Rumor Check: Brian Dozier

Last night Cardinals Twitter was abuzz at the idea that the Cardinals were in talks to acquire Minnesota Twins’ second baseman Brian Dozier. Darren Wolfson, a reporter for the local ESPN affiliate in Minneapolis, called the Cardinals very much “in the mix” for the second baseman who has also been linked to the Los Angeles Dodgers and the San Francisco Giants this winter.

The rumors seemed to indicate that John Mozeliak knows that the Cardinals still need another impact bat in their lineup and is looking for ways to add one. I can’t disagree with that assessment as I’ve suggested since last winter that they were still a bat away from being a legitimate contender. But Mark Saxon, who covers the Cardinals for ESPN, tweeted this morning that the organization is not “actively pursuing” Dozier.

But there is so much that that could mean.

The returns to Minnesota for Dozier would seem to include Kolten Wong along with a top pitching prospect, seeing as the Dodgers are rumored to have offered one of their top pitching prospects in Jose De Leon with the Twins still looking for more.

The question immediately becomes whether such a trade makes sense for the Cardinals. To determine that, we need to figure out what the Cardinals have to compare.

The two in house options at second base for the Cardinals would be Wong and Jedd Gyorko. So let’s look at them.

Wong struggled to begin the season, but came on comparatively strong at the end of the year after a brief demotion. That makes him difficult to accurately project into the coming year, but I think a 2.0 WAR for Wong is his floor if he’s given the opportunity play every day. That’s what he would have gotten in 2016 when you project him out to 500 plate appearances, which is how much playing time I believe he should be getting. But he also has the potential to be so much more if he could be the player he was in the second half last year.

Gyorko posted a 2.9 WAR last season in a career year. Being a career year alone makes it easy to question his ability to duplicate that. To an extent, his WAR was also carried by the first positive defensive WAR of his career and it was 1 WAR better than any previous season he’s had on defense. Even if he beats out either Jhonny Peralta or Wong for the bulk of playing time at their positions I think a 2.0 WAR from him is optimistic.

That leaves Dozier.

At 29 years old, Dozier hit .268 with 42 home runs last season and posted a 6.2 WAR. That WAR made him the 11th most valuable hitter in baseball last season. But consistency is a big question with him.

Over the past four seasons, Dozier’s WAR has varied between a low of 2.4 WAR and a high of 6.2 WAR with no two seasons with 1.5 of the previous. That’s a cause for concern if you’re looking to give up a lot to get him. But I think it’s safe to suggest that Dozier’s floor would be what we got from Gyorko last season and probable that he settles in around a 4 WAR player going forward.

So the question that Mozeliak has to ask himself is what is that extra 1 to 2 wins worth? Is it worth a 2.0 WAR player and a top pitching prospect? The trade market this winter would suggest yes, but I’m not too sure I buy it.

Dozier definitely has the potential to make the Cardinals’ lineup stronger, but I don’t see him as a clean up type hitter. I like to consider RBI rate in this situation and Dozier had a 14.6% RBI rate last season in his highest since 2013. The Cardinals have five returning players who had higher RBI rates than Dozier did last year, so I think he would settle in fifth or sixth in my lineup.

Regardless, it still creates a deeper lineup and that is always a positive. And finding a guy who can play solid infield defense while contributing with the bat is not easy. Dozier can do that.

The addition of a player like Dozier would make the Cardinals’ lineup more projectable, but there’s too many questions and moving pieces to be able to say that he will make the Cardinals better. Which Dozier do we get? Do we get the 6 WAR one or Gyorko 2.0 one? Is this the year Wong puts it together?

Because of the risk involved in the answers to those questions, I don’t see this as a trade that Mozeliak is likely to pull the trigger on.

Column: So you want a cleanup hitting first baseman…

It’s been hard to miss that the hot topic since the Cardinals inked the deal for outfielder Dexter Fowler is that they may wade into the waters for Edwin Encarnacion or Mark Trumbo if their asking price continues to fall. The reasoning is obvious, adding another big bat to the Cardinals lineup and one that is proven at producing runs. Both get the title as “100 RBI” guys.

But as I tweeted this weekend, I hate the moniker of “100 RBI” guys. RBI are a function of team performance. For example, Encarnacion led the American League with 127 RBI last year, but if he had batted third for the Cardinals instead of the Blue Jays, he would have likely missed out on 100 RBI due to the lack of opportunities.

Encarnacion had 490 runners on base when he took an at bat last season. Meanwhile Matt Carpenter drove in runs at the same rate as Encarnacion, but had just 271 base runners on base when he came to the plate. Yet another reason why moving Carpenter down the lineup is so important for the Cardinals.

But not only that, the Cardinals actually had four players who could have been 100 RBI guys given the same number of base runners that Encarnacion had. Those are Carpenter, Stephen Piscotty, Aledmys Diaz, and none other than Matt Adams.

This column began as an analysis of the projectability of Encarnacion and Trumbo outside of their hitter friendly ballparks. Instead, the more I dig into it, the more I come to one inescapable conclusion. The Cardinals already have their cleanup hitting first baseman. His name is Matt Adams.

If you haven’t yet closed out the tab in your browser yet, I can’t believe those words are coming out of my brain onto my keyboard and into this article either. A year and a half ago at the trade deadline I wrote that the team should find another starting first baseman and dump Adams at the first chance they got. Last winter I called for him to be non-tendered. Last April I suggested he should be the guy to go when Jhonny Peralta came off the disabled list.

But here we are. Last week suggesting it’s time to schedule Yadier Molina’s exit and now suggesting Adams should be the team’s first baseman next year, I’m certainly picking the popular topics.

Through the minor leagues, Adams’ numbers fit the stereotypical cleanup hitter. He hit for average and he hit for power. I remember figuring that the power would probably carry into the Majors, the question would be how much he could hit.

In 2011, Adams won the Texas League Player of the Year Award after hitting .300/.357/.566 with 32 home runs. The previous year he’d hit .310/.355/.541 with 22 home runs and 41 doubles for Quad Cities. He was rewarded before the 2012 season by being named Baseball Prospectus’ #69 prospect on their annual top-100.

Adams would go on to hit .340/.375/.603 with 9 home runs in 37 games for Memphis before getting called up for his first taste of the big leagues in May 2012.

In 2013, Adams stuck with the big league club, spending all but about two weeks with the team. He would put his name on the map by hitting .315 with 8 home runs after taking over the everyday first base job following the injury to Allen Craig in early September. Perhaps setting the bar too high for him to follow up.

He put together a quietly solid 2014 season, his first as the team’s regular first baseman, hitting .288/.321/.457 with 15 home runs over 142 games for a 116 OPS+. A hot start in 2015 would give way to a rough May before a quad injury would rob him of the next three months.

His .249/.309/.471 slash line last season wasn’t much to write home about, but it was perhaps the most intriguing season Adams has had for the Cardinals since the September back in 2013.

There was a point in May where Adams was one of the Cardinals’ most productive hitters, leading the team in RBI.

He has proven himself as a slightly above average defensive first baseman that belies his size.

And Adams slayed left handed pitching last season. He came into the year having hit .197 and slugged .317 against left handed pitching in his career. He hit .283 against left handed pitchers and slugged .522 against them.

For Adams, it’s really that ability — or inability, as it may be — to hit left handed pitching that’s been the question mark for him. If he couldn’t hit left handed pitching, he was no better than a platoon player. If he could hit both ways, well, then we’re talking about a very good cleanup hitter.

As I’ve mentioned several times on The UCB Podcast over the past few years, I love Freddie Freeman as a comp for Adams. Both first basemen. Both left handed. Both had time on the Top-100 prospect lists. Both profiled as middle of the lineup bats in the minors. Both could hit both ways in the minors.

When you dig into Freeman’s early Major League stats, you see that it took him a couple seasons — roughly 400 at bats — before he became a consistent threat against both right and left handed pitching. And once he figured that out, he went from a 114 OPS+ player to a guy who has averaged 145 OPS+ and finished in the top-6 in MVP voting twice in the four years since.

The difference for Freeman was that he got to play every day. Atlanta gave him a chance to develop his approach at the plate against both left handed and right handed pitchers. Adams has not been given the same opportunity. Freeman had 414 at bats against left handed pitching in his first two seasons in the Majors. Adams has had just 264 in his career, and he’s been in the Majors for the better parts of four seasons now. Whether we realized it or not, Mike Matheny has basically had him in a platoon situation.

It’s because of the lack of sustained opportunities, that Adams hasn’t had the ability to develop his approach against left handed pitchers in the Majors. Regardless of what Matheny will say about there being no time for development in the Majors, the only place Adams can develop that approach against Major League caliber left handed pitchers is in the Majors.

It’s not just his potential that makes him the right guy to be the Cardinals’ regular first baseman, he does two things the Cardinals need to do better next year: play defense and drive in runs.

The Cardinals were 8th last season in at bats with runners on base, but were just 22nd in batting average with men on. Adams was tied for the second highest RBI rate on the team last season, driving in 17.1% of base runners when he came to the plate. Only Carpenter’s 17.3% was better.

Starting Adams and sliding Carpenter back over to third takes Jedd Gyorko (11.2%) and Jhonny Peralta (10.8%) out of the lineup. Already that’s a 6% improvement in driving in runs.

Adams is a solid defensive first baseman. He may not win any gold gloves, but he gets the job done. In his only full season at first base, he had +8 defensive runs saved. His UZR has been positive in each of the last three seasons.

Meanwhile over at third base, neither Peralta nor Gyorko are known for their exemplary defense. Peralta wasn’t a good third baseman seven years ago when he played the position every day, why is he going to be now at 34? Gyorko had a good season last year defensively, but has not historically been a good defender. Part of me believes that we will look back on his 2016 as we do Peralta’s 2014 season.

Carpenter isn’t going to win any gold gloves at third base either, but he is a competent third baseman. And he will benefit from playing the same position, wherever that ends up being. His worst defensive seasons are those where he’s played multiple positions. When he’s been given one position to play, he’s been fairly neutral and that’s better than the other options on the roster.

Encarnacion wants $20 million a year at age 34 for a guy who hasn’t played more than a half season in the field since 2010. He hit a ton of home runs in a hitter friendly ballpark. For those dollars, the risk and the questions are too great. And on Trumbo, I think that he might have a little more pop, but ultimately won’t give you the value over Adams that you want.

Much like Jon Jay before him, Adams may never be the player the fans expect him to be, but he can still be a very valuable player for this team.

Column: It’s time for the Cardinals to lay out the Molina succession plan

It was during the 2002 World Series that I first heard anything about Yadier Molina. His older brothers Bengie and Jose were catchers for the Anaheim Angels during the series. During the game, FOX broadcasters Joe Buck and Tim McCarver were talking about the Molina brothers who were all catchers and how Bengie and Jose would say, “You think we’re good? Wait until you see our brother.”

At the time, Yadier was just a 19 year old kid who had wrapped up his second season of professional baseball in the Cardinals’ organization. He’d been drafted a year before in the fourth round by the Cardinals and they were definitely onboard with the hype.

The Major League roster and Yadier’s advancement merged perfectly, perhaps exactly to plan, as their incumbent catcher Mike Matheny was a pending free agent. Matheny, a two-time and defending gold glove winner at that point, was widely regarded as one of the best defensive catchers in baseball. But the organization’s plan was clear to anyone with eyes.

Matheny would mentor the youngest Molina for a season before he left in free agency and Molina became the starter in 2005. Matheny would win his third Gold Glove Award in 2004. He would head to San Francisco in free agency and win his fourth Gold Glove Award in 2005, making it his third in a row.

But on the Cardinals, Yadier Molina began to emerge as one of the greatest catchers of his generation, if not Major League Baseball history. A four-time Platinum Glove Award winner, eight-time Gold Glove winner, seven-time All Star, MVP Candidate, Silver Slugger, you name it. If they award it to a catcher, Molina’s probably won it.

Next season will mark Molina’s 13th as the Cardinals’ starting catcher. He will turn 35 this year in what could be his final season with the team. There is a $15 million mutual option for a 14th season next year that, if Molina has his way, will turn into an extension.

Over his years in St. Louis, because he has been so good, that what I like to call the “cult of Molina” has developed.

After the Cardinals traded Joe Kelly to Boston in 2014, he talked about how there were a number of things he had to learn how to do in Boston because he never learned to do it in St. Louis. Yadi handled it. Reading batters, strategizing at bats, and holding base runners isn’t something pitchers have had to deal with because Yadi’s handled all of that.

I think we see struggles with guys stealing bases now because Cardinals pitchers have never worried about holding guys on and now that his skills have diminished in that area, throwing out just 21% of base runners last year from a career average of 42%, runners can take advantage.

You don’t shake Molina either. Kyle Lohse has spoken about shaking Molina off just a few times and allowing a hit each time. But on the other hand, Marc Rzepczynski was never comfortable with the culture in St. Louis that you don’t shake Molina off and he has pitched better since leaving.

I’m not saying that other catchers don’t put in the preparation, but in many ways Molina is a rare combination of talent, skill, work ethic, and preparation. And as Molina’s career approaches its close though, it’s time to lay out the post-Molina road map.

Last winter the Cardinals signed Brayan Pena in the hopes that he would be the guy who could finally allow the team to give Molina more rest and hopefully extend his career. That didn’t happen as Pena injured his knee slipping on a wet dugout step in spring training and Molina logged more innings behind the plate than ever before.

The Cardinals released Pena a few weeks ago in a roster squeeze which left Carson Kelly as the only catcher on the 40 man roster. John Mozeliak indicated during the winter meetings that they’d like to bring in a veteran backup for Molina this year so that Kelly can continue to develop by playing everyday.

But with Kelly on the cusp, the organization has reached a tipping point. You can only hold off Kelly for so long.

If the organization feels like Kelly is Molina’s future replacement, then they need to lay out the road map for Kelly’s transition to the starting role. Perhaps that’s Kelly serving as Molina’s backup in 2018 before Kelly steps into the starters role in 2019, much like Matheny and Molina’s transition in 2004. But Molina would need to know that he wouldn’t have a role on the team for 2019.

I know what you’re thinking. Molina is the face of the franchise. He’s the rock of the pitching staff. Of anyone, he has to retire a Cardinal.

That’s the reaction I always get when I bring this topic up. Eventually the transition to Molina’s successor will have to happen and we’re at the point where once you identify that successor, you need to move on when the new guy is ready. The organization has built their philosophy on not holding up the future for the sake of sentimentality. I love Molina, but the organization can’t afford to string Kelly along as his backup for multiple years like they did with Tony Cruz.

“Yeah, but Cruz was never a good hitter,” is the reaction I usually get when I bright this up. I’ll admit that he wasn’t great, but he wasn’t horrible either. Cruz hit .282 across three levels of the minors in 2010 and would be hitting .262 in Memphis when he got his first call up to the Majors in 2011. He hit .262 over 38 games in the Majors in 2011 and then followed it up, hitting .254 in 2012. But over his final three seasons with the Cardinals, from 2013 to 2015, his batting average collapsed to just .203.

In my opinion, a big factor in Cruz’s declining performance was playing time. Pitchers were able to get ahead of him and stay ahead of him because he wasn’t getting enough opportunities to learn and adapt at the plate. Whenever he did get a stretch of playing time while Molina was injured, he would usually string together a few excellent games at the plate, perhaps giving a glimpse at what he could have been.

Because of this, ensuring that Kelly gets consistent playing time and doesn’t waste away for too long as a backup is of utmost importance to the future of the Cardinals. If they wait too long, will we see the same struggles that Tony Cruz had?

If Kelly isn’t viewed the successor, then the organization should put him to use. Use him as trade bait or use him as the backup now. The only reason to delay him at this point is to time up the hand off. But that requires actually handing the job off at some point. It’s time to figure out exactly when.

Column: With Fowler signed, what’s next?

This morning the St. Louis Cardinals introduced Dexter Fowler as the newest member of the team as he has signed a 5 year, $82.5 million deal. It was an aggressive move by the team to make sure that they acquired the best option on the market before another team did. He will wear the #25 for the Cardinals.

With the acquisition of Fowler, the Cardinals get better. Fowler was worth 4.1 WAR for the Cubs last year while Aledmys Diaz led the Cardinals with a 3.5 WAR.

Even if Fowler takes a step back, he’s been a consistent 2.5 WAR player over the past few seasons, which is still an improvement on what the Cardinals had in left field last year where Matt Holliday and Brandon Moss combined for a 1.1 WAR. The impact by metrics is 1–3 wins. All for less than we would have paid Holliday to stick around for another year.

With their top priority now completed, the question is what the Cardinals do next. At today’s press conference, John Mozeliak was asked about that. He kept expectations low that they were only looking to add complimentary pieces at this point. Though he did say Wednesday night that they might not do anything before the holidays and two days later, here we are.

It’s been said that, with Fowler signed, the team may pivot their plan to add another hitter, perhaps even chasing Mark Trumbo or Edwin Encarnacion. If the Cardinals could find a taker for Jhonny Peralta, I’d totally be onboard with that. Though I still feel like Justin Turner is the best fit for what the Cardinals want to accomplish this winter, even if he lacks the same offensive punch as Trumbo or Encarnacion.

The Cardinals mashed offensively last year, but lacked on the defensive side of the ball.

While Trumbo and Encarnacion are truly designated hitters who can “play” in the field, Turner is an exceptionally capable third baseman. He would likely be the best defensive third baseman the Cardinals have had since Scott Rolen was playing over there. The problem with Turner is that it’s hard to bank on his offensive numbers.

Turner broke out with the Dodgers in 2014 after being claimed off of waivers and hit .340 with 7 home runs in 109 games. In 2015, he hit .294 with 16 home runs in 126 games. Last season he hit .275/.339/.493 with 27 home runs in 151 games for the Dodgers. Will he duplicate those numbers? Can he duplicate those numbers? That’s really the question.

But the answer I keep coming back to is that even if Turner can’t replicate that offensive performance, he is still a plus defender. He can contribute to the team even without his bat.

It’s not like Trumbo and Encarnacion are easily projectable players either. Both are coming off great seasons in hitter friendly ballparks.

Trumbo played half of his games in Camden Yards and hit .256/.316/.534 with a league leading 47 home runs. But outside of Camden, he has not nearly been as standout. He hit just 22 home runs in 2015 between Arizona and Seattle, though he hit 22 home runs on the road last year but with a .258/.299/.518 line.

Encarnacion, no relation to Juan who played for the Cardinals in 2006 and 2007, has played his entire career in hitters ballparks. Either the Great American Ballpark in Cincinnati or the Rogers Centre in Toronto. He hit .263/.357/.529 with 42 home runs last year. While just more than half of his home runs actually came on the road, he hit just .242/.343/.492.

The problem with Trumbo and Encarnacion is they do not have a fielding position. Sure, Trumbo can play right field and first base and Encarnacion has played both third and first bases in their careers, but they don’t improve the Cardinals’ defense, which was a stated goal for the organization this winter.

I see the Cardinals as about a 92 win team right now. Still likely a few games behind the Cubs, but signing a guy like Turner would draw that gap ever closer.

Cardinals set to sign Dexter Fowler

KSDK’s Frank Cusumano was the first that I saw on the case with the news that Dexter Fowler was coming to St. Louis for a physical. That could mean only one thing, a deal was imminent. John Mozeliak will get his man after Derrick Goold reported Mozeliak went “over the top” in order to ensure that Fowler would sign with the Cardinals.

Per USA Today’s Bob Nightengale, the deal is done and, as long as the physical goes off without a hitch tomorrow, there’s already a press conference scheduled for tomorrow morning.

The actual terms of the deal are still unknown, but Jon Heyman has reported the deal to be for five years and between $80 and 90 million. That’s a span of $16 million to $18 million in average annual value.

The question that fans have now is whether Fowler is worth it. I say yes for multiple reasons.

He was the player the Cardinals needed

Beyond all the talk about dollars, on field performance, and value, he was the player that the Cardinals needed to get. They needed to add an outfielder and Fowler was the best available in free agency. When it became obvious that a trade for someone like Adam Eaton or Lorenzo Cain wasn’t going to happen, they needed to get Fowler.

And to Mozeliak’s credit, he put enough money on the table to get Fowler to sign on the dotted line before another team had the chance. Given my article from this morning, I’m taking credit for that.

His offensive credentials are better than Jason Heyward’s

Last winter the Cardinals put a 10 year, $200 million offer on the table for Jason Heyward before he turned it down to play in Chicago. By all reports, Fowler’s deal will be half as long and less than half the money. Fowler is three years older, but the deal is five years shorter. Much less of a commitment here.

Fowler might not have the reputation for being the same five tool capable player that Heyward is, but he has plenty of tools himself. He has power, hitting 30 home runs over the last two seasons. He has speed, with 15 triples over the past two seasons and is a stolen base threat. He’s shown a couple times that he can hit for average and get on base.

Over the past three seasons, Fowler has hit .266/.369/.419 with 132 extra base hits in 397 games. In that same time span, Heyward hit .265/.339/.383 with 125 extra base hits in 445 games.

Fowler has even been more consistent, posting an OPS+ above league average in each of the last six seasons. Heyward can only say he’s done that in four of the last six seasons.

I still question whether he’s a center fielder, but he should be good enough. And there’s still hope that they’ll play Fowler in left and Randal Grichuk in center, right?

He makes the lineup better

Last season Fowler hit .390/.483/.720 when leading off a game, all led the league. Signing Fowler gives the Cardinals a legitimate option to take over in the leadoff spot and move Matt Carpenter back in the lineup where he belongs.

That helps make the Cardinals’ lineup deeper and anything that can be done to improve that is a good thing.

Cardinals select Austin Wilson in Minor League portion of Rule 5 Draft; lose Allen Cordoba

The Cardinals originally selected Austin Wilson in the 12th round of the 2010 draft. After bringing him to Busch Stadium for batting practice and meet with coaches in an attempt to recruit him away from his commitment to Stanford University, Wilson decided to turn down the Cardinals and go to school. Three years later he was drafted in the 2nd round by the Seattle Mariners.

With four seasons under his belt in the Mariners’ farm system, Wilson has yet to rise above the High-A level. He is a career .249/.346/.418 hitter so far with 42 home runs in 311 games. At 24, he is behind schedule, but obviously the Cardinals have kept tabs on him since he turned them down and think he can provide some value to them.

He has struggled his past two seasons in High-A Bakersfield for the Mariners, batting .233/.340/.374 with 23 home runs in just over 200 games.

Wilson is a big guy with a power swing. When he hits the ball, he hits it hard. The problem has been that he doesn’t hit the ball enough.

His strikeout rate jumped to 36% last season, up from 26% the year before. But his walk rate jumped to 11% last season from 7% as well. His extra base hit rate remained about the same, at 6.6% to 6.4%.

It will likely amount to nothing, but I do feel like it’s a good gamble by the Cardinals. They liked Wilson enough to draft him six years ago and maybe they can sort out some of his problems and unlock that talent they saw.

He was selected in the Minor League portion of the Rule 5 Draft. Unlike players selected in the Major League portion, those selected in the Minor League portion do not have the same rules to dictate where they stay for a season. I would expect him to start the season with Double-A Springfield.

Cardinals lose Allen Cordoba in MLB portion of Rule 5 Draft

For the second year in a row, the Padres have raided the Cardinals’ minor league system in the Rule 5 Draft. In 2015, they selected Luis Perdomo. With their third pick in the draft, they have selected SS Allen Cordoba.

Cordoba, 21, will have to make a big jump to the Majors next year after playing last season for Johnson City in the Appalachian League. He hit .362/.427/.495 last season for the Cardinals’ rookie level affiliate. He has played mostly shortstop in his career, though played third in 2015 while Edmundo Sosa — who was protected by the Cardinals — played shortstop.

The story on him seems to be that his defense is likely capable of staying at shortstop. He isn’t flashy, like some of the Cardinals’ other prospects, but his bat is the big question mark.

The Cardinals have a crowded middle infield in their minor league system. They added three middle infielders to their 40 man roster to protect them from the Rule 5 Draft in Sosa, Eliezar Alvarez, and Breyvic Valera. And guys like Delvin Perez and Randy Arozarena on the top prospects list along with new addition Luke Dykstra.

Column: As outfielders fall off the board, Mozeliak remains steady

In the week leading up to the winter meetings, the media was all in on the idea that the Cardinals were prepared to be one of the league’s most active teams. Multiple sources suggested that baseball execs backed up those theories, expecting the Cardinals to land both a free agent and make a trade. Here we are with three days in the books and still nothing. Yesterday evening John Mozeliak tempered expectations for the first time, saying that they might not even get anything done before the holidays.

Carlos Gomez, Ian Desmond, and Adam Eaton are officially off the board. The former two signing pretty fair deals with Texas and Colorado respectively. The latter going for a big prospect haul to Washington. The Cardinals and the Blue Jays have similar offers out there to Dexter Fowler, with the Cardinals likely in the lead due to the tax advantages. But there is a pesky rumor that Fowler doesn’t want to play in St. Louis and would prefer a larger market.

The deal for Eaton establishes that pretty much any attempt to acquire a center fielder by trade involves Alex Reyes, something the Cardinals are obviously unwilling to do after the way he wrapped up the 2016 season. That means attempts to trade for Charlie Blackmon and Lorenzo Cain likely do too.

So as the market moves around him, John Mozeliak sits and waits. He is no longer the master of the Cardinals’ offseason timeline. Dexter Fowler is.

When teams have options, they have the leverage. With pretty much every option for the Cardinals off the board, Fowler is now in the driver’s seat. There is little danger of the Cardinals walking away, and he isn’t in a rush to sign anything. And I wouldn’t be either.

He is rumored to have a pair of 4 year, $60 million offers on the table from both the Blue Jays and the Cardinals.

The hope of holding out is two fold. Either that someone new will put a better offer on the table or that one of his two offers will be improved to move things along.

And I think it’s time to move things along.

Unsaid, but widely reported by the reporters who cover the team closely this week, is that the Cardinals’ goal this winter was to take a step forward and contend with the Cubs next year.

That’s a goal that we are all onboard with. Even as some will question whether it’s possible to make up 17.5 games in one offseason, I believe you can. More than half of those can be made up purely by cleaning up the defense and improving fundamentals. Add in a few targeted acquisitions, and you’re right there with them.

But you have to swing, right?

The Cubs have been unafraid to swing. They spent big to acquire Aroldis Chapman last summer and Chapman was a big reason why the Cubs made it to and won the World Series. This morning, they acquired Wade Davis for Jorge Soler. They are swinging to repeat.

The Cardinals? Still playing three years down the road.

Now, a few years ago, with no clear rival in the division, that strategy could work. It did. We saw the results first hand. Now the Cubs have a core that is set to contend for at least the next five years and they’ve already got a World Series title under their belts.

If your rival is playing for this year, and you’re playing for three years from now, you’re not going to win now and you might not win later either.

The Cardinals need to do a better job of keeping up with the Jones’. The Red Sox acquired Chris Sale. The Nationals acquired Eaton. The Cubs acquired Davis. They stepped outside of their comfort zone to improve their team today (and some years down the road in the cases of Sale and Eaton).

To keep up, Mozeliak will likely need to figure out how to step outside of his comfort zone.

If he’s unwilling to do that, it’s time to pull the plug and rebuild. Aim to return to the top of the division in 2022 after every member of the Cubs’ core has hit free agency. As we’ve seen this winter, the returns could be tremendous. Do something. Anything. Anything other than sit on our hands.

And that’s where it’s time to move things along.

Fowler wants $18 million per year? Give it to him. Call his agent and offer that 4 year, $72 million deal. The price is likely going to get up there anyway, so get it done. The longer you wait before trying to close the deal, the bigger the chance that he goes somewhere else. Someone whose GM is a better closer.

The Red Sox, Nationals, and Cubs had prospects they were willing to part with in order to improve their team. The Cardinals may not have that, but they do have money to spend. We’ve heard it from them for over a year now. So it’s time to spend it. They’re paying Brayan Pena $2.5 million this year to not play for them. They can pay Fowler an extra $3 million a year without blinking.

One of the reasons that Mozeliak was so successful early in his career is because the Cardinals created a system under him that identified and exploited market inefficiencies in prospect development. Now everyone has identified those and prospects are the new gold standard. The irony of it all is that free agency for position players might be the biggest market inefficiency in baseball right now and it’s staring Mo in the face.

The prices were projected to be outrageous this winter because of the thin free agent market and teams scrambling over themselves to sign the available players. If anything I feel like they have been pretty normal, if not a little discounted, compared to some of the prices on the board last winter and the price in prospects being paid in trade.

It’s time to take advantage. Strike now, Mo.

If Fowler is your guy, go get him. If someone else is who you want, go get him. We all know that this roster, as currently constructed, isn’t going to win much of anything next year. And if we know it, I’m pretty sure their agents know it too.

Column: Moving Randal Grichuk out of center field might not be a good idea

During his postseason press conference in October, John Mozeliak talked about his desire to improve the Cardinals’ defense in 2017. Specifically, pointing out center field and his desire to move Randal Grichuk to left field. In theory it sounds great, because there were times that Grichuk looked iffy in center field, but should the Cardinals do it?

My first reaction was to be against it purely because the floor to be an average hitting center fielder is lower than to be an average hitting left fielder. A .240 batting average and 24 home runs seems to play better in center field, if he can remotely play the position, than it does in a corner outfield position where there are more offensive standouts.

What I found when I looked further is that it’s really not.

Looking at players who had at least 400 plate appearances last season, the top-20 center fielders averaged a 108 OPS+. In left field the number only increased to 109. Grichuk posted a 103 OPS+ last season.

So the organization must think his defense must not be good enough to stick, right?

There are an assortment of defensive metrics available, and I’m honestly not a huge fan of any of them. Defensive WAR (dWAR), defensive runs saved (DRS) and Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) are the most popular and readily available that people refer to when discussing defense. So how well did Grichuk do?

Starting with dWAR, Grichuk posted a +1.0 last season which was twice what he did in 2015 in about 25% more innings. However it’s shortcoming is that it includes the 45 innings he spent in the corner outfield positions last year and the 440 he spent there in 2015. So the numbers are skewed, but this number would seem to indicate that he performed better defensively in center field than he did last year.

Then there is Defensive Runs Saved, where Grichuk was +7 in center field over 949 innings. In the 1,260 innings he’s played in center field for his career, Grichuk has +14 defensive runs saved in center field alone.

There’s also Ultimate Zone Rating, and it’s normalized brother UZR/150. For Grichuk, his UZR/150 in center field last year was -1.8. He got plus marks for his arm and his glove, but his range was lacking. But UZR’s shortcoming is that it can be skewed by positioning if you don’t start in the center of UZR’s defensive zone for your position.

His numbers seem like a mixed, but generally positive bag when you look at them. But let’s consider where Grichuk stacks up against other center fielders. Among qualified center fielders, Grichuk had the sixth most Defensive Runs Saved and the 11th highest UZR/150.

I think it’s fair to say that Grichuk is one of the ten best defensive center fielders in baseball based on those numbers.

When you break down his UZR into it’s three main components — arm, range, and glove — you find that Grichuk was the best center fielder in two of them: arm and glove. His range was the only minus factor against him and I think most fans would agree that there were times where he seemed to take weird routes which would have limited his range. But I would also argue that it’s the easiest thing to improve and that it should with time and experience. Until 2016, he’d always played mostly in the corners. He even went a year in the minors without playing it. Some guy named Mike Trout played it instead.

So when you look at Grichuk’s metrics, he stacks up favorably against his peers. And how he stacks up against his peers is really the biggest question that should be asked before figuring out whether to make replacing him a priority. Because unless you’re getting someone who stacks up better than him, what’s the point?

And that list of players who would be clear improvements over him is very short. And dare I say that none are likely available.

The Cardinals have most been linked with Dexter Fowler when it comes to bringing in a center fielder to improve the team’s defense. And while Fowler put together his best defensive season last year, good enough that people are lauding him as a good defensive player this winter, historically his numbers do not back that assessment up.

Fowler posted a +0.3 defensive WAR last season, his first positive defensive WAR season since 2010.

He posted a +1 Defensive Runs Saved, the first time he’d ever posted a positive Defensive Runs Saved. The previous two years he’d combined for -32 Defensive Runs Saved.

He had a +1.0 UZR/150 last season, which was also his first time ever posting a positive UZR in center field.

In only one of those metrics, UZR, did Fowler outperform Grichuk last year. And historically, Fowler has not been better than Grichuk.

In 2016, Fowler’s UZR was driven by an improvement in his range, something that is historically his worst component. In 2015, Grichuk had pretty good range too before it fell in 2016. Perhaps playing next to a guy named Jason Heyward had some effect? After all, there’s a lot of plays in right-center field that they would not be being asked to make thanks to the rangiest right fielder in the game.

The numbers seem to indicate that Grichuk has Fowler beat on both glove and arm, so the only question is range and both seem challenged.

Fangraphs also has Inside Edge Fielding, which has their scouts break down the likelihood that player makes a given play. Fowler made 84% of all the plays last year while Grichuk made just 80%. But Fowler never made a single play judged to have less than a 60% likelihood of being made. Grichuk made 7 of them.

Grichuk made more plays on balls that had a low probability of having plays made on them. Seems like a vote of confidence in his range being better. Or at the very least, his ability to make difficult plays.

It’s one of the reasons when I talked last week about the organization needing to look at Marcell Ozuna that moving Grichuk out of center field shouldn’t be a priority. And it’s because I think that Grichuk will be a better center fielder than most available potential center fielders you could find to replace him with.

Cardinals non-tender Seth Maness; bring back Adams and others

Today was Major League Baseball’s non-tender deadline. In case you’re not sure what that means, basically there are two classes of players under team control. There are players in their first three years of service who have their salaries set by the team, usually around the league minimum. Then there are players in their next three years of service who have their salaries set by arbitration. Now, there are more nuances than that, but that’s the basics. For those arbitration eligible players, today was the deadline to offer them their one-year contract for next season or to “non-tender” them and make them a free agent.

There were six Cardinals eligible for salary arbitration for 2017, first baseman Matt Adams and pitchers Carlos Martinez, Michael Wacha, Trevor Rosenthal, Kevin Siegrist, and Seth Maness.

The Cardinals have confirmed that they have tendered contracts to Adams, Martinez, Wacha, Rosenthal, and Siegrist. So those five players are now under contract with the Cardinals for 2017. Those players and the team have until the arbitration hearing in February to agree on the player’s salary for 2017. If they can’t come to an agreement before the hearing, both sides submit a figure to the arbiter of what they believe the player should be paid and the arbiter decides who is right. The Cardinals haven’t had a case go to arbitration since the 1990s.

But there is one player that wasn’t tendered a contract, that was Seth Maness.

Maness, 28, has a career 3.19 ERA over 4 seasons with the Cardinals. He struggled this past season, but managed to put together a strong stretch through the summer, even while pitching injured. His season came to an end in August with what was said to have been Tommy John surgery. But he ended up only needing a UCL reconstruction, which gave the hope that he’d be back on the mound in 6–8 months instead of the 12–18 month recovery for Tommy John.

If you followed me on Twitter this afternoon, you know how surprised I was that Maness was let go. I figured Adams was on the fence, but argued that Maness was likely safe.

I argued that the quicker recovery time plus his relatively low salary, and him still having multiple seasons of team control ahead of him — even if he didn’t pitching 2017 — worked in his favor that they would hold onto him. I guess I was wrong.

In fact, I’m even more surprised that they let Maness go and did not perform a hard core culling of the roster that included Trevor Rosenthal. Rosenthal is projected to make $6.3 million — four times more than Maness — and was arguably the worst pitcher in the Majors last year. His 1.91 WHIP was just 0.002 from being the worst in the Majors among relievers who threw at least 40 innings, only former Cardinal Michael Blazek saving him from that honor. But Blazek would not have pitched the same high leverage situations that Rosenthal did.

For the guys who were kept, the roles of Siegrist and Martinez are pretty set and while the roles for Rosenthal and Wacha aren’t public, the team has discussed that they are bouncing around some ideas for what their roles would be. The question that today brings up is what the future holds for Matt Adams.

Adams, 28, hit .249/.309/.371 with 16 home runs last season for the Cardinals. Long considered a platoon candidate, Adams had his best season ever against left handed pitching, batting .283 with 3 home runs against them. There was even a point in May where Adams was the team’s leading offensive threat.

But the Cardinals recently committed to Matt Carpenter as their everyday first baseman for 2017, which means that Adams doesn’t have a pathway to a starting role for the team next year, something he’s always been given in St. Louis.

Some have suggested that he could be used off of the bench, and it does make sense as he’s hit .330 with 7 home runs as a pinch hitter in his career. However, he’s only ever played first base. Carpenter has played 154+ games three times in the past four years, so that leaves, at most, 10 starts for Adams. Even if he made 60 pinch hit appearances, that’s not even 100 plate appearances.

Adams’ best value to this team should be by trade. Either in a package to acquire something the team needs or prospects. But unlike with Jaime Garcia, where he wanted to unload a $12.5 million hot potato, I don’t think Mozeliak has a problem being left with Adams in the spring because carrying an extra first baseman is a lot easier than an extra starting pitcher.

Cardinals trade Jaime Garcia to the Braves for three prospects

When the Cardinals picked up Jaime Garcia’s $12.5 million option for 2017 last month, there were some complaints, but generally an understanding that organization was likely aiming to flip him for some prospects. This afternoon the Cardinals completed a deal sending him to the Atlanta Braves for infielder Luke Dykstra and right handed pitchers John Gant and Chris Ellis.

Garcia’s past seven years with the Cardinals has featured lots of promise and lots of disappointment. Promise in the 2.70 ERA he posted over 28 innings in 2010. Promise in the games like the one hitter he twirled in April. His career would be derailed in 2012 when he suffered a shoulder injury in his throwing arm. After a few false starts and a couple of surgeries, he would return in 2015 to capitalize on that promise, playing a crucial role in the Cardinals’ rotation after Adam Wainwright’s Achilles injury, going 10–6 with a 2.43 ERA over 20 starts. His 161 ERA+ that year ranking fifth best in baseball among starting pitchers who started at least 20 games, right behind the $217 million man, David Price.

Last year was not as successful as everyone hoped it would be. He seemed to hit a wall as a strong start into May would quickly derail through the summer. He would end up with a 4.67 ERA on the year and a 10–13 record. From June 1st on Garcia would go 6–9 with a 5.30 ERA and lose his spot in the rotation to Alex Reyes.

On one hand it was a victory for him to get through the entire season without an injury for the first time since 2011. It was perhaps even not unexpected for him to struggle in the second half, considering it was the most innings he’d thrown since 2011 as well. But it was still a disappointment for a team that languished down the stretch to miss the playoffs by a single game and needed better results out of him.

The Braves are getting a good pitcher, albeit one that still has to prove that he can stay on the field. If he can stay healthy, there’s no reason why he can’t nail down a low to mid-3s ERA in Atlanta and make them consider a qualifying offer. The Braves have quickly and radically remade their rotation this winter, having signed R. A. Dickey and Bartolo Colon and now acquiring Garcia. Word is that they are still trying to bring in Chris Sale too.

The Cardinals’ return for Garcia, while not any headlining prospects, is still a solid haul.

Second baseman Luke Dykstra is likely the high upside or “lottery ticket” prospect, as I like to call them. He was probably viewed as expendable by the Braves as their top two prospects are shortstops — in Dansby Swanson and Ozzie Albies — and it would make sense that the eventual loser of that battle will end up at second base. Dykstra was a 7th round pick by the Braves in the 2014 draft and is ranked by MLB.com as their #29 prospect.

Dykstra, 21, hit .304/.332/.363 over 81 games for Single-A Rome last year. While he doesn’t walk much, he doesn’t strike out much either. He is a solid hitter that makes a lot of contact with low strikeout and walk rates. He has decent speed and good instincts all around, but how high he can rise will likely depend on how his plate discipline develops as he progresses to the higher levels of the minors.

The Cardinals are stacked up the middle right now, adding Edmundo Sosa and Eliezar Alvarez to their 40 man roster this winter to protect them from the Rule 5 Draft, so it’s unclear where Dykstra will fit into the system at this point.

Right hander John Gant was a 21st round pick from the 2011 draft by the New York Mets and was acquired near the deadline in 2015 for Kelly Johnson and Juan Uribe. He is ranked by MLB.com as the Braves’ #21 prospect.

Gant, 24, posted a 4.86 ERA over 50 innings for the Braves last season, making 7 starts and 13 relief appearances. He also posted a 3.97 ERA in 59 innings in the minors, most of which were at Triple-A Gwinnett. In the past he’s been projected as a fourth or fifth starter. He has a very good changeup and a curve that has improved over the last couple years. His fastball sits in the low to mid 90s.

It would be reasonable to expect Gant to start the season in Memphis as a starting pitcher and be in line to be one of the first ones up in case of injury. He could probably fit in the rotation or the bullpen if needed. Gant will be on the 40 man roster, which is still full for the Cardinals.

The last piece is right hander Chris Ellis. Ellis is ranked #17 in the Braves’ system and was a third round pick by the Angels in 2014 before coming to Atlanta in the Andrelton Simmons trade.

Ellis, 24, was 8–2 with a 2.75 ERA over 13 starts for Double-A Mississippi last year, but failed to find his footing in Triple-A after a mid-season callup. In Gwinnett he was 4–7 with a 6.52 ERA.

The Cardinals will be his third organization in three years, so he could likely stand some consistency at this point. He is tall, 6-foot-5, with a two plus pitches, a fastball and slider. His fastball is only in the mid-90s, but has good life to it and his slider is swing-and-miss-type stuff. Control issues have plagued him so far in his pro career, most recently walking nearly 7 batters per nine while struggling with Gwinnett last year. Generally though, he has pitched well when he is throwing strikes.

I would expect Ellis to start the season in the rotation at Memphis. As a former third round pick, he will likely get every opportunity to succeed and figure out what kind of pitcher he’ll be.

All in all, I think this is a good trade for the Cardinals and the Braves too. The Cardinals get three talented young players in exchange for a pitcher that most fans wanted to say good bye. Is it a bad return? I don’t think so. Nobody was going to give up the moon to get Garcia and Mozeliak did not want to wait too long and get caught holding the bag.