Back on October 4th, a few weeks ago now, I wrote the first piece of this series in which I outlined ways in which I believe Cardinals' President of Baseball Operations has attempted to build a team to his manager over the last few years. I then looked at what Mike Shildt showed us as a manager in his first partial season to potentially look forward to what we might see Mozeliak try to do to build around his new manager, since that pattern has seemingly arisen under his tenure.
In the first article, I outlined how Shildt seems to allow better defensive players to play - and wants them in the lineup. I also outlined how he prefers bats that make a considerable amount of contact in the lineup. He's not a huge fan of playing guys who have high strikeout rates and low averages.
Keeping that in mind, let's look at places the Cardinals could upgrade. If the Cardinals decide to keep top catching prospects Carson Kelly and Andrew Knizner in the minors, where could they turn at backup catcher to get a better return on their investment than Francisco Pena?
Targets for backup catcher
Let me preface with this: I don't believe Wilson Ramos or Jonathan Lucroy will come to STL to sit behind Yadier Molina 140 times in 2019, but I check in on them first. When they say no, I likely plug in Carson Kelly. He does a lot of what Shildt seems to like anyway. This is in case the Cardinals pivot elsewhere.
Elias Diaz - Pittsburgh Pirates (unlikely) - Diaz will turn 28 in November and will be entering just his 3rd full season in the majors. This past year, he got 277 plate appearances of .286/.339/.452 ball with a 114 wRC+. He has been very good defensively as Pittsburgh's backup catcher the last two years and is still making league minimum this year. With the amount of emphasis the Pirates place on defense at the catcher position, I don't believe this is a likely possibility at all in a deal.
Former uber-prospect Travis d'Arnaud - New York Mets - d'Arnaud turns 30 prior to the season starting and is arbitration eligible one more time in 2019. d'Arnaud could be a good trade target as he is coming off of an injury riddled season in which he received just 16 plate appearances. The injury, however, is Tommy John surgery. He is a guy who does a lot of what Shildt likes at the plate, but is also a guy who never really threw out a ton of runners anyway and now is coming off of surgery on his throwing arm. I think this is also unlikely, despite him previously being a good catcher otherwise.
AJ Ellis is a free agent. He made $2.5M to mostly sit in Los Angeles as a Dodger this year and has a chance to win it all with them still. He's had less than 600 PA combined the last three seasons playing for 3 different teams. He's always been a good defender and for his career is at just an 18% K rate with a BB rate over 12%. He doesn't hit for the high average that Shildt typically likes, but hit over .270 this past season with LA.
I believe that Jedd Gyorko and Yairo Munoz both do some things that Mike Shildt likes, so I do not believe the Cardinals will replace them unless it is a clear upgrade. By clear upgrade, I mean Manny Machado or Josh Donaldson. That type of player. However, let's go through other players that could be targets for the Cardinals based on playing style.
Targets for third base:
Martin Prado - Prado will be an interesting name to look for. The Marlins will likely want to shed payroll and he's making $15M next year. My thoughts are that it would not take too much to get him from the Marlins, I think it would be a straight payroll dump. However, he bats from the right side of the plate, he only plays a decent third base, and he is coming off of an abdominal injury that put him on the 60-day DL to end the season. That said, his 16.7% K rate this year was by far the worst of his career and is still well below league average. He has hit under .250 over his past two seasons combined, but has a career .290 batting average. He'll be 35, though, and recency bias shows his game might be slowing down to the point of not being worth picking him up at all, much less for $15M plus prospects.
If you don't get Machado or Donaldson, heck maybe even before you do, the dream is trading for Anthony Rendon of the Washington Nationals. He is entering his age 28 season and is in his last season of arbitration eligibility. He is a stud third baseman both offensively and defensively and the only way you get him is if Washington goes into a complete rebuild losing Bryce Harper. I don't see that happening as they still have Strasburg, Scherzer, Eaton, Rendon, Turner, Soto, Zimmerman, Wieters, Kieboom, and Robles. It'd be shocking.
I think that a name that will intrigue Cardinals fans again this winter will be Mike Moustakas, of the Milwaukee Brewers and formerly of the Kansas City Royals. Moustakas does a lot of what Munoz/Gyorko do - putting the ball in play quite frequently - except he's slower and plays worst 3rd base defense, but the last two years he's hit quite a few more dingers in the process. He's a left-handed bat, of which the Cardinals do not possess many, especially with that kind of power. That's why he'll get the obligatory intrigue, but unless Moustakas opts out of his $15M mutual option, I don't see the Cardinals getting him. In other words, he'd have to be a free agent again rather than traded for.
Kyle Seager's name keeps getting floated around my Twitter feed as a potential buy low candidate in which maybe we can offload Fowler's salary and a prospect to get the 31 year old 3B. From 2012-2017 (age 24-29 seasons), Seager struck out just 16.6% of the time and walked 8.6% of the time. He hit .264/.333/.450/.784 - 118 wRC+ in just over 4,000 PA. Last year he took a giant step back at an 84 wRC+ and just .221/.273/.400/.673 batting line. Of course, that's why it's being floated around that the Cardinals could potentially get him for just a Dexter Fowler and a prospect type of deal. He also struck out near 22% of the time - above league average for the first time in his career, and walked just 6% of the time. By UZR he played his customary very good defense, but by DRS he was a bit below average this year for the first time. It'd be an interesting move for sure and one I'm not completely opposed to. Seager is a left-handed bat and is owed $19M in 2019 and 2020, $18M in 2021, and has a 2022 team option worth $15M or more. This becomes a player option if he is traded prior to the end of the deal.
Eduardo Escobar is a free agent this offseason and he turns 30 years old in January. He played an above average 3B this year in Arizona, according to both DRS and UZR. He typically has been a below average defender at third base, however. He is the owner of a career .257/.308/.417/.725 line, but hit much better in the desert this season. It'd be interesting to see if he could keep up anything resembling his improved 2018 line of .272/.334/.489/.823 line in the difficult hitting environment that is Busch III. I wouldn't bet on it.
Targets for the outfield:
If the Cardinals are unsure of going into the season with a mix of Marcell Ozuna, Harrison Bader, Dexter Fowler, Tyler O'Neill, and Jose Martinez this season due to Ozuna's bad 2018 (compared to 2017), Fowler's injuries, Bader and O'Neill's youth and inexperience and lack of sample size, and Martinez's abysman glove, then you might see them pivot if they can't get a Bryce Harper to be the star. Here are some options:
When Michael Brantley is healthy, he has a ton of hitting ability. He's 31 and has got a career .295/.351/.430/.781 line. That's been good for a 114 wRC+. He's also got 118 steals and just 30 times caught stealing in his career, almost 80% successful in that regard. He also has only struck out 10.7% of the time in his career, putting tons and tons of balls in play. The bad? In a 10 year career, he has 5 seasons of 135+ games played. That's it. He has a LOT of trouble staying on the field. He's coming off of a deal in which he only made $11M this year and is entering his age 32 season. So, he's a very intriguing option as a FA. Lastly, Brantley bats left and is likely only a LF.
Another intriguing, oft-injured potential solution is in the form of career Arizona Diamondback, AJ Pollock. Pollock is a right-handed CF who also has trouble staying on the field. In his 7 years in the majors he has played just 637 games, and has only played 135 games twice. Pollock has a carer .281/.338/.467 line out in the desert and a 118 wRC+. He's got 103 steals and just 23 caught - good for a well over 80% success rate. I've liked Pollock for a while now, but am not sure exactly how he fits in at the moment.
One last guy the Cardinals could look at for his left-handed bat, even as mostly a bench guy, is 33 year old Carlos Gonzalez. Cargo has been a productive player in the past, but this year he hit barely below league average and was quite an improvement from 2017. His potential MVP days are half a decade behind him and I think I'd only like him if he was only guaranteed to be a LHH off of the bench. One last note on Cargo, he does not necessarily meet the threshhold of a Mike Shildt type acquisition, but there's been enough smoke behind Cargo to STL in the past that I felt he should be mentioned.