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 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 add four to 40 Man Roster

What happened. The St. Louis Cardinals added LHP Austin Gomber, RHP Derian Gonzalez, OF Oscar Mercado, and OF Tyler O’Neill to the 40 man roster to protect them from the Rule 5 Draft. The 40 man roster now stands at 39 players.

The story. Today was the deadline for the Cardinals to add players to their 40 man roster to protect them from December’s Rule 5 Draft. The Rule 5 Draft will take place on the final day of December’s Winter Meetings in Orlando. Minor league players who were 19 or older when they signed and played four years and 18 or younger and played five years are eligible for the Rule 5 Draft if they are not on the 40 man roster.

The numbers. Austin Gomber, 23, was drafted in the 4th round of the 2014 MLB Draft out of Florida Atlantic University. He posted a 3.34 ERA over 26 starts for Double-A Springfield, initially struggling with the promotion to Springfield. From mid-June on, he posted a 2.34 ERA over his final 15 starts. He is ranked as the Cardinals’ #8 prospect by MLB.com.

Derian Gonzalez, 22, was signed as an international free agent out of Venezuela. He posted a 4.33 ERA in 15 starts and 3 relief appearances for High A Palm Beach. He missed time with a shoulder injury this summer and after a stint in Rookie ball, returned to Palm Beach as a reliever striking out 8 of the 12 batters he faced.

Oscar Mercado, 22, was drafted in the 2nd round of the 2013 MLB Draft out of high school. Last season Mercado debuted as an outfielder and was a full time outfielder this season for the first time. He also had a bit of a breakout season with the bat as well, hitting .287/.341/.428 with 13 home runs over 120 games with Double-A Springfield. He is ranked as the Cardinals’ #18 prospect by MLB.com.

Tyler O’Neill, 22, was drafted in the 3rd round of the 2013 MLB Draft out of high school by the Seattle Mariners. A consensus top-100 prospect before the 2017 season, O’Neill was acquired in July for Marco Gonzales. Between his two minor league stops, O’Neill hit .246/.321/.499 with 31 home runs in 130 games at the Triple-A level. He is ranked as the Cardinals’ #4 prospect by MLB.com.

The impact. 6/10. O’Neill was an obvious addition for the Cardinals as he might be the only bat in the system with the potential to be a middle of the order hitter. Gomber on the verge of knocking on the door to the Majors and might be in play as a fifth starter option for the club in Spring Training if the cards fall his way.

The additions of Gonzalez and Mercado represent a couple players who have had a good season, but are still developing and need to back up those performances to prove their worth.

The club was expected to have made a trade before today to help thin out the 40 man roster to give them more space for options, however, that did not end up being the case. Given that they didn’t make another trade to clear some space, they must be comfortable with those they are leaving unprotected this season. The last two years, the Cardinals have lost RHP Luis Perdomo and IF Allen Cordoba in the Major League portion.

A noted absence was Patrick Wisdom who hit .243/.310/.507 with 31 home runs over 127 games for Memphis this season. Wisdom was left unprotected last season as well and went unclaimed. That may not be the case this year.

Cardinals trade Gonzales for Mariners’ prospect O’Neill

The St. Louis Cardinals have traded left handed pitcher Marco Gonzales to the Seattle Mariners in exchange for outfield prospect Tyler O’Neill today.

Gonzales, 25, missed last season after Tommy John surgery and has a 2.90 ERA in 11 starts for Triple-A Memphis this season. He made a spot start for the big league club this season, allowed 5 earned runs in 3.1 innings. The former first round pick owns a career 5.53 ERA in 40.2 innings at the big league level over 7 starts and 3 relief appearances.

O’Neill, 22, is currently hitting .244/.328/.479 with 19 HR in 93 games for Triple-A Tacoma this season. He hit 56 home runs over his previous two seasons in Double-A and High-A ball. A former third-round pick, he is rated as the Mariners’ #2 prospect according to MLB.com.

Before the 2017 season he was a consensus top-100 prospect, coming in 36th at MLB.com, 38th at Baseball America and 53rd with Baseball Prospectus. He fell off the midseason lists as he struggled early in the season, batting just .218/.287/.381 with 6 home runs through June 15th. In a little over a month since, he is hitting .303/.406/.697 with 13 home runs.

If you’d asked me a week ago what this club needed, I’d have answered with a power hitting corner outfielder who likes to strike out. Okay not really, butsome have compared him to Grichuk, unjustly I think. Yes, so far this season O’Neill has struck out 27.3% of the time. But his numbers also show that he knows how to walk too, walking 11.1% of the time. Compare that to Randal Grichuk‘s best season in AAA which revealed a 5.9% walk rate.

The Cardinals do have a glut of outfielders. The big league club has Dexter Fowler and Stephen Piscotty signed long term, Tommy Pham hitting up a storm, and then Harrison Bader, Magneuris Sierra, Adolis Garcia, Randy Arozarena, and Oscar Mercado coming along in the minors. Now add O’Neill to the mix as the best of them and you have to wonder if a move is coming.

Another indicator of a potential trade coming is that the move of Gonzales didn’t just add O’Neill, it opened up a spot on the 40 man roster which now stands at 39.

The move of Gonzales also opens up a spot on the 40 man roster which now stands at 39. That could also serve as an indicator that another trade to deal out of that outfield prospect depth is on deck with a space now open without requiring a 40 man player be sent out in the same move.