoon was the deadline for teams and players to exchange their salary information. For the Cardinals, they told players last winter that their intent was to operate under a “file-and-trial” system, meaning once salary numbers were exchanged, they would be done negotiating a settlement offer and would see them in the arbitration hearing. The Cardinals took Wacha to hearing last year.

The numbers. Marcell Ozuna, 27, had a breakout year for the Marlins last year hitting .312/.376/.548 with 37 home runs and 124 RBI in his fourth full season in the big leagues. His 142 wRC+ was 13th among qualified hitters in the Majors last season. He also took home the Gold Glove Award for his work in left field.  He was acquired from the Marlins for four prospects in December.

Michael Wacha, 26, was the unlucky soul that got to be made an example of when the club took him to arbitration and won last February. He answered with a 4.13 ERA over 165.2 innings and 30 starts. He saw a fair amount of improvement over 2016 and posted a better fielding independent season than his All Star campaign in 2015. The biggest thing may have been taking the ball 30 times last year and posting his first career complete game shutout.

Tyler Lyons, 29, pitched exclusively out of the bullpen for St. Louis last season and responded with a 2.83 ERA over 54 innings of work, including a 1.57 ERA over 28.2 innings after July 7th.  By the end of the season he had worked his way in as one of the bullpen’s most important relievers.

The impact. 5/10. Same as yesterday. Nothing here was utterly ground shaking. All the players involved were already under contract for 2018, the only part left to determine was how much the players would be paid. We’re still waiting on that information, but it has been reported that all three have signed one year deals.

After going through arbitration last season, I was a little surprised that Wacha and his representation cut it so close to experiencing it again. Unless, perhaps he decided that it wasn’t too bad and why not give it another shot. But they did not, and as a result Wacha will earn $5.3 million in 2018 after being projected to make $5.9 million.

For Ozuna, it was unlikely that the Cardinals wanted to take their prized offseason acquisition to arbitration as their first official act. It was expected that his agent, Scott Boras, might try to use that bit of leverage to their advantage, but Ozuna settled with the Cardinals for $9 million in salary after being projected to earn $10.9 million through arbitration and Khris Davis settling for $10.5 million yesterday while Ozuna is expected to be the more valuable player.

For Lyons, I wondered if the Cardinals with his performances in relief over his career and the escalating salaries of relief pitching if they might try to buy out some of his arbitration years this winter. That will not be the case with him agreeing to a $1.2 million salary in his first trip through arbitration after being projected to earn $1.3 million.

News: Cardinals agree to terms with Randal Grichuk

What happened. With the arbitration numbers being officially exchanged tomorrow, the St. Louis Cardinals and OF Randal Grichuk agreed to terms on a 1 year, $2.6 million deal.

The story. Tomorrow is the day where teams and players who are in their salary arbitration years are to exchange their salary numbers. In years past, this would create a framework conducive to coming to an agreement, but last season the Cardinals instituted a “file and trial” system where if they get to the exchange of salary numbers, they’ll carry on to the arbitration hearing. They took RHP Michael Wacha to arbitration last year, taking a case to arbitration for the first time since 1999, and won.

Grichuk had been projected to earn $2.8 million in arbitration based on Matt Shwartz’s projections at MLB Trade Rumors. LHP Tyler Lyons and RHP Michael Wacha are the Cardinals two other arbitration cases that remain unresolved as of yet as well as newly acquired OF Marcell Ozuna.

The numbers. Randal Grichuk, 26, was a first round pick of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim in the 2009 draft. He was acquired by St. Louis after the 2013 season as part of the trade that sent David Freese and Fernando Salas to the Angels.

Last season Grichuk hit .238/.285/.473 with 22 home runs in 122 games with the Cardinals. It was his second straight 20+ home run season, making him one of 67 players in Major League Baseball with back-to-back 20 home run seasons. His 11.3% extra base hit rate was 21st of the 216 players who had at least 400 plate appearances last season.

The impact. 5/10. There is no surprise with this deal as Grichuk has long been penciled in as the Cardinals’ fourth outfielder going into next season. It’s a role he should excel in as well. He can provide some punch off the bench while being able to give you good defense at all three outfield positions.

With the offseason going as slowly as it has, it’s very possible that Grichuk may yet find his way out of St. Louis, but for now he is still here and it is a good thing. I’m on record saying that trading Grichuk this winter would be a mistake for the Cardinals because I believe he will eventually put the tools together. In many ways he is already the kind of player you’d love to just plug in 8th in your lineup and let him play everyday. He’d put up some gaudy power numbers for sure.

It seems like Grichuk has been around forever because he first debuted for the Cardinals in 2014 and now has spent most of the last four seasons in St. Louis, but Grichuk was still the youngest position player on the team’s 2017 Opening Day roster. And only Carlos Martinez was younger on the complete 25 man last April.

He’s young enough that he still has time on his side and has the power tool in spades. He needs to figure out how to be more selective at the plate, though he did show me that he took strikes in that category as he bit far less on the down and away pitch that had plagued him thus far.

I think when we discuss Grichuk we often talk about how far he has to go, but really it’s not that far. Learning to be a little more selective at the plate and how he approaches that would make him a dramatically better player. And some of that should come naturally with experience.

Rumor Check: Jake Arrieta

Earlier this week there was a report from CBS Chicago’s Bruce Levine that the St. Louis Cardinals are one of the two teams most interested, along with the Chicago Cubs, in signing free agent RHP Jake Arrieta.

On the surface, it sounds like a good move. I’ve been arguing for a year that the Cardinals have a big hole in their 2018 rotation and how they will fill innings. But the Cubs are also reported to be willing to offer a 4 year, $110 million deal to Arrieta to bring him back to the Windy City, and that’s more than I can stomach for him.

Arrieta, 31, is coming off a year where he posted a 3.53 ERA and 4.16 FIP in 168.1 innings over 30 starts for the Cubs last season. It was his worst season since joining the Cubs following a trade from the Orioles during the 2013 season. He did miss some time in September with a groin injury.

He hits free agency after posting a 2.73 ERA and 3.16 FIP over 191 starts for the Cubs over four and a half seasons.

Arrieta’s turnaround upon arrival in Chicago is well storied. A 2.53 ERA in 25 starts in 2014 and then a 1.77 ERA in 33 starts in 2015. But since then, Arrieta has seen his hit rate, home run, and walk rate jump while seeing a decline in his strikeout rate.

The question is whether this is just him coming back to earth or whether it’s decline. If it is him just coming back to earth, will he stop before he becomes the guy who posted a 5.46 ERA in 63 starts for the Orioles over three and a half years.

In my opinion, there are four top free agent pitchers in this year’s class. Yu Darvish, Lance Lynn, and Alex Cobb along with Arrieta. Arrieta’s advantage is that he hasn’t had Tommy John in the last three years. But all still have red flags.

Darvish, 31, struggled last year, his first full season post-Tommy John surgery. He is now three years removed and his numbers post-TJ are nowhere near his numbers before it. The same goes for Cobb and Lynn, both 30.

If I’m honest, the outlook on any of the four do not enthuse me.

However, I’ve been onboard the Lance Lynn reunion train for a year now and I still see him as the best of this group of four. I enjoy seeing people who point out Lynn’s peripherals while expressing support for signing one of these other three pitchers, all of whom exhibit the same issues to varying extents. I’ve dug into Lynn’s peripherals and they don’t scare me because of how everything is interconnected and what I believe is the root cause, but this is an article on Jake Arrieta.

The question on Arrieta is who you’re going to get. The Arrieta we saw in 2016 (3.10 ERA, 197.1 innings) is probably worth $27.5 million. The Arrieta we saw in 2017 (3.53 ERA, 168.1 innings) is not. And I think it’s far more likely we see something closer to the 2017 version for most of the next four years.

I will say that four years is far more attractive to me than the six years that his agent Scott Boras is believed to be looking for. And in that regard, I think I can convince myself that such a deal would be acceptable. You get out from underneath it before it becomes too much of an issue with Arrieta getting old.

But, I still see the best option for another starting pitcher to be Tampa’s Chris Archer. He is clearly the best starting pitcher that could find himself available and he is young and on a very nice contract. Accordingly, he will cost a lot of prospects, which is why he hasn’t moved yet. Not while guys like Arrieta and Darvish are still free agents.

Rumor Check: Eric Hosmer

There’s been plenty of rumblings over the past few weeks about the Cardinals’ interest in free agent first baseman Eric Hosmer. Several reports have them interested in him as a fall back option if the Blue Jays will not relent on their decision to hold onto Josh Donaldson. This week we also have some suggested contract offer numbers. First came the Padres at 7 years, $140 million. Then came the Royals at 7 years, $147 million.

Hosmer, 28, reached free agency for the first time this winter after hitting .318/.385/.498 with 25 home runs and 135 wRC+ while playing in all 162 games, starting 155 of those at first base. Durability is a big factor for Hosmer, who has played at least 150 games in five of the last six seasons. But he has also lacked consistency, having yet to post positive WAR seasons in back-to-back years.

The Cardinals do need to bring in another hitter, and Hosmer could potentially reflect a guy who could be that hitter. His 135 wRC+ ranked 25th in baseball. Bringing him in would give the Cardinals three of the top-25 players in wRC+ from 2017, joining him with Tommy Pham (148, 8th) and new acquisition Marcell Ozuna (142, 13th). That would tie them with the Astros and the Nationals with three a piece.

But is Eric Hosmer the player we saw in 2017 and is he worth the $147 million plus gamble it would take to bring him in?

Personally, I don’t think so.

Much of the debate on social media has centered in on the comparisons between Hosmer and Matt Carpenter. What becomes very obvious as you observe these debates is that the main problem is that the difference is not great enough to be obvious, otherwise there would be no debate. For example, nobody is having a debate on whether Donaldson is better than Jedd Gyorko.

Carpenter has outperformed Hosmer head-to-head in each of their full time seasons, except for the most recent, which was also a year that Carpenter played through a shoulder injury. Is that Carpenter on the decline or the younger Hosmer finally reaching his potential as he enters the prime years of his late 20s?

If you’re asking me who I’d rather give $147 million to over the next seven years, I probably choose Hosmer and cite age and Carpenter’s shoulder injury as the primary factors. But the reality is that that isn’t the choice. Carpenter is already under contract for 2 years, $30 million plus an option right now. It changes the math.

I always get push back when I suggest that Hosmer isn’t needed because the Cardinals already have Carpenter, Jose Martinez, and Luke Voit on the roster at first base. And while Hosmer might be better than any of those guys independently, I don’t see him as a big enough improvement to warrant spending that kind of money. Not only that, acquiring him makes Carpenter less valuable with a move to third base.

According to most defensive metrics, Carpenter was a neutral defensive first baseman while Hosmer defied his negative metrics and took home his second gold glove. My hypothesis for this is that Carpenter is generally an above average first baseman who makes some glaring errors, while Hosmer doesn’t make the glaring errors, but is generally not as good defensively. It produces the cognitive bias that makes the eye test tell you that Hosmer is the better defender.

But ultimately, that’s not the only part of the equation. Last season Jedd Gyorko was a +16 defensive runs saved at third base. In his last full season at third base, Carpenter was a -10 defensive runs saved. That’s a -26 run swing. Factor in the change at first base where Carpenter was a +1 and Hosmer was a -7, that’s a total -34 run swing on defense by bringing Hosmer in and moving Carpenter to third.

Offensively, the Carpenter-Gyorko combination had a total of 165 wRC (weighted Runs Created, not normalized) while a Hosmer-Carpenter combo would have produced 210, a swing of +45 runs created on offense.

So if you want to do a quick and ugly wouldn’t bank my house on it comparison the Cardinals would spend at least $147 million to bring in Hosmer and gain maybe a total of 11 runs.

And that’s while being somewhat optimistic that Hosmer can reproduce what he did last year on a regular basis. That brings me to my biggest flashing red light.

He played 131 games in 2014 with a 0 WAR and played 158 games in 2016 with a -0.1 WAR. He surrounded those years with 3+ WAR years, topping out last year with a career best 4.1 WAR. Are you going to get the 3+ WAR player or are you going to get the guy who plays everyday at a replacement level for $20+ million a year? As I said before, he has yet to post positive WAR seasons in back-to-back years. The Cardinals have plenty of guys capable of being replacement level players who would earn far less.

As a result, first base isn’t a viable option for upgrade when the best option is Eric Hosmer. Now, if Paul Goldschmidt or Joey Votto were a free agent, I’m onboard because they are elite bats who would clearly be an upgrade over what already exists on the roster.

Third base and shortstop still remain the Cardinals’ best opportunity for improvement in their everyday lineup. If the Cardinals were going to use Carpenter in a trade to land Donaldson (which I’ve been suggesting for almost a year now), I could support bringing in Hosmer.

But I don’t see how Hosmer not only fits with the Cardinals but makes them better off than they were before they signed him.

Common sense would dictate that you try to play your players where they are most valuable to you. For Carpenter, he is most valuable at first base. And Hosmer does not bring enough additional value to the table to make it worth moving him somewhere else.

Column: Just past the halfway point, Cardinals only halfway done

New year, who ‘dis?

As the calendar turns to 2018, there are now just 43 days remaining until the first official workout for Pitchers & Catchers of 2018 Spring Training. That means the clock is ticking for teams and free agents alike to get some deals done. This has been an exceptionally slow winter. Last winter, 9 of ESPN’s top-10 free agents had been signed by New Years. This year, just two find themselves under contract.

The Cardinals had three needs that John Mozeliak and Michael Girsch outlined at the end of the 2017 season and while they’ve made signings in each department, there is still work to be done. Let’s take a look.

The lineup

There were no free agency losses on the offensive side of the ball. The club traded Aledmys Diaz to Toronto and Stephen Piscotty to Oakland and then acquired Marcell Ozuna from Miami to upgrade the team’s lineup that was already the 9th best offense in baseball in 2017. With the addition of Ozuna, who was the 13th best offensive player in baseball last year, that should be a plus.

Let’s take a look at what I think we can expect the 2018 Opening Day lineup to look like, with their 2017 wRC+ next to their names in parenthesis.

1B Matt Carpenter (123)
CF Tommy Pham (148)
RF Dexter Fowler (121)
LF Marcell Ozuna (142)
SS Paul DeJong (122)
C Yadier Molina (94)
3B Jedd Gyorko (112)
2B Kolten Wong (107)
Pitcher

With wRC+, it is a normalized statistic, so 100 is a league average run creator and can essentially be read as Matt Carpenter being 23% better than average in 2017. And you can see that seven of the eight players in the club’s likely everyday lineup were above average offensive players last season. And even then, Yadier Molina was close.

By no means do I think the Cardinals should be done, but this lineup is satisfactory and it alleviates a couple of the main problems. First being the cleanup spot and second being bats like DeJong and Gyorko hitting too high in the lineup. Putting them 5th and 7th is much more attractive than 3rd and 4th.

The most obvious position for improvement is the corner infield spots. The Cardinals have tried to get Josh Donaldson from the Blue Jays, but they don’t seem to be willing to move him. They’ve talked to the Rays about Evan Longoria, who has now been traded to the Rays. And they’ve checked in Manny Machado in Baltimore, but the Orioles want someone to get stupid. As a result, the answer may not be out there for the Cardinals this winter as I don’t see any of the bats in free agency as clear improvements over what the club already has.

The bullpen

This might stand as the club’s biggest need now following the acquisition of Ozuna. Three of the Cardinals’ four free agents were relievers and the club also released Trevor Rosenthal after his surgery. That’s 136.1 relief innings that the Cardinals need to fill and 105.1 of those innings came in the 8th or 9th. That’s a lot of turnover.

The club added Luke Gregerson to a 2 year, $11 million deal and has discussed him being a potential setup guy. But Gregerson isn’t a sure thing. He struggled in 2017 with a 4.57 ERA, 4.62 FIP, and 1.34 WHIP over 61 innings with Houston last season. And as the Astros bullpen struggled in October, Gregerson couldn’t find anything more than mop up innings out of the bullpen. Zach Gifford over at Birds on the Black broke down what he sees as the main reason Gregerson’s effectiveness has slipped. He previously threw three different sliders and over the past couple years, they’ve all merged into one less than dominant slider. Perhaps it’s mechanical, perhaps it’s not, but either way it’s not inspiring.

The bullpen currently stacks up like this with their 2017 WHIP in parenthesis next to them.

RHP Luke Gregerson (1.34)
RHP Matthew Bowman (1.19)
RHP John Brebbia (0.93)
RHP Sam Tuivailala (1.09)
RHP John Gant (1.56)
LHP Tyler Lyons (1.09)
LHP Brett Cecil (1.23)
LHP Ryan Sherriff (1.19)

At some point in time Alex Reyes will join this part as well, but this is still a bullpen that needs help. The club has been kicking tires on closers this winter.

As the season wrapped up, they were linked with interest in Greg Holland. Holland was due to return to Colorado until they agreed to terms with Wade Davis last week. The Cardinals were also reportedly closing on a deal with Addison Reed earlier this winter, but that died off. They’ve also talked to Tampa about acquiring their closer, Alex Colome who has three years of team control remaining, and such a deal seemed so close to completion during the winter meetings, but has gone cold since.

One more top level arm here is a must and two more would be for the best. If you can bring in two more relievers, Reyes can slide into the bullpen midseason as an addition rather than an expected savior. And there are still plenty of competent names left on the free agent market who would be a real plus to this bullpen.

The rotation

Perhaps the biggest loss this winter was Lance Lynn‘s departure to free agency. Yes, I understand that his peripheral numbers weren’t great, but he led the Cardinals in starts and ERA. And while the peripherals may indicate that the results are unsustainable, he was still the best Cardinals starting pitcher in 2017 when it came to keeping the other team off the scoreboard and that’s what matters most.

They made a quick move this winter to add Miles Mikolas on a 2 year, $15.5 million deal. Mikolas has pitched in the Majors before, but spent the last three years pitching in Japan where he was dominant. Last season he led the Japanese leagues in games started and innings pitched and was second in WHIP among the starting pitchers, but while he should be a quality addition, expecting pencil him in to replace Lynn is a mistake as he still has to establish that he can pitch in the Majors.

Here’s how the rotation looks right now, with games started and innings pitched.

RHP Carlos Martinez (205 IP, 32 GS)
RHP Michael Wacha (166 IP, 30 GS)
RHP Adam Wainwright (123 IP, 23 GS)
RHP Miles Mikolas (188 IP, 27 GS in Japan)
RHP Luke Weaver (138 IP, 27 GS between Majors and AAA)

The biggest question is where you get your innings and do you have anyone other than Martinez that you can lean on and hand the ball to 30+ times?

Why do I talk about innings so much? It’s because the teams who get the most out of their starting pitchers are usually the teams you’re talking about in October.

Carlos Martinez’s maturation into an ace was so close that you could taste it after the 2016 season, but he took a step back in 2017. Once you cut through the hyperbole around his hair and his inconsistency (which has no basis in results), he’s 26 years old and very few pitchers are even pitching at the level he is at age 26. And there’s no reason to think that things can’t click for Martinez this year to take that next step.

Behind Martinez are the Cardinals’ two  veteranish arms in Wainwright and Wacha.

Wainwright missed time last season with back and shoulder issues. Last season he barely averaged 5 innings per start. But I am optimistic about what Wainwright can bring to the table next year. Let’s take out when Wainwright tried to pitch through his shoulder issue and he had 20 starts at a 4.89 ERA. Twice he got blown out hard. Take those out and he made 18 starts with a 3.60 ERA. If Wainwright can take the ball 30 times and have a 3.60 ERA in 90% of his starts, that’ll play but his health at age 36 has become a question mark, so he’s not a guy you can really push.

The same can be said for Wacha who made 30 starts and threw 166 innings, but how much further can you push him? Can you push him over 180 without a recurrence of the stress reaction in his shoulder? Wacha might be best kept on a leash, so you can’t push him much either.

And then there are a pair of wildcards in Mikolas and Weaver. I’ve talked about Mikolas and while I do have high hopes for him, he still needs to prove it.

For Weaver, he was much better in a recurring role in 2017 after a bumpy cameo appearance in 2016. But can he keep that up as a regular next season? How many innings is the club comfortable letting him pitch? What’s the game plan if he runs out of innings in August?

Some of the gap will be made up in the minors. There’s Jack Flaherty, Dakota Hudson, and Austin Gomber who are all ready or on the verge of knocking on the door. I didn’t list Reyes because the organization has been pretty intent on using him in relief both last year before the injury and so far this season.

While the team likely could use them all to carry innings over the course of the season, I’m not sure that’s the wisest strategy for a team who talked about going big in the lineup and the bullpen. It doesn’t make sense to go big everywhere and leave an innings hole in your rotation.

The problem is, there’s not much here worth having. I’m still pretty lonely on the Lance Lynn bandwagon, and given the choice between him, Yu Darvish, and Jake Arrieta, I want Lynn. Beyond that it’s really a potential Chris Archer trade that offers the most upside for the Cardinals.

And with that there are 43 days remaining to make moves and solve the problems with this roster. Thankfully, the  market hasn’t really moved at all, so there is still time. But the clock is ticking.