Saturday, January 27, 2018

An Offseason Check-In

Somehow I thought for sure I'd typed up a post about the St. Louis Cardinals' offseason back in December. I did type up one during a lull at work, but I guess I never posted it. Anyway, in what's been a fairly quiet offseason overall, the Cardinals have been one of the more active teams. Whether it's been enough to close the gap on the Cubs is questionable, and now the Brewers have upgraded their outfield quite a bit with Christian Yelich and Lorenzo Cain. But let's take a look at where the Cards stand at this point.

Rotation: There are only two moves of note here. Lance Lynn was offered a one-year contract, which he turned down, understandably. He's yet to receive a contract from anyone else, though. And the Cardinals signed Miles Mikolas to a two-year contract. Mikolas spent the last three seasons in Japan, where he was quite effective: 62 starts, 424 innings, 2.18 ERA, 8 K/9, 1.5 BB/9. Prior to that, he'd spent parts of three seasons with the Phillies and Rangers, where things didn't go so well: 37 appearances, 10 starts, 91 innings, 5.32 ERA, 4.81 FIP, 6 K/9, 2.8 BB/9. His home run rate in Japan was also half of what it was in the States.

So the question is whether he figured something out in Japan that will translate to greater success here, or if he's a AAAA player, good enough to succeed there, but not here. If he does work out, it'll probably be as a poor man's Mike Leake. As you may recall, I was not a fan of the Mike Leake signing, but that was because of the years on the contract and the no-trade clause. I expected that he'd block the advancement of some young starter with more potential, but it turned out to be much easier to trade him than I anticipated. In Mikolas' case, his contract is short enough, and for few enough dollars the team shouldn't have any trouble setting him aside if he flops. If he succeeds, great. There are enough question marks about the remainder of the rotation that Mikolas doing well would be a pleasant outcome.

Because as it stands, the other starters are Carlos Martinez, Michael Wacha, Adam Wainwright, and Luke Weaver. I'm probably always going to be concerned about Wacha's shoulder. Wainwright may be done, and we've yet to see if Weaver can be a successful major league starter for a whole season. He threw 138 innings across AAA and the majors last year, and did fine, but they're going to need it for a whole year at the big leagues this year. The Cardinals don't have anyone else who'll be ready before midseason. Alex Reyes probably needs to be brought back slow, let him get his form back in AAA. Jack Flaherty needs more time at AAA as well, ditto guys like Jordan Hicks or Dakota Hudson. I guess they could use John Gant, though he hardly inspires confidence.

I don't want the Cardinals to go sign another mid-rotation guy, because those prospects are close, and can probably fill the gaps soon. It's just that even in the best-case scenario, there's going to be a brief period where the available depth is lacking. If the Cards wanted to grab a frontline guy to pair with Martinez, say Yu Darvish or Chris Archer, I'd be OK with that, depending on the dollars or prospect cost. I was pretty excited about that five-minute rumor the Diamondbacks were shopping Grienke.

Bullpen: This is where the Cardinals have overhauled things the most. They'd already released Broxton and Siegrist during the season, and sent Socolovich back to AAA. This offseason, they've let the injured Trevor Rosenthal walk, and didn't bother to offer contracts to Zach Duke or Seung-hwan Oh. Instead they signed Luke Gregerson to a three-year deal at $5 million per season. Gregerson's coming off a rough year in Houston, mostly due to his home run rate more than doubling from his career numbers. It seems as though four or 5 of the 13 HRs he gave up were cheap ones, owing to pitching in the funhouse mirror version of a stadium the Astros call home. So there's reason to hope he'll rebound. His K and BB rates really didn't change much from the previous year.

Not long ago, they traded Randal Grichuk to the Blue Jays for Dominic Leone and prospect Connor Greene. Greene has a big arm, but his control is mostly poor, and his mechanics are iffy. He's basically another version of Sandy Alcantara, who they traded to the Marlins. Leone is coming off an excellent season in Toronto, 70 innings with a 2.56 ERA and 2.91 FIP. 10.4 K/9 and only 2.8 BB/9. Slightly concerning is that his 2015 and 2016 were terrible: 42 innings total, 36 runs allowed, 32 Ks, 21 BB, 9 HRs! But his 2014 was good, if not on the same level as his 2017. Still, two good years, two horrendous years. I don't know what happened in the bad years, if he was hurt or what. Hopefully he doesn't follow fellow ex-Jay Brett Cecil's example and blow a bunch of leads.

As it stands now, the bullpen has Leone, Cecil, Gregerson (who was named closer, for what that's worth), Tyler Lyons, whatever is left of Matt Bowman's arm, and Sam Tuivalala. Which, if the Cardinals didn't employ a dipshit as manager, would leave one spot open for John Brebbia, Ryan Sheriff, maybe Alex Reyes if they want to try that (they should not try that). But Matheny is apparently insistent he needs 8 relievers, even though he never uses more than 3 at any given time. He picks three guys he trusts, and runs them into the ground. So why have five guys sitting around waiting for their one chance every 10 games to pitch?

Infield: Molina says he's going to retire after his contract runs out in 2020. I'll believe that when I see it. Still, it may be enough time to reach 2,000 hits. Carson Kelly hasn't been included in any trade for Chris Archer - yet. So he's probably the backup again. Matheny isn't even pretending they'll get him regular playing time, saying he'll start whoever he thinks gives them the best chance to win that day. So, another 140 starts for Yadi, then. Again, if the Cardinals did not employ a dipshit for a manager, they'd give Kelly at least one of the starters to be the personal catcher. Mikolas maybe, or Weaver. Or both. Reverse the Ozzie/Royce Clayton arrangement, with the veteran getting two-thirds of the starts. I mean, at some point, someone other than Yadier Molina is going to have be to be catcher.

Matt Carpenter's still set up to play first, and is to be trying to be a smarter baserunner by getting suggestions on which other players he should be emulating in approach. And he may not be batting leadoff next year. Kolten Wong is still here, and we're still hoping he'll put all his skills together in the same season for once. Jedd Gyorko has not been traded as part of a deal for Josh Donaldson or Manny Machado - yet. Paul DeJong is still the projected shortstop, we'll see if he can improve his plate discipline and maintain his average defense. The Cards traded Aledmys Diaz to the Blue Jays (separately of the Grichuk trade) for a minor league outfielder named J.B. Woodward. So the fallback is, Greg Garcia? Maybe Breyvic Valera, who is still on the 40-man roster.

Outfield: The Cardinals traded for Marcell Ozuna from the Marlins, in exchange for four minor leaguers: Magneruis Sierra, Zac Gallen, Alcantara, and Daniel Castano. Ozuna's coming off the best season of his career, having been worth over 5.5 WAR. He provided most of that value with the bat, crushing 37 HRs and posting a 145 OPS+. I would expect he'll bat 4th, behind (in some order) Carpenter/Tommy Pham/Dexter Fowler. Given the skill those three have at getting on-base, he should have plenty of chances to drive in runs. Although if Molina continues to bat 5th, they may just pitch around him.

Past that, Pham is apparently going to be starting centerfielder, with Fowler moving to right, I think. Ozuna's at least an average corner outfielder, Fowler should probably be above-average in a corner, and Pham should be at least average in CF, possibly better, if his eyesight holds up. Pham and Ozuna are a couple of the big question marks for the season. They project as the two best position players, but are only being projected for 3 and 3.5 WAR, respectively. Of course, Pham was worth 6 WAR last year, and Ozuna 5.5. If the projections are right, they're good, but a ways behind the best players on the Cubs (Bryant and Rizzo). If they match last year's numbers, much of the projected gap between the Cards and the Cubs vanishes.

We already mentioned Grichuk being traded. Prior to that, they traded Stephen Piscotty to the Athletics for two prospects, Yairo Munoz and Max Schrock. Schrock's a second baseman very good at making contact, but with not much power so far. Munoz has some power, and some speed, but strikes out a lot and has questionable plate discipline. He's been playing shortstop in the minors, but is probably more of a third baseman or utility infielder.

If they're going to have an 8-man bullpen, then they only have a 4-man bench. One of them is Kelly, one is Garcia. Jose Martinez makes three. I don't know who the fourth is, given the trades of so many of the outfield crew. Fowler could cover CF if Pham needs a day off, or they could put Harrison Bader on the roster. He'd probably benefit from getting regular at-bats in AAA, though. Between the versatility of Garcia, Gyorko, and Carpenter, they can cover all the infield spots. Valera might provide a little more versatility. Luke Voit would be a possible power bat. Of course, if Mozeliak tells Matheny to just live with the 7-man bullpen, you could have two of those guys, but I should probably resign myself to that not happening.

I think they've improved overall, though not by as much as people would like. It's hard to tell, because they were supposedly, by run differential and neutral sequencing, a much better team than their record suggested. If that evens out this year, they might be better by quite a bit. Or it might not turn around and they'll flail hopelessly behind the Cubs and possibly the Brewers again. I prefer the Weaver/Mikolas pair to Leake/Lynn, but I'm hard pressed to say it's an upgrade. Who knows with the bullpen. Could be great, could be a disaster. Jhonny Peralta and Matt Adams aren't around to steal at-bats from better players, but we don't know if DeJong can repeat his success. Ditto with Pham and Ozuna, and Jose Martinez. There are just a lot of question marks, given the level of turnover in the last year.



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