The St. Louis Cardinals slugger is up for free agency after hitting 28 home runs in just 128 games. Should St. Louis open up the wallet to retain his services?
When the St. Louis Cardinals moved left-handed pitching prospect Rob Kaminsky for Brandon Moss in 2015, the team believed they were trading for an All-Star. In 2014, Moss posted a slash line of .234/.334/.438 while hitting 25 home runs. His hydrothermal first half—in which he hit 21 HRs while posting a .878 OPS—got him selected to the only All-Star game of his career.
Unfortunately though, that wasn’t the player that showed up to St. Louis in 2015. In 51 games with the Cards, Moss slugged just .409 and managed only 4 home runs while striking out 42 times. The Georgia native bounced back in 2016, and the Cardinals got glimpses of the player they had hoped to trade for. Moss hit 28 bombs this year—and they were bombs— despite missing time due to injury.
As usual though, Moss’s season was a tale of two halves. 17 of those home runs came in the first half of the season, and as you might expect, his half-by-half OPS splits were .910/.639. This puts the Cardinals in an interesting spot.
Moss’s second half drop-off could serve as a silver lining should the front office be intent on bringing him back. In theory, he played his value way down as he enters his free agency. St. Louis Cardinals GM John Mozeliak has expressed interest in his return while astutely noting that the real question is: “but it’s going to be at what price?”
How much is too much to pay for a streaky power hitter with an alarming tendency to strike out? That question depends on the market headed into free agency, and that market value depends on how the team plans on using Moss.
Brandon played 53 games at first base this season, but he also played 50 games in left field, while tacking on 21 more games in right. The Cardinals have 3 players who can serve time at first base. Matt Carpenter and Jedd Gyorko have a ton of infield versatility, while “Big City” Matt Adams hopes to cement his spot as the everyday first basemen.
Assuming that Matt Holliday has indeed played his final game in St. Louis, left field becomes a position of need more-so than first base. Initially, I found myself wondering if the team would kick the tires of Adam Lind once more, but it appears Moss would be most useful when used as an outfielder. With that in mind, let’s take a look at some of the alternative options for filling the hole in left.
The sexiest name on the list of free agent out fielders is Yoenis Cespedes. If you just got really excited, let me stop you right there. Cespedes has two years, $47.5MM remaining on his contract. Should he choose to opt out of that deal, he’s doing so with the knowledge that this year’s free agent class is thin. Make no mistake, he will milk the top buyers for every penny he can. He won’t play in St. Louis next year.
Looking beyond the Cuban star, no one comes close to matching the power that Moss possesses, and virtually every name on that list is north of 30 years old. It seems unlikely that the Cardinals will look to lock any of those names down long term. I don’t see any of the names on that list becoming a realistic target for Mo.
It appears that not all hope is lost for Tommy Pham. His speed on the base paths and his defensive ability have kept him on the roster and in the discussion for next year. The Cards could start Pham in center, and slide Randal Grichuk over to left. This wouldn’t solve the outfield depth issue however, and Pham’s bat remains a major question mark.
Shoring up center field should be a priority and Mozeliak is on record saying as much. Allow me to turn into full fantasy mode here and divulge my ideal scenario: A trade for A.J. Pollock. Arizona should be and likely will be in some sort of rebuild mode as they’ve begun their search for a new GM. Whoever that ends up being will look for some sort of exit strategy from their disastrous “all-in” approach last year.
It’s difficult to guess what Pollock would cost the Cardinals, but would Arizona be interested in young starting pitching? Could a Luke Weaver or Harrison Bader package get it done? Would that be too much to give up? These are difficult questions to answer, but A.J. sure would look good wearing the Birds on the Bat.
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In the event that the Cards land a big fish like Pollock—or a medium sized one like Kevin Kiermaier—I would be weary of opening up the wallet for Moss. His bat off the bench would be a tasty proposition, but I would feel comfortable with Pham as the fourth outfielder in that scenario. The outfield would become suddenly competent defensively, if not well above average.
Should the Cardinals fail to land an impact center fielder, I think bringing Moss back as either part of a platoon, or the everyday left fielder becomes a necessity. He was a better defender than you might think, and his pop would be desired even with his inconsistency. In this scenario, they may need to pay up.
So we come back to the all important question: At what price? The Cardinals will extend a qualifying offer, as this guarantees compensation in the form of a draft pick should Moss sign elsewhere. The qualifying offer has shot up to north of $17MM in the MLB this year. That number scares many, but I actually think that’s a good sign for those in favor of a Moss return.
There is no salary cap in baseball, and between the money that never went to Jason Heyward, and the well-documented new tv deal, a one year deal of that sort is far from disastrous for St. Louis. Additionally, it might make Moss more inclined to accept that offer. He made just over $8MM last year, and while he certainly will look for a longer bigger deal, he may have to come to terms with reality.
Moss is an aging player who just demonstrated once again that he can’t be counted on down the stretch. Maybe someone is interested in paying him big money, but I think Moss is interested in a return to St. Louis. Something that may require him accepting that offer.
In the event that an upgrade in CF seems realistic, I think a qualifying offer is the only one the Cards should make. If he accepts it, I think it’s a great deal with or without any outfield upgrades. Should they fail to get Pollock or someone of that ilk, they may have to pay Moss if he declines the QO. In that scenario, I’d be comfortable offering something around 2yrs-$30-35MM. If he asks for anything more, let him walk.