Despite the hand-wringing about the many problems of the St. Louis Cardinals, there are a couple of trades and a free agent signings the club could make a huge difference in the complexion of the team before spring training.
The Birds need help in the middle of their order and on defense — and I believe they need to exchange some quantity in starting pitching for top-end-of-the-rotation quality.
Starting with the easiest problem first: There have been multiple reports that the Arizona Diamondbacks regret the $206 million contract handed over to starting pitcher Zack Greinke a year ago. The D-Backs supposedly tried to trade Greinke back to the Dodgers in the middle of the 2016 campaign. But Los Angeles wanted Arizona to eat part of the contract, and Tony La Russa and company said no.
Greinke is owed $157.5 million over the next five years, which is steep, no doubt. But if they shipped out their ace, the Dbacks would still need some pitching pretty badly. So what if the Cardinals offered to take all of Greinke’s contract — as long as Arizona took Mike Leake from St. Louis as part of the return?
We know that Arizona had some interest in Leake last season because it flirted with him before landing Greinke. He’d be a veteran presence on a team that’s trying to establish some younger hurlers. Leake has a no-trade clause. But he wanted to pitch for the Diamondbacks to be near his father, who has significant health issues. So, by making the move, Arizona would get significant salary relief, trading the $31.5 million or so Greinke will average over the next five years for the $16.75 Leake will average over the next four seasons.
In exchange for helping Arizona erase a $206 million mistake (minus the first season and his signing bonus), it shouldn’t take a ton of additional talent to make the deal.
Greinke didn’t have a great season in 2016. But it wasn’t terrible. He was 13-7 with a 4.37 and struck out 7.6 per nine innings toiling in an extreme hitter’s park. He was 5-5 with a 4.81 ERA at home last season but 8-2 with a 3.94 ERA on the road. The high altitude of Arizona seemed to really impact his pitches. He struck out 6.3 per nine innings in the desert but 8.9 on the road.
Potential starting rotation: Greinke, Carlos Martinez, Adam Wainwright, Lance Lynn, Alex Reyes/Luke Weaver/Jaime Garcia/Michael Wacha.
Other top pitchers are available. The Detroit Tigers are apparently in fire sale mode and might be willing to deal Justin Verlander. Plus the White Sox are reportedly shopping around Chris Sale. I’d be more than interested in either of them. But Greinke, who is experienced in the NL Central, is a special fit because of the situation with Leake’s desire to be out west.
The second move the Cardinals ought to make is the one they have been linked to since even before the end of the World Series: Sign Dexter Fowler to play center field.
I’m not a huge fan of former Cubs. But Fowler fills a need the Cardinals have been trying to find for several years: Landing a lead-off hitter who can move Matt Carpenter down in the batting order to a spot where he’ll have a chance to drive in more runs.
It seems a lot of people are obsessed with the idea that the Cardinals want to improve their defense in center. Indeed, General manager John Mozeliak, when asked about off-season priorities, said the Redbirds wanted to address center field AND defense. Fowler is a decent — but not great — center fielder. But his presence would improve the outfield glove work over 2016. Why? Because he’s a lot faster and more sure-handed than Matt Holliday was the last few years. Add him into a mix with Stephen Piscotty in right and Randal Grichuk moving from center to left, and there will be a lot less room for balls to fall in.
But the real value of the switch-hitting Fowler is his .393 on-base percentage last year to go with his .366 career mark. Last season the closest Cardinals hitter to that mark was Aledmys Diaz, who got on at a .369 clip.
Fangraphs concludes Fowler, who is 30, will age well, justifying the four- or five-year commitment it would take to sign him.
Potential starting lineup: Fowler (CF), Diaz (SS), Carpenter (1b) ???????? (3B), Piscotty (RF), Grichuk (LF), Molina (C), Wong (2B).
So that leaves but one smoking hole in the Cardinals lineup: The team needs a legit cleanup hitter — and one who can preferably play third base.
Sorry, I’m not sold on the aging Jhonny Peralta or on the idea that Jedd Gyorko’s 30 home runs are worth his .306 on base percentage, mediocre glove and splits that show he’s a much better hitter with the bases empty and when the game isn’t on the line than he is when production really matters.
Besides, with Holliday gone and the Cardinals watching Wainwright and Yadier Molina play out the last two or three seasons of their careers, it’s time to add a new franchise cornerstone to lead the team into the next five to 10 years.
I’ve written before that I think Evan Longoria would be an excellent addition. He’s under control for a reasonable (not cheap, but reasonable) amount. He’s a legit power hitter and pretty good glove man at third. I’d take his .271 career average and 31 homers a season right in the middle of the St. Louis batting order.
But … what if the Cardinals went all in on acquiring a new third sacker?
The Baltimore Orioles have Manny Machado under contract for two more years. And there was speculation in the Sporting News that he may be available because the Orioles don’t seem likely to win a bidding war to keep him.
Do the O’s have to trade Machado? Of course not. But what if the Cardinals made an offer they couldn’t refuse?
Baltimore has two excellent starting pitchers. And three AWFUL ones. Their 3-4-5 starters all had earned run averages in the mid- to upper-5 range. And only one of them posted more than 118 innings.
There are two guys I would include Reyes in a trade to acquire: Mike Trout and Machado. Yes, it would hurt to lose one of the top two pitching prospects in baseball. But Machado is 24 years old and averaged .290 with 37 homers, 36 doubles, 91 RBIs and 10 stolen bases the last two seasons.
If the Cardinals called offering Reyes, Michael Wacha, Harrison Bader, Gyorko and maybe Trevor Rosenthal, wouldn’t Baltimore at least have to think about it? That’s two MLB ready starters, a top prospect and a power bat at a very reasonable price tag. The Cardinals have other prospects they could swap for Rosenthal if Baltimore so desired …
One condition: If the Cardinals traded for Machado, giving up top talent to get him, they need to sign him to a long-term contract as part of the deal. Maybe eight years and $200-$225 million or six years at $180 million if he wants another free agent bite at the apple while he’s still in his prime.
If the Cardinals couldn’t pry Machado or Longoria away from their clubs, the next option would be to try to sign Dodgers free agent Justin Turner.
Turner, 32, wouldn’t be the face of the franchise for a decade like Machado could. But he’s a legitimate cleanup guy with 27 homers and 34 doubles to go with his .275 batting average. And he’s a hard-nosed player who is a natural leader in the clubhouse and on the field.
It may be a down free agent market. But there are plenty of reasonable deals to fill the Cardinals needs and make them a legit competitor in 2017. And keep in mind that St. Louis shedded millions on the contracts this off-season and will shed more in a year. Besides, I can’t disagree with this column that states, given their fan support, that the Cardinals could easily afford a $180 million payroll, a bump of about $40 million per season from last year.