The Cardinals lost three big names for the upcoming season. Jason Heyward departed via free agency when the Cubs signed him last week. Before signing Heyward, the Cubs signed John Lackey away from the Cardinals. And before that they unfortunately lost a top of the rotation arm in Lance Lynn when it was announced earlier in the offseason he would undergo Tommy John surgery. They also lost out on acquiring David Price when the Red Sox beat their offer. With two obvious areas of need, the Cardinals have some choices to make.
With the departure of Jason Heyward and the lack of production they got from first base, the Cardinals need to fill at least one spot between corner outfield and first base. The options for the latter are quite sparse. The only real option would appear to be former Orioles first baseman Chris Davis. He reportedly turned down a $150 million offer from the Orioles and is looking for a contract in the range of $180 million.
It’s rare you see the Cardinals hand out huge contracts like that. They were willing to go that big for Heyward and Price. But there were clear reasons for that. Heyward was the absolute best position player on the market and young at just 26, while David Price was arguably the best free agent pitcher on the market. Chris Davis is by no means a bad player, but he’s not quite the same caliber as those two.
He just doesn’t seem like a Cardinals target to me. He’s too limited defensively. You’ll hear stories that he can play the outfield and could be the successor to Matt Holliday, but people say a lot of things. He has just under 600 innings there in his entire career and the defensive metrics tell a mixed story. Personally I’d be surprised if he ever sees significant time anywhere but first base, where he can pick it.
But more than that, he seems too risky for the Cardinals. If you look past the home runs, you’ll see a guy who has only really had two good seasons: 7.0 fWAR in 2013 and 5.6 fWAR in 2015. After that he’s only had one season where he wasn’t well below average: 2.1 fWAR in 2012. Every other season he was below 1.0 fWAR and in three seasons, he was a negative contributor.
Those negative seasons came earlier in his career though. And I do think it’s unfair to judge him on the player he was 5-8 years ago, but at the very least, it doesn’t paint a picture of consistency. And more recently, he was quite awful in 2014: .196/.300/.562, 94 wRC+, 0.8 fWAR. It was well reported that he didn’t receive a therapeutic use exemption for speed, I mean uppers, I mean Adderall that season. That’s concerning.
To be fair, it’s entirely possible Davis does indeed have ADHD and needs help managing the condition. I’m inclined to give a person the benefit of the doubt, and the medication he was prescribed in 2015 was “unlikely to be abused by players seeking an on-field edge.” But there is probably a problem in baseball with players abusing these drugs, and regardless whether Davis is one of them or not, he still struggled mightily in 2014. If I’m a signing team, that’s a concern to me. What happens if he is refused the exemption again in the future? It’s just hard for me to see the Cardinals hand out what would be their largest free agent expenditure to such a risky player.
It seems far more likely they would go after a player like Alex Gordon. In my opinion, he’s the next best outfielder on the market. He offers a more balanced offensive and defensive profile than Justin Upton and Yoenis Cespedes, and I think he can be had for around $100 million. That’s a good deal cheaper than Chris Davis will cost. I also think Gordon will require fewer years. Even though he’s older than the other options here, the fewer years mitigates a lot of the risk inherent in these longer deals.
In each of the last five seasons, Gordon has produced at an above league average offensive rate. His lowest offensive mark came in 2013 when he produced a 104 wRC+ which is equivalent to 4% better than league average. But he never dipped below 122 wRC+ in any of the other four seasons. He’s also an adept defender in left field, having never received a negative mark by DRS. Signing him could allow the Cardinals to play Piscotty – or perhaps even Gordon himself – at first base this year and still give them the flexibility to move players around once Holliday’s contract is over either after this year, or after the 2017 season if the Cards pick up his club option.
I wrote “more likely” but it’s by no means a sure bet. Recently GM John Mozeliak had this to say on the matter:
“It’s clear now this offseason is not going to have that dynamic signing that we tried to do with (David) Price and Heyward. There isn’t anything now that we’re chasing with a nine-figure contract. We can take the time to see what we have in the players we control. Obviously, we’re always open to adjusting.”
It’s at this time I will point out that GMs rarely say exactly what they mean to the public. It’s all a game they play and you just have to try to guess what the real message is. They say they’re willing to hand RF over to Stephen Piscotty. But then they’d have to give the other corner spot to Moss. Or have Moss as their starting first baseman. I really can’t believe the Cardinals are content with that plan.
But notice how the last sentence in that quote essentially renders everything that comes before it moot. I think it’s far more likely anything Mozeliak says to the media is to help manage fans’ expectations as well as to try to add leverage to any conversation with a player’s agent.
Alex Gordon certainly isn’t the same caliber as Price and Heyward, but he’s not going to cost nearly as much. And he seems a much better bet to provide quality production than Chris Davis. If they feel so inclined, they could easily sign Gordon and a reasonably competent mid-rotation starter for the money they were going to allocate to just one of Price or Heyward. And there’s a chance they could add those players for some amount less – that seems like a smart thing to do. And the Cardinals usually do smart things.
Statistics courtesy of FanGraphs
Contract details courtesy of Cot’s Contracts