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If not Harper, Josh Donaldson would make a damn good plan B.

About a week ago, I wrote about how the Cardinals needed to spend the money it took to sign Bryce Harper. He would fill a need in the middle of the Cardinals’ order and give the team the right fielder and left-handed threat the lineup needs. The problem is that signing him will be extremely difficult because his services will be in high demand. The Cards need a fallback option.

I thought initially that the fallback option could be Manny Machado but his assholery during the playoffs and World Series fairly quickly extinguished that thought. Though the team could use a better every day solution at third base (or at SS with Paul DeJong moving to third), there’s just no way the team is realistically going to fork over $350 - $400 million to a guy who’s a proud non-hustler and who twice in the last couple of weeks deliberately stepped on the first baseman’s foot while running out a ground ball. Maybe he’ll mature but I just can’t see any way Cards’ management gives him the GDP of a small nation on the hope that that might occur. On to plan C…

Because this is an excellent crop of free agents, plan C is no slouch. Josh Donaldson has intrigued the Cardinals for several years but the Blue Jays wisely resisted trading him until they were far gone from the playoff race and it became obvious that re-signing him would interfere with the youth movement on the horizon. If the Cardinals ended up losing out on Harper, ending up with Josh Donaldson instead would be a pretty good silver medal.

Donaldson isn’t without his flaws, of course. He will be, to begin, 33 on opening day, 7 years older than Harper, and he spent most of the 2018 season fighting injuries or actually on the D.L. It’s reasonable to conclude that a 4 or 5-year deal will result in him missing probably 20+ games a year due to various nagging injuries. Donaldson plays hard and takes a beating – Cardinals’ fans will love what a gamer he is – but that has its downside as well.

So why be interested at all? Because the @bringerofrain20 can flat out play ball. Even in 2017 when he only played 113 games he was still a 5-WAR player. Prior to this season, his wRC+ was greater than 150 (more than 50% above average) 3 years in a row. From 2013 – 2017 he averaged more than 7 wins per season. Now, he was only worth 1.3 fWAR in 2018 but that was primarily due to the fact that he missed so much time due to injury. When he was traded to the Indians and came off the D.L. in the early part of September, he was worth half a win in just 16 games. His OPS was over .900 and his wRC+ was higher than Jose Ramirez’s and Francisco Lindor’s were during a season in which they will both finish with more than 7.5 fWAR and in the top-5 or so in the MVP race. Yes, Donaldson was hurt most of the year but when he returned was just about as good as new.

Donaldson would fit neatly into the 4-spot in the Cards’ order as a guy with a 14+% BB rate for the last 3 seasons and an ISO greater than .200 every year since 2014. Once the best defensive third baseman in the game, he’s not quite the player he used to be at the hot corner but he’s still been above average by both DRS and UZR every year since he moved out there from behind the plate in 2012. Despite last season’s injury issues, even if you regress his last 3 seasons at something like a 50-30-20 rate he would still project for about 3.75 WAR in 2019. It’s likely that he would project for something along the lines of 10-11 WAR over the next 4 seasons. That would put him in line to be worth something around $100 million over those 4 years. He’ll probably get at least a partial no-trade clause and the 4-year guarantee provides some security that would discount the total so I wouldn’t be surprised to see him get somewhere around 4 years/$90 million or maybe even 5/$100-105. Can the Cards afford it? Absolutely, yes. Do the Cards have a need for either a right fielder or third baseman who can hit in the middle of the order and do damage? Again, absolutely, yes. Given the amount of money the team is flush with, the fact that the Cards haven’t made the playoffs in 3 years, and where the team is right now on the win-curve, a 4 year/$90 million or 5 year/$100 million contract strikes me as perfectly reasonable.

Now, some will complain (as if it’s their money being spent on Donaldson) about a 4 or 5 year guarantee for someone who’ll be 33 on opening day next season. Too often fans concern themselves with what happens during the last years of the contract when what really matters is this --- is the player worth the total amount of the contract at the end? When signing a free agent to a long-term contract, teams do not expect the LAST YEAR of the contract to necessarily be worth what the player provides. (And why focus on just 1 year, the worst year, of the contract anyway?) Every team expects for the player to earn less than the value he provides in the early part of the contract (thus, gaining value on the contract) while giving it up toward the end. Thus, they want the overall player value that he provides to be equal to or greater than the amount of money they pay him. If Donaldson receives, say $20 million per year each year of the contract, the Cards would be perfectly happy if he’s not worth that $20 million in years 4 and 5 as long as he’s worth MORE than $20 million in years 1 and 2. The team gains the value early on and loses it later when those dollars are less valuable due to inflation.

The problem with signing Donaldson, however, is that it does nothing to balance out the lineup. Though he’s a great hitter, the lineup would still be very right-hand dominant. There would still be a desire to add a left-handed hitter to balance the lineup a little more. The other thing is that it would essentially leave Tyler O’Neill and Dexter Fowler to battle for playing time in right field. I’m skeptical that’s the direction the team wants to go. There’s reason to question what Fowler has left and, though many fans are bullish on O’Neill, I’m not at all sure that’s true of the team. When the Cards were struggling to score runs while battling for a playoff spot late in the season, O’Neill could scarcely get on the field. He wasn’t even Mike Shildt’s #1 pinch hitter off the bench. If the team truly wants to go for it, do you really think they’re going to turn over right field to that combination?

It would be nice, therefore, if the team could complement a Donaldson signing by adding a lefty to at least platoon in right field with O’Neill. A couple of free agents stand out as guys who could be nice additions to take some of the pressure off of the young Canadian. One is Carlos Gonzalez, another guy who has long been discussed as a guy the Cards’ brass has been a fan of. He’s not great against lefties but he wouldn’t need to be with O’Neill around and is still an above average hitter vs. righties who can play both outfield corners. I could see him signing a 1 year contract in the $8-10 million range.

A guy I’m actually a bigger fan of, however, is Marwin Gonzalez. The Cards have long sought out versatile players and the switch hitter has played 6 different field positions for the Astros the last 2 years. He was a 4-win player in 2017 who struggled in the first half of 2018 but he rebounded after the All-Star break and was one of the best hitters in the American League the last 2 months. His hard hit% was greater than 50% in both August and September. For 2 years, this guy was a regular in one of the best lineups in baseball. Astros’ manager A.J. Hinch moved him around just trying to figure out how to get him in the lineup.

In his chat over at Fangraphs last week, ZIPS founder and guru Dan Szymborski stated that Gonzalez’s free agent contract would end up being less than what Eduardo Escobar (3 years/ $21 million) received from the D-backs. I’m dubious. I would bet something along the lines of 3 years and $40 million. The money wouldn’t be the issue, in my opinion. Someone’s going to give him a starting job. The question would be whether or not the Cards could guarantee him the 500+ PA’s he’s gotten from the Astros the last couple of years. I think the team could find a way by platooning in right with O’Neill, giving him some time in left when Marcell Ozuna needs a day off, and by giving him some time at 3rd when Donaldson does (or when he’s on the D.L.) and at 1st when Carp needs a day off.

Failing that, there are some outfielders the team could target in trades to either platoon with O’Neill or to replace O’Neill. Leonys Martin is a natural centerfielder who bats lefty and just pounded the ball last year. He’s under contract with the Indians for just 1 year and would make a nice platoon partner for O’Neill. Another guy who’s just a fearsome left-handed hitter but struggles mightily against righties is the Dodgers’ Joc Pederson. I have no idea what the NL champs would want in return but they be tired of their platoon-heavy lineup (and may sign Harper themselves) and might make Pederson expendable. A time-share of Pederson and O’Neill in right field would be really strong.

There are a couple of left-handed hitting outfielders that teams might make available who I would be willing to trade O’Neill for. One is the Mets’ Michael Conforto. Despite a very strong minor league pedigree and 2 very solid seasons in Flushing, he has never really been appreciated by the organization. He’s got 3 years before he’s a free agent and the team has 4 other outfielders they could play (Cespedes, Nimmo, Lagares, and Bruce) and holes seemingly everywhere else. Maybe a strong offer of something like O’Neill, Carson Kelly, and Dakota Hudson or some other pitcher could get it done. (Maybe O’Neill and Munoz.) The Cards could put Conforto in RF and the middle of the order for 3 years and now the lineup is pretty salty.

The other guy I really like is the D-backs’ David Peralta. A former pitcher, the lefty has one of the best outfield arms in the game and has become much like Ozuna, only without the reputation. Last year his average exit velocity was 91.4 mph, one of the best in the game, and he finished the season with an expected slugging percentage of .472. His hard hit rate was 45.4% (MLB average was 34.1.) If the D-backs truly are going to tear it down and rebuild, maybe they would make Peralta expendable since he’ll be a free agent in 2 years and gone once the team is a competitor again. Offering up O’Neill (and maybe Kelly) would have to intrigue them.

This team can compete next season – not just for a playoff spot, but for a deep run in the playoffs – if the organization acts aggressively to improve the lineup and it has the resources in terms of money and talent to do just that. Adding Donaldson and Peralta to the lineup would give the team a big jolt offensively, leaving really just the pen to be retooled. Maybe Fowler could become just the platoon partner O’Neill needs but I doubt the team would be very confident in that duo. Donaldson would be a great addition but he alone won’t be enough to overtake the Brewers, Cubs, and Dodgers in the NL.

Stats come courtesy of Fangraphs and Baseball Savant.

Thanks to the always great @nchill17 for the great Donaldson cover pic and thanks to all for reading.

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