For the majority of the MLB’s teams, pitchers and catchers report to Spring Training one week from today. Spring Training is about to get underway. The offseason is coming to an end; the season is about to begin.
Yet the season still feels so far off, because the offseason never really happened.
Granted, the MLB has treated us to some fascinating trades this winter—perhaps more accurately, we’ve borne witness to the pillaging of the Miami Marlins—but free agency has been nonexistent.
The largest non-extension contract signed so far this winter is Lorenzo Cain’s five year, $80 million deal with the Cardinals’ division-rival Milwaukee Brewers. The most annual value forked over so far is $20 million by the Philadelphia Phillies to Carlos Santana.
In an offseason that was supposed to feature mammoth deals to big-name, free agent stars like J.D. Martinez, Yu Darvish, and Eric Hosmer, the league’s inaction can’t possibly be anything other than a massive disappointment. We were promised Fourth-of-July fireworks; baseball has delivered a handful of cherry bombs.
So, with big names galore still available—and lesser, not-to-be-forgotten contributors on the market as well—is it time for the Cardinals to pounce?
The Cardinals entered the offseason determined to add a power bat in the outfield. They did so by trading for All-Star Marcell Ozuna. Given a stacked outfield of Ozuna, Tommy Pham, and Dexter Fowler, it’s safe to assume that the Cardinals are now completely out on free agent slugger J.D. Martinez—even if his price has declined into the realm of reasonable.
Beyond Martinez, a host of options at greater positions of need remain. Signing a more expensive, slightly younger version of Matt Carpenter to a nine-figure deal does not seem necessary, so I’m going to advise against the Cardinals pursuing Hosmer. But another big name is interesting: Darvish.
Darvish was a scary proposition when it seemed as if he’d command $150+ million. But now? If Darvish is available for five or six years in the low-$100 million range, there’s a compelling argument to be made. When on the field, Darvish has been consistently excellent throughout his career. He could be the final piece of an elite Cardinals rotation. After all, it would be a reunion between Darvish and new Cardinals pitching coach Mike Maddux, Darvish's pitching coach for the Texas Rangers.
The Cardinals already made a splash this offseason—another isn’t, strictly speaking, necessary. But the Cardinals could add legitimate talent on the fringes, and they could likely do it for cheap in this free agent climate.
The Cardinals could look to add a versatile utility infielder in Eduardo Nunez. The former Red Sox third baseman has speed, hits for average, and defends passably at shortstop, third base, and second base. Odds are he’d come cheap, and he’d be a nice security blanket if the Cardinals want to move on from Jedd Gyorko or Kolten Wong or if Paul DeJong can’t replicate his unexpected rookie excellence.
If management opts to stay away from Darvish but recognizes a need for depth in the rotation given the risk associated with younger options Alex Reyes, Luke Weaver, and Jack Flaherty, there are several available stopgaps who would likely come cheap.
Andrew Cashner and Jaime Garcia aren’t sexy names, but they’re roughly average players, and a roughly average player who can be counted upon can be valuable.
What should the Cardinals do?
Risk is a necessary condition for championship contention. At one point or another, every franchise with serious title aspirations must make moves that cause some uneasiness. The payout could be immense.
I believe Darvish is a risk worth taking. I acknowledge that he is, in fact, a risk. But he’s supremely talented and capable of reaching remarkable heights. In a tepid market, we might be approaching that golden intersection of risk and expected value with respect to Darvish’s contract.
Otherwise, this market is an opening for the Cardinals to grab some cheap help while rivals engage in staring contests with star free agents and powerful agents.
Opportunity is knocking. It’s time for the Cardinals to open the door.