St. Louis Cardinals: Sluggish offseason, a cause and effect expose

LOS ANGELES, CA - OCTOBER 25: Major League Baseball Commissioner Robert D. Manfred Jr. attends the 2017 Hank Aaron Award press conference prior to game two of the 2017 World Series between the Houston Astros and the Los Angeles Dodgers at Dodger Stadium on October 25, 2017 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Tim Bradbury/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - OCTOBER 25: Major League Baseball Commissioner Robert D. Manfred Jr. attends the 2017 Hank Aaron Award press conference prior to game two of the 2017 World Series between the Houston Astros and the Los Angeles Dodgers at Dodger Stadium on October 25, 2017 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Tim Bradbury/Getty Images) /
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St. Louis Cardinals
BALTIMORE, MD – JULY 02: Starting pitcher Miles Mikolas /

The extremely sluggish free agent market this offseason has had an impact on virtually all teams, including the St. Louis Cardinals. It is Larry’s turn to expound on his theories for the slow offseason.

A blowhard’s rebuttal

Larry: Dan, I have little issue with what you said, so I’ll stop here. Wait, I’m a blowhard, so no I won’t. Instead, I’ll try to build on what you had to say and put a St. Louis Cardinals sheen on it all. Each of your three points played into the Redbirds’ decision making, I believe, and in very interesting ways, some I find quite questionable.

Let’s start with the performance gap between ready or almost-ready prospects and veterans who find themselves in this lagging free-agent market. The St. Louis Cardinals have, as we know, a ridiculous wealth of up-and-coming pitching, both for starter and reliever slots.

In fact, while I won’t go player-by-player, one could argue that there are a dozen or more arms with the equivalent of one year or less of total major-league experience, or with none at all, who could play into the St. Louis Cardinals’ fortunes in the coming year. That’s a great place to be, and this stable of potential should prove out for the team for years to come.

Is the upside of young talent enough to forego the high-priced top starters and closers? That’s the question Cardinal Nation is asking. Your point, Dan, was that the young guys are a better investment than is overpaying the middle or lower tier of free agents. I wholly agree, but does the complement of strong young arms substitute for the top tier?

The answer is probably no. One can see the great promise of Luke Weaver while not comparing him at this stage of his career to a Jake Arrieta or Yu Darvish. Sure, Weaver could turn out to out-perform one of those guys, but there’s hardly a high degree of certainty that they will.

That’s why the Luke Gregerson and Miles Mikolas signings were very strange ones to me. Again, just as they did with Brett Cecil last year, the St. Louis Cardinals frenetically entered the market early to nab a couple guys who are….what, exactly? In Gregerson’s case, a really good pitcher with limited experience and success at closing?

Same with Miles Mikolas. A fine two years in the Pacific Rim made teams eager to grab Mikolas as a budget arm for rotation depth. That’s well and good, but it doesn’t seem to fit with the pattern of bellying up for the premium guys while letting the lower level guys go by. Is the marginal benefit of Mikolas, or even the insurance value to protect against a young guy failing in his first or second big league outing, worth it?

The St. Louis Cardinals are missing the mark on free agent valuation

In some ways, the St. Louis Cardinals’ approach to these guys has been to grab them if their cost doesn’t exceed the team’s valuation for them. But is that really the way to be playing this market?

Let me give an example to prove up my way of thinking. Mikolas and Gregerson will cost the team together somewhere in the neighborhood of $12M this year. So how would you feel if the team were to have instead invested in Wade Davis for $17M, or the still unsigned Greg Holland at a similar price? Or alternately, what if the team had gone with their existing bullpen but signed a top starter such as Darvish or Arrieta?

Truth be told, the St. Louis Cardinals could really afford BOTH the top starter and reliever, given their hugely increased TV budget, and the one-time bonus all teams are getting from the Disney-Fox transaction. They’re still under their 2017 Opening Day payroll by a good margin.

You can see where I’m going with this. Bargain hunting only goes so far, and while it might insulate you from the under-performance of a rookie, it doesn’t elevate your potential by any great shakes. By nibbling around the edges rather than landing the big fish, the St. Louis Cardinals’ free agent moves seem more like insurance purchases than contention builders.

Which brings me to your second point. The St. Louis Cardinals definitely took advantage of the trade option with their acquisition of Marcell Ozuna, and that was a deft move, barely making a ding in the reservoir of pitching prospects the Redbirds command.

And there was the talk of them playing for either or both of Chris Archer and Alex Colome of the Rays, either of which would have satisfied the upside potential that neither Gregerson nor Mikolas seem to provide.

It’s entirely possible there’s more in the way of trade coming.  You referenced the teams that are playing the rebuilding game as the Cubs and Astros did. Well, with the free agent market so slow, the dumpers (think the Marlins but with brains) should be more than willing to jump in feet first, for fear that contenders can get bargain basement free agent deals without sacrificing their next-gen prospects.

There’ still time for the Cards to avail themselves of the trade game, and they have definite needs, most notably that closer and also an upgrade at middle infield depth. But when one’s needs are that precise, it makes waiting, either on trades or free agents, that much more perilous.

The Boras factor and the CBA

As for Boras, I don’t know what to say. The guy has had a magnificent run, and well, he’s a good enough huckster I suppose he’ll persuade his clients this year that he did all he could do. Still, Boras has to realize that he has contributed in part to where we have arrived….if the top FAs get top dollar, there isn’t necessarily room for the less talented to climb above the bottom rungs.

The CBA is indeed a big bummer for the players, and we saw this week that the MLBPA even questioned the tactics of both the Pirates and Marlins, questioning their moves and whether they’re trying to field competitive teams. But honestly, that argument will never win, as teams can conjure up any number of explanations for how they’re rebuilding.

I agree with you that a team salary minimum is essential, and I would argue a significant bump in the individual player’s major league minimum as well; otherwise, the rich could just keep getting richer at the marginal player’s expense.

In summary, if the St. Louis Cardinals don’t make any more moves, then I think that while they have a fine and competitive team, they will have been out-dueled by others.

The Ozuna deal was great, but jumping into the Mikolas and Gregerson signings showed a pretty bad misread of the market. I think they will both be decent, but I don’t think either is what we needed, compared to the higher profile arms that, as we’ll see, will come in at below expected prices.