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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.