Friday, February 20, 2015

It's Just About Time For Spring Training

I haven't talked about the current St. Louis Cardinals since mid-November, so let's look in on their off-season. Last time we checked in, they'd only made two moves. One was signing Dean Anna as  a probable utility infielder. The other was the big trade with Atlanta that sent out Shelby Miller and Tyrell Jenkins in exchange for Jason Heyward and Jordan Walden.

So what's happened since then? Carlos Martinez, contrary to my initial impressions, appears to have the inside track on the 5th starter spot Miller vacated. The team bought out Lance Lynn's arbitration years with a 3 year contract totaling about $22 million. Assuming he can at least maintain his production of the last two seasons, that seems like a good deal for the Cardinals. Not so sure for Lynn. It provides more long-term security than a one year arb contract would, but it puts him back on the free agent market at 31, which would likely make a few teams nervous even if he stays healthy over the next 3 years. But there'll probably be at least one team that would spend big for him if he's been productive.

In the bullpen, they signed Matt Belisle to a one year contract. He's spent the previous 6 seasons in Colorado, but last year was the first time it seemed to really hurt his numbers. Not only was his ERA below league average, his FIP of 3.74 was his worst since 2009's 4.77. He hadn't had a FIP worse than 3.07 in between '09 and 2014. Looking at his numbers, the main issue is his walk rate climbed to 2.6 batters per 9 innings (when it hadn't been worse than 2 since 2007, and his K rate was down to 6 per 9, which is his worst since 2008, and over 1.5 Ks less than he'd had the previous two years. He also pitched in fewer games (66, down from 72 in 2013, and 80 in 2012), but I don't know if that was because he was less effective, so they used him less, or if he was hurt, and that's why he didn't pitch as often. The Cardinals already have a fair number of righthanders, but maybe it doesn't hurt to buy low on one and hope he can be this year's Neshek.

They also signed Carlos Villanueva and his awesome mustache to a minor league contract. He's able to start or work out of the bullpen, which could be handy, given there have to be concerns about Wainwright's elbow, Wacha's shoulder, and Martinez' general ability to hold up for an entire season. Villanueva's coming off a pretty good year with the Cubs, though his ERA doesn't really reflect it. But he did get his HR rate to drop by about 0.5 per 9, and posted better than average walk and strikeout numbers, based on his career stats. Hard to say if that offers any predictive power for this year. His K rate fluctuates a lot. The last 5 years have gone: 8.3, 7.2, 8.8, 5.7, 11.4, the 5.7 and 8.8 were both with Toronto, so it isn't strictly a matter of it dropping when he went to the American League. But the Cardinals also have Tyler Lyons and Marco Gonzales to fill in as starters if needed, so Villanueva's hopefully not the piece the whole season hinges on.

On the position player side of things, the team seems content behind the plate and in the outfield. Turns out most free agent catchers don't want to sign with a team that won't ever use them, because the have Yadier Molina. I thought they'd enjoy a cushy job, but I guess it would limit their stats, which would hurt their earning potential, and I suppose just sitting on the bench can't be much fun. They did non-tender Shane Robinson early in the offseason, so he had more time to find a new team, and they eventually came to an agreement with Jon Jay on a two year deal worth about $11 million total. They also opted not to try and re-sign Descalso, who somehow got a 2-year deal from the Rockies.

They did make a couple of signings that could impact the bench. One was to sign Mark Reynolds to a one year contract. Reynolds will presumably spell Matt Adams at first, and provide another righthanded power bat off the bench, alongside Grichuk. Reynolds is very much a low-average, moderate to low OBP, high slugging guy, in theory. His ISO last year was 198, which would have easily topped the Cardinals, but his .287 OBP was almost 40 points below even his career average. His Baseball-Reference page lists him as a first and third baseman, but he's below average at first, and a train wreck at 3rd, so better to use someone else to back up Matt Carpenter.

Reynolds, at least offensively, is like Randal Grichuk: He can probably be a useful player, used in the right role. The Cardinals will hopefully not have to start him often, and can use him in situations that best suit his strengths. Though looking at his splits over the last 3 years, I'm not sure what those are. For his career, his batting average and slugging against righties are almost identical to his work against lefties. He walks a lot more against LHP, though. The last 3 years have gone back and forth. In 2012 and 2014, he was better against RHP, in 2013 against LHP. He still tends to walk more against lefties, though his batting average is so low it can only help his OBP so much, but his power numbers are fluctuating a lot.

The other potentially interesting acquisition was the minor league trade with Seattle for Ty Kelly. Kelly can't play SS like Anna, Kozma, or Greg Garcia, but he can play all the other infield spots, as well as some corner outfield (though the Cards are likely covered there). More importantly, his offensive approach and numbers are reminiscent of Matt Carpenter's (who is one of the guys Kell says he tries to emulate). Not exactly impressive power numbers, but he walks a lot. His career minor league slash line is .282/.387/.386, though his slugging was over .400 his two years at AAA Tacoma. Whether that's a result of his entering his mid-20s, or that being more of a hitter's park, I couldn't say. But his offensive profile would make for an interesting addition to the Cardinals bench.

As it stands now, I'd expect the five bench guys to be Tony Cruz, Reynolds, Grichuk, Bourjos, and probably Anna. None of those guys are exactly good at getting on base. Cruz really can't hit at all, and the next 3 are no strangers to sub-.300 OBPs. Anna doesn't have enough of a major league track record for me to say much of anything. Kelly would at least bring some different skills to the table, but unless they gave up on Reynolds, or Kelly demonstrated greater defensive chops than he has so far, I think they'll want someone who can back up Peralta. Still, Kelly might make an interesting guy to bring up in event of an injury, or just to see if he can help at some point midseason.