At this point we all know that the prize of this year’s free agent class goes by the name of Bryce Harper. He is without a doubt the significant addition that the Cardinals need to go all out for. He checks all of the boxes, including crushing right handed pitchers. This was an issue for the Cardinals in 2018. Although it goes against the traditional view of the team, they actually hit lefties quite well. They had a .753 OPS and a .325 wOBA against lefties, that wOBA was the 5th best against lefties in the entire MLB. They didn’t fare nearly as well against righties. Against them they had a .722 OPS and a .313 wOBA. These don’t look substantially worse at first glance, but that wOBA was in the bottom half of MLB against righties, coming in at 18th best.
Yes, Bryce Harper would solve most of these issues. However, I believe they should add another left handed bat to the lineup. It doesn’t have to be a superstar, just somebody that they can play against right handed pitchers on a regular basis and get good production from somewhere in the 6-8 spot in the lineup. At first glance I didn’t think there were really any options here in free agency, but after some digging, I found that there are a few pretty good fits for this role. It will have to come from a utility type of player though. I say utility here simply to describe a player that can play multiple positions. Third base and right field are the two area’s of need for the Cardinals and there just isn’t really a left handed option that’s good enough to plug in every day on this team at one of those positions(other than Harper, of course). And yes, I know that Mike Moustakas will be a free agent. Unfortunately, third base is his only position and he is not better than Jedd Gyorko overall. He will go somewhere that he can play everyday, and that’s not St. Louis.
Let me be clear, the Cardinals MUST make a significant improvement at either third base or right field. None of these player I’m about to list fit that description. Any of these players would have to be in addition to a significant upgrade somewhere else on the roster in order for this to be a successful offseason. So with that being said, I expect this offseason to be very fluid. There are many different scenarios that could play out, creating different opportunities to add this left handed depth that they need. I’ll run through each player that I think could be a fit and include the scenario that could make them the missing piece of the puzzle.
This is likely to be the most popular choice, but also the most expensive. He’s sort of a Ben Zobrist lite in a way. He can play nearly every position on the diamond adequately, which is something that can obviously be extremely valuable. Especially in today’s game where teams are carrying 13 pitchers. He’s also a switch hitter, which is always a nice bonus.
Gonzalez had a breakout year in 2017 with a slash line of .303/.377/.530 and a 144 wRC+ in 515 plates appearances. Unfortunately he wasn’t able to repeat those numbers in 2018, or even come close. He followed it up by hitting .247/.324/.409 with a 104 wRC+ in 552 plate appearances. I’m sure many will jump to the conclusion that his 2017 season was just a fluke since he dropped right back down near his career 103 wRC+. While 2017 is very likely to be his career year, there’s more to it than that. What’s interesting is that he maintained many of the improvements that he made in his breakout campaign.
From 2016 to 2017 he improved his walk rate from 4.2% to 9.5%. He maintained that in 2018 with a 9.6 BB%. He also made some good strides when it came to keeping the ball off the ground. His groundball percentage dropped from 47.4% in 2016 down to 43.9% in 2017 and then to 41.6% in 2018. To go along with keeping the ball off the ground, he continued to make more and more hard contact, which is obviously necessary if you’re going to be hitting the ball in the air. He had a hard hit percentage which remained near his career norms in 2017 at 32.7% and jumped to 38.4% in 2018.
The one area that he did regress in was his strikeout rate, dropping from a solid 19.2% down to 22.8%. There was a bit more swing and miss in his game.
Overall I think it’s pretty clear that Gonzalez is better that his final 2018 stats would indicate. As an added bonus with him, he would be reunited with one of his hitting coaches from last season with the Cardinals hiring Jeff Albert.
There isn’t much of a scenario that needs to play out in order for Gonzalez to be a fit. He could fit right onto the roster and take the role of Yairo Muñoz in addition to playing the big side of a platoon at third base. This would push Muñoz into Greg Garcia‘s role and likely force Garcia off the team.
Lowrie is a perfect representation of the standard Oakland A’s player. He’s wayyyy better than anyone seems to realize. He’s had problems staying on the field in the past and that’s what has kept his value down over the years. When he’s on the field though, he’s pretty darn good.
Over the past two seasons Lowrie has been healthy and accumulated 8.5 fWAR. Here’s a list of the current Cardinals player who have matched that:
There are zero! Not a single one. The closest you’ll find is Matt Carpenter‘s 8.1 fWAR over the past two seasons.
Now I’m not suggesting that Lowrie would come in and be the Cardinals best player. He’ll be entering his age 35 season and some downturn in production is to be expected. Even with his age, which will be represented in the contract that he gets, there’s a lot to like here.
Lowrie is a switch hitter and is coming off of a season in which he hit .267/.353/.448 with a 122 wRC+. What’s nice here is that he’s done most of his damage from the left side of the plate recently but can also hold his own from the right side. In 2018 he had a 133 wRC+ left handed and a 99 wRC+ while hitting right handed.
He would fill a similar role as Gonzalez though you probably don’t want Lowrie playing shortstop unless you’re in a pinch. He can split time with Gyorko at third, facing most righties while also spelling Wong against tough lefties from time to time. Lowrie has mostly been a middle infielder for his career but has played just over 1,000 innings at third base and graded out right around league average by the defensive metrics, for whatever that’s worth.
This dude is a very underrated player and would be a very nice addition to the lineup. He would really help even out the Cardinals splits while bringing a bump to overall production as well. It does sound like there’s some smoke about him re-signing with Oakland though, so he may be tough to pry away from them in free agency.
I settled on Chisenhall in sort of a roundabout way. I was doing some different stat searches trying to find some left handed bats that could be targets for the Cardinals and it seemed like no matter what I did, he came up. I was actually starting to try to get an idea of what he would cost via trade before I even realized that he’s a free agent. Chisenhall would work best as basically a direct replacement for Jose Martinez if he’s traded. I think there could be some significant value to trading Martinez for some bullpen help and then turning around and signing Chisenhall.
Now first, let me address the elephant in the room. He’s been dealing with calf injuries over the past two seasons and has only played in 111 games over that time. What’s strange is that it was a left calf injury in 2017 and a right calf injury in 2018. The fact that it wasn’t the same recurring injury makes me feel better about signing him and the lack of playing time will almost certainly keep the commitment low.
What I like so much about him is that when he’s been on the field the past two seasons, it appears there has been a breakout at the plate. His plate discipline has improved significantly. From 2016 to 2017 he improved his O-swing% from 42% to 33.7%, and his Z-swing% dropped from 77.5% to 72.1%. He simply got more selective at the plate and the overall results are much improved. Better pitch selection also resulted in him increasing his percentage of batted balls that are 95+ mph from 25.2% in 2016(one of the worst in baseball) to 36.9% in 2017.
He does compare quite favorably to Jose Martinez. To show this, I’ll use his combined numbers from 2017 and 2018 in order to get as big of a sample of the perceived breakout as possible and compare it to Martinez.
As you can see, what he’s done compares very well to Jose Martinez at the plate. He is definitely the better defensive outfielder as well. Chisenhall came up as a third baseman and could probably play there a little bit as well as some first base. He’d have to be better there than Martinez was almost by default. But in the end, he would mostly be an outfielder and this probably only works if the significant upgrade that I spoke of earlier comes at third base.
I do believe that there is some very real potential in Chisenhall’s bat.
I realize that none of these are going to be particularly popular choices, but they can add the extra boost that I believe the lineup will still need. Even after adding a middle of the order bat.
Thanks for reading!