This article was previously posted on October 31, 2018 on the Redbird Dugout Facebook page.
The Boston Red Sox are World Series Champions and the real start to free agency is on the horizon. Today, I was going to take a quick look at five players who I believe the Cardinals should have on their target list this winter, as I have the last few winters. Fun fact, Marcell Ozuna was on my list during the 2016-17 offseason and then he broke out in 2017. But what I found as I started digging into who the different players were who were available and what they might bring to the table, and what I figured out is that there is really only one player who I think fits the bill for what the Cardinals need.
You see, there are very few things that the St. Louis Cardinals lack.
Pitching? They’re loaded.
Hitting? They have plenty of good ones.
A pitcher to build their rotation around? There are a couple options there.
A hitter to build a lineup around? Well, you can go ahead and imagine the cricket noises.
Finding that player that the team can pencil into the middle of the order and build the rest of the roster around is something that the organization has been unable to produce or acquire since they let Albert Pujols walk away seven years ago. They had hope that Oscar Taveras would be that player before his tragic death, but I always wonder whether Taveras would have been able to reach his potential in St. Louis.
Something I’ve always thought about is how when Pujols arrived in St. Louis in the spring of 2001, he was simply an addition to the lineup and was allowed to be a rookie while Jim Edmonds, J.D. Drew, and Mark McGwire were the focal points. When Taveras arrived in St. Louis, he’d been hyped as the savior for three seasons and was stepping onto a roster with only a rapidly declining Matt Holliday offered for shade. He arrived in a spotlight and asked to play the hero, something he was unprepared to do.
I think very few players are ready to be the hero when they arrive, and in my opinion, that’s something to think about as you have bats like Tyler O’Neill, Elehuris Montero, and Nolan Gorman coming through the system. Their development will benefit if they’re allowed to arrive and play sidekick instead of having to be the hero upon arrival.
Enter Bryce Harper. (I’m sure you’re shocked right now.)
At 26 years old, Harper fits the model of what this team needs and what they’ve been looking for. He’s a top level hitter who can be the face of a franchise and he’s young enough that he has years of productive baseball ahead of him. You can build a team around a 26 year old Harper in a way that you can’t around a 33 year old Josh Donaldson. And that’s where I like Harper more than Donaldson. Harper reshapes the future in a way that Donaldson can’t.
Offensively, his talent is known. In a downish year, Harper hit .249/.393/.496 with 34 home runs, 100 RBI, and a 135 wRC+. He can get on base and slug with the best of them. He’s a lineup focal point that other teams have to find a way to deal with and is capable of reshaping a game with one swing of the bat as well as anyone.
Defensively, I’ve heard some complains when looking at his defensive stats. He was negative in defensive runs saved and UZR/150 last season. But he’s also played a lot of center field for a guy who very much is not a center fielder. I think he can be a solid right fielder, especially playing beside Harrison Bader, who is arguably the rangiest center fielder in the game. That means less ground for Harper to cover in right field and range has easily been Harper’s biggest knock based on how his UZR breaks down.
The next question is whether the team is willing to do what it takes to get him. And there is no easy answer to that question. I do think that he falls into the category of player that the Cardinals have shown a willingness to make a big offer to. Three years ago they made big offers to David Price and Jason Heyward, but came up empty on both. The Red Sox went above and beyond over the top to take Price away and Heyward chose not to return to St. Louis despite a comparable offer to the one he accepted in Chicago. The organization, as much as I decry their lack of success when they’ve gotten aggressive, has shown a willingness to push past their comfort level for certain players, though not yet enough to win out against teams who are willing to push further.
Only five players in the last 20 years have acculumated more WAR through their age 25 season as Bryce Harper has. Those are Mike Trout, Pujols, Mookie Betts, Manny Machado, and Heyward. Players of Harper’s caliber and age don’t become available in free agent all that often, and this winter features two of them.
I’m sure there are some wondering why Harper and not Machado? Even if we set aside the controversy that Machado created for himself this postseason, I don’t want him. First, he wants to play shortstop, and DeJong has turned himself into one of the finest young shortstops in the game. Second, I think Harper has a higher floor and will be less susceptible defensive decline as Machado will be. By OPS+, Machado’s three worst seasons are worse than Harper’s worst, while Harper’s two best seasons are better than Machado’s best.
So St. Louis should want Harper, but does Harper want St. Louis?
Harper has praised the atmosphere and the fan base in St. Louis in years past and seems to have an appreciation for the game. He wants to win and has been frustrated by Washington’s lack of ability to get over the hump from preseason favorite to postseason threat.
Would he want to come play in a smaller market and not under the bright lights of New York or Philadelphia or Chicago? I think he’s more interested in it than most think he is. Given what we know about Harper’s personal life. He’s married, doesn’t drink, and isn’t a big party guy, so the nightlife argument doesn’t seem to hold as much water as it was suggested it might for Giancarlo Stanton or some other free agents.
I think he’s a special player and the kind of person who would prefer to play for a contender in a smaller market than under the bright lights of a major media market. In that regard, St. Louis should hold a great deal of appeal being the most consistently competitive small market team over the past twenty years.
So is Bill DeWitt Jr. prepared to write that check? Only Mr. DeWitt knows the answer to that question, but it is a must for this team’s future to find a hitter that they can build their lineup around. They’ve tried and failed in their efforts to see if Matt Carpenter can be that player.
I expect that Bryce Harper and his agent Scott Boras will want a record setting deal, whether by average annual value or total value. My suggestion is that you offer Harper a super sized deal, set up to entice him to opt out. I would offer him a 15 year, $450 million contract. That’s a $30M average annual value is not a crazy price tag. You include an opt out after the fifth season, as he turns 30, and you pay him $37M per year ahead of the opt out. That makes it a 5 year, $185 million deal before the opt out. After it, it is a 10 year, $265 million deal.
Harper gets security, a big paycheck, and an opt out to give him another shot at free agency at age 30.
Boras gets the big deal he can shoot for in every free agent negotiation for years.
The Cardinals get a deal designed to entice Harper to exercise his opt out and give them the option to walk away from his 30s if they want to. And, if he sticks around, $26 million a year will not be the kind of extreme contract you think it is today by the time he gets to the opt out.
You still do have to make room for him and there are only two players to consider that would be a hurdle to clear if you do bring him in. The first is Dexter Fowler. While I do see a rebound year coming for Fowler, I think you have to find him a new home and everyone involved could benefit from a fresh start.
The second is Tyler O’Neill. I think being a fourth outfielder is the best role for O’Neill right now. He’s proven all he has to prove in Memphis, but not yet enough in the Majors to commit to a starting job. If he has a good 2019, you’ve got a seat open in left field in 2020 after Marcell Ozuna’s free agency. If not, you can make other plans.
So after Harper, what’s next for the team?
Nothing really. I’d consider adding a third baseman like Josh Donaldson or Jed Lowrie, but I like where the team sits if they can add a centerpiece player like Harper. I don’t like any of the third base acquisitions on their own though. Anything less than bringing in a star caliber offensive piece that you can build your future around is a failure of an offseason.
The Cardinals’ player development system has proven it’s ability to produce good role players on a consistent basis, but it has been unable to produce a star offensive hitter since Pujols. Much of that can be linked to being consistently competitive and a lack of top draft picks, but if you have lots of good and no great, great is where you should spend your money. And buying a player like Harper doesn’t stop your minor league system from continuing to develop players like it has.
When I argue the “Harper & done” approach to free agency, most usually point out that the bullpen needs some attention, but the Cardinals have a ridiculous amount of young pitching talent on it’s roster. It’s time to use it. There are a dozen starting pitching prospects on the 40 man roster and that is untenable. Someone has to go to the bullpen, so let’s do it. Pick five starters, put a couple guys in Memphis for depth, and convert the rest. Contending in the Majors should take precedence over winning another Pacific Coast League title in Memphis.
Get Harper to fix your most glaring issue and put yourself in position to build around him. Then save your ammo to augment a young team next summer as cracks begin to appear.
Jon Doble has been writing about the St. Louis Cardinals since 2010. You can also find him on Twitter at @GroundRuleDoble. Thank you for reading.