(Sept. 19, 2015 – Source: John Konstantaras/Getty Images North America)
The St. Louis Cardinals are in the midst of a very underwhelming offseason. This statement is not really controversial. The Cardinals reportedly entered this offseason with more financial might than they have had in any previous offseason, thanks to their new television contract. Despite their increased wealth, the Cardinals have failed to improve their roster for 2016. They have whiffed in their attempts to add star players David Price and Jason Heyward and have lost significant pieces from their 100-win ball club of 2015. Beyond losing Heyward, the Cardinals will compete in 2016 without John Lackey and Lance Lynn, two of their top starters a year ago. Even with these significant losses, the Cardinals’ acquisitions have been underwhelming, with Jedd Gyorko, Brayan Pena and Jonathon Broxton constituting all of the Major League talent the club has added this offseason. Their lack of impact acquisitions isn’t from a lack of trying, as their offer to David Price was the second richest he received and their offer to Heyward exceeded $200 Million. Regardless, they signed neither of these players and are now potentially heading into the 2016 season with a significantly less talented roster, so how can they salvage their offseason?
For many people, the next logical move after missing on the top free agents is to move to the next tier of the market and maybe spread the money around to multiple players. This especially appears like an ideal next step for the Cardinals because this year’s class of free agents is very deep. However, this Cardinals roster does not have many holes to fill, just right field or first base and a starting pitcher position remain open for upgrades. The top position player free agents remaining don’t fit these needs for a right fielder or first baseman. The remaining outfielders all profile as left fielders, which hinders the Cardinals ability to add them because Matt Holliday has that position locked down for at least one more season. Chris Davis certainly seems like an ideal match for the Cardinals because he can take over first base and bring 40-homer power to a lineup starving for home runs. However, Davis has already turned down a 7-year contract worth upwards of $150 Million. This commitment isn’t beyond the Cardinals’ means, but they are known for being very prudent with their money and as Dave Cameron of Fangraphs pointed out, Chris Davis is likely to be a very poor investment due to how his one-dimensional skill set typically ages.
The market for starting pitchers, on the other hand, may be a better match with what the Cardinals are seeking, but it lacks any real impact arms. While solid mid-rotation arms like Mike Leake, Wei-Yin Chen and Scott Kazmir are still available, the Cardinals may not feel compelled to spend around $15 million per year on an extended contract for a marginal upgrade over their current options for a 5th starter.
The Cardinals’ next option beyond the free agent market is to turn to the trade market. The Cardinals are reportedly discussing a deal with the Tampa Bay Rays for a starting pitcher, likely Jake Odorizzi. They could also engage the Indians on a trade for one of their young hurlers: Carlos Carrasco, Danny Salazar or Trevor Bauer. However, the increased price of pitching on the free agent market has driven up the cost of talent necessary to acquire a cost-controlled starter, like the ones above. The Indians are willing to trade from their rotation, but only if the return includes young, MLB ready position players. With the Cardinals looking to augment their offense as well, this trade scenario doesn’t matchup too well. Likewise, a trade for a quality outfielder, such as one of the Rockies’ starters Carlos Gonzalez, Corey Dickerson or Charlie Blackmon, will likely cost a young, MLB ready pitcher. Even if the Cardinals could find a trade partner that was seeking prospects, their system lacks elite prospects, barring Alex Reyes, who is near untouchable in trades. The Redbirds’ system does have plenty of depth, which leaves the door open for a trade, just not a very impactful one.
The best way to salvage this offseason may not involve significant forays into the free agent market or even the trade market, instead the Cardinals could use their increased financial might to extend some of their budding young stars. Locking in a few of their top young players may not improve their 2016 roster, but they may be able to contend without significant upgrades, as they are coming off a 100-win campaign and still project as 5th best team in the NL. While Heyward pointed to the Cardinals’ aging core as a primary reason for leaving, the Cardinals still boast an impressive collection of talented young players, and as I mentioned earlier they have a deep farm system. If the Cardinals can lock up a few of their key youngsters, namely Michael Wacha, Carlos Martinez and Trevor Rosenthal, they can give themselves some cost-certainty moving forward and potentially lower their future costs. This will free them up to be aggressive in free agency again in an offseason or two. Extensions carry plenty of risk, especially when they involve pitchers and pitchers that have injuries in their recent past. The benefits of these extensions can outweigh the potential costs, especially since salaries for pitchers on the open market are growing much faster than those of position players. By guaranteeing the money ahead of free agency, the club can limit the overall cost of signing the player and certainly lower the amount of money due to the player in the future by paying more money up front, which makes perfect sense for the Cardinals because they have plenty of money to spend now.
So, what might the extensions for Rosenthal, Wacha and Martinez look like?
Rosenthal: 4 years, $38 Million + 1 club option for $13 Million
Rosenthal’s best comp is Craig Kimbrel’s extension from 2014. Kimbrel’s deal awards him $42 Million over 4 years with a club option valued at $13 Million. Rosenthal may not be as dominant as Kimbrel was when he signed, but he has the same amount of service time and has racked up plenty of saves to get a major payday through the arbitration process. Shutdown relievers are en vogue right now, so the cost to acquire control of two of his free agent years will be costly. However, relievers are also known to be quite volatile, so Rosenthal should be interested in locking in a significant guarantee, while he is both healthy and effective.
Wacha: 5 years, $37.5 Million + 1 club option for $15 Million
Wacha has just over 2 years of service, which means he is still one year away from arbitration and 4 years from free agency. His best comps include Yovani Gallardo, Jon Lester and Ricky Romero. Each of these starters signed for right around $30 Million over 5 years. While each pitcher had similar, if not slightly better, track records than Wacha, their extensions are a bit outdated as the price for starting pitchers has skyrocketed recently, so Wacha’s extension will have to adjust for this. What will likely keep Wacha’s extension below $40 Million is his distance from free agency, previous injury to his throwing arm and the fact that arbitration is slow to correct itself. The last point means that while free agent pitchers are receiving more money, pitchers going to arbitration have not seen as substantial increases in salary. Wacha’s rare shoulder injury in 2014 will likely motivate him to sacrifice two years of free agency in exchange for guaranteed money. The Cardinals will certainly consider Wacha’s health when discussing an extension, but it is important they lock Wacha in before he reaches free agency and sees his salary climb even further.
Martinez: 5 years, $35 Million + 1 club option for $15
Martinez has the same service time as Wacha, but a different case in his extension negotiations because he has only one full season as a starter under his belt. He may lack the same experience in the rotation as Wacha, but his one season in the rotation bested any of Wacha’s single seasons. Martinez is also considered to have a higher ceiling compared to Wacha, so his extension will have to consider the likelihood that his performance continues to top that of Wacha. Similarly, to Wacha, Martinez recently had a shoulder injury that prematurely ended his season, which may motivate him to give up to free agent years in order to gain financial security now.
Extending these budding stars may not improve the 2016 club, but it will prepare them to further improve the roster in the coming years by providing them cost-certainty. The 2016 roster likely doesn’t need a major addition to begin with; adding Heyward or Price would have been beneficial, but not essential. As always, the Cardinals have someone within the organization ready to step up. They should still look to augment this roster, but with more modest additions. If they can convince Mark Buehrle to play one last year before retirement, they can add to their rotation and give themselves more pitching depth in case any of their starters go down with injuries. If they are willing to spend more money, Scott Kazmir seems like a good fit if they can get him on a 3-year deal with an Average Annual Value under $15 Million. On the offensive side, they can sign Steve Pearce to a cheap 2-year deal to platoon with Matt Adams at first base and maybe Pearce will rediscover the magic he had in 2014. The Cardinals may not be able to sign each of these players to an extension because not every player is interested in giving away free agent years and not every player is worthy of a risky extension. However, putting their extra money towards locking in their young core and putting less of it into the free agent market is a better move than spending significant money on players that are not great fits for their club. The Cardinals dealt with arguably the worst injuries of any club last year and were still able to reach the 100-win plateau, so I don’t think it’s accurate to assume they have to force additions on their roster in order to succeed in 2016. While Heyward feels the club’s core is nearing the end of its run, the Cardinals have anther core ready to establish itself, just as they always do. They should use this offseason to begin ensuring their core of tomorrow will stay together for a long time to come.