In my last 2 posts I’ve written about what the Cardinals’ 1st 2 options should be for this offseason. Plan A should be adding Bryce Harper and plan B should be adding Josh Donaldson and a lefty to at least platoon in right field with Tyler O’Neill. But at the risk of triggering the “Cards’ ownership is cheap” crew, it’s entirely possible that the team will lose out on both. I would expect both players to be in pretty high demand and, if so, team management needs a solid plan C in place.
As I mentioned in my previous article, I don’t see Manny Machado being that piece. Between his “I’m not Johnny Hustle” stuff and the incidents in the playoffs of him trying to take the legs off Jesus Agular and Steve Pearce and then ending up on 1st base on a ball he hit off the wall in the World Series, I have a hard time believing that Bill DeWitt, Mo, and Shildt will see him as exemplifying “the Cardinal way.” It’s one thing to do dumb stuff when you’re young but by the time you’ve been in the majors most of 7 years, that stuff should be far in the rear-view mirror.
Unfortunately, beyond those 3 players, there aren’t really any game-changing position players on the free agent market. I have, however, identified 3 players who would be fantastic upgrades for the Cardinals’ lineup if Mo could find a way to pry them away from their current teams. To be clear, I would be surprised if any of these 3 ended up being traded but I do consider it possible that their teams will at least explore trades. It could be difficult to pull off, but trades for any of these players would likely improve the Cardinals by several wins.
First – Aaron Hicks, Yankees. As with the others I’ll mention, I don’t see it likely that the Yankees trade Hicks but he is a free agent at the end of the 2019 season and the Yankees definitely need some rotation upgrades and they have an outfield surplus. Additionally, they’ve long been regarded as a suitor for Bryce Harper and while I see Patrick Corbin and/or Machado as much more likely Yankee acquisitions, Harper would surely hit a lot of homers in Yankee Stadium.
Hicks is a switch-hitting center fielder who would be a great addition in right field for the Cardinals. Hicks has struggled with various injuries throughout his career but put together nearly 600 PA’s last year and was able to turn in nearly a 5-win season for the Bronx Bombers. He slugged .467 despite hitting just .248 and had a 15.5% BB rate. His wRC+ was 127 while adding 7 runs on the bases (7th in baseball). He also struck out less than 20% of the time. He hit 27 homers last year but he didn’t just take advantage of the short right-field porch in Yankee Stadium as 12 of those 27 came on the road. While he was better at home (nearly every hitter is, by the way) he slugged .450 on the road.
Hicks’ barrel percentage in 2019 (8.8) and hard hit % (43) were solidly above average and, lest you think that his excellent season was just a product of luck, his expected wOBA was 5 points higher than his actual wOBA. He was an above average hitter from both sides of the plate but was truly great batting from the left side, providing help from the side of the plate from which the Cards are most in need. With his speed and defensive ability, he would make an excellent complement to Harrison Bader in the outfield as well as being able to take over in center when Bader gets a day off.
Considering the fact that a trade would leave the Yankees either with Brett Gardner or possibly Harper in center field, I would consider a trade unlikely but if the Yankees felt they weren’t going to re-sign him and needed to trade him to add a pitcher, it’s possible. If I were the Yankees, I’d keep him and probably extend him to be the center fielder for the next several years and then trade someone else for Corey Kluber or sign Corbin but who knows?
Second – Andrelton Simmons, Angels.
(To be fair, Mark Saxon over at The Athletic actually made this same suggestion about 3 weeks ago.)
Of the 3, I would consider Simmons the most likely to be traded this offseason. He’s under contract for 2 more seasons in LA and is surely valued highly by the Angels having been a 5+ WAR player each of the last 2 seasons. At some point, however, the Angels are going to have to improve their future outlook if they plan on extending Mike Trout as he approaches free agency. Trout has played in only 3 postseason games in his career and I can’t imagine that he wants to finish his career without getting a chance to win a ring. Like Simmons, Trout is signed only through 2020. The Angels need to start surrounding Trout with pieces that convince him that they’re going to be championship contenders if he’s going to commit the next 10-12 years thereafter to them. One way to do that is to trade Simmons for some pieces now.
The Angels have long had one of the worst farm systems in the majors and their 2nd or 3rd best player, Shohei Ohtani, won’t pitch in 2019 due to Tommy John surgery. Maybe the team could plan on going all-in on 2020 to try to convince Trout to stick around but, with nothing positive on the horizon, that’ll be a hard sell. (Their best avenue is probably to actually trade Trout but I would consider a trade of Simmons more likely.) Last year they signed Zach Cozart to play third base but he’s an above average shortstop so it’s not like they wouldn’t have anyone to play the position if they traded Simmons.
Simmons might seem an odd choice for the Cardinals considering the problems they’ve had in the middle of the order for 2 years but, as the saying goes, there is more than 1 way to skin a cat. (Who skins cats anyway? They’re not my favorite creature but I wouldn’t skin one.) If the Cards acquired Simmons, they could move Paul DeJong to 3B and, with Wong at 2nd, they’d have the best infield defense in the National League, if not the majors. This would be a huge boost to the pitching staff and would make run prevention, rather than scoring runs, the team’s strength. Five wins is 5 wins.
Simmons didn’t get to be a 5 win player 2 years in a row just through good defense, however. He has also turned himself into a solid offensive player, posting above average wRC+’s each of the last 2 years. He’s done it with the most simple method possible – putting the bat on the ball. Last year his 7.3 % K rate led the majors and he was 3rd in 2017. He doesn’t barrel the ball up all that often and wouldn’t be the kind of guy who would bat higher than 6th or 7th for the Cards, but he did have an above average hard hit rate in 2018. He has hit 25 homers in the last 2 seasons playing in a park that’s difficult to hit home runs in but defense is really his calling card. Again, I don’t think it’s likely but it’s possible.
The 3rd guy is the one I would most like to see in a Cardinal uniform but, as with the other 2, I’d put the odds of him being traded very low. He’s Anthony Rendon of the Nationals. Rendon is a free agent at the end of the 2019 season and I would consider him to be the most underrated player in the big leagues. Over the last 3 seasons, he’s been worth more than 17 fWAR and been a 6+ fWAR player each of the last 2. To give you an idea how good he is, the Rockies’ Nolan Arenado is most often considered to be the best 3B in the NL and Rendon has been better than Arenado each of the last 2 seasons. Now, UZR likes Rendon more than DRS does on the defensive end but the point is that Rendon should be at least thought of as Arenado’s equal but he gets nowhere near the accolades of the Rockies’ slugger. And Rendon is definitely better than Arenado on the offensive end once you adjust for park effects.
Like Simmons, one of Rendon’s strengths is the ability to put the bat on the ball. Last year his K rate (13.7) was behind only Jose Ramirez and Alex Bregman among third-sackers and would have been only behind Yadi in the Cardinals’ lineup. His barrel % was 10.3 in 2019 and his hard hit % was a robust 44.6. The right-handed hitter hits everything well but he just feasts on fastballs, slugging .550 and .551 on them the last 2 seasons. If the Cards were able to trade for him, I would suggest that they try to extend him as quickly as possible.
The very reasonable question becomes, obviously, “why would the Nationals trade him?” They probably wouldn’t but he is a free agent at the end of the season and if they don’t intend or aren’t going to be able to re-sign him maybe it would make some sense to see what they can get for him. Maybe after losing Harper this year for just a supplemental draft pick they won’t want to suffer the same fate from Rendon next year. The thing is that, unlike the Angels, it’s pretty easy to see the Nationals contending in 2019 even without Harper. They still have a solid nucleus even with a few holes and with a couple of additions, could take the NL East where no team really stands out as being clearly ahead of the pack. Still, if the Cards miss out on Harper and Donaldson, Mo would be remiss if he didn’t at least make a phone call to Nats’ President Mike Rizzo.
You might wonder why Nolan Arenado isn’t on this list. The answer is that I’d be stunned if the Rockies even considered trading Arenado. It probably wouldn’t be a bad idea considering he, too, is a free agent at the end of the season and they’ve got several holes that need to be filled but I expect them to find a way to keep him in Denver. He’s their franchise player right now whereas I wouldn’t put that tag on Rendon or certainly on Simmons.
Another guy I expected to be part of this piece was the Yankees’ Didi Gregorius, another free agent at the end of the season. Unfortunately for him, he’s going to miss much of the season with Tommy John surgery and, though TJ surgery is different for position players than for pitchers, it’s still going to limit what he’s capable of this season. It would be pretty easy to see the Yanks signing Machado, putting him at SS, and then trading Gregorius for pitching before he was injured.
The Cardinals need to be aggressive this offseason and I think they know that. Hopefully that ends up with Bryce Harper in a Cardinal uniform for a long time but if they miss out, and then miss out on Donaldson, they need to have another plan in place. I doubt that any of these guys ends up being traded but Mo can use the GM meetings coming up this week to plant the seeds to see if any of these teams will consider putting these players on the market.
Thanks to Fangraphs and Baseball Savant for the data.
Thanks to @cardinalsgifs for the fantastic cover art.
Thanks to you all for reading.