ST. LOUIS --- While St. Louis Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak says he will remain open-minded about ways to improve his team’s fielding, he has made little secret of his desire to add a premium center fielder this winter. That could go a long way, if not all the way, toward fixing what ailed the Cardinals.
“Clearly that’s an opening,” he said.
Randal Grichuk had trouble judging balls hit directly over his head. In an ideal world, he would move to left field, Stephen Piscotty would stay in right and the Cardinals would have a more traditional outfield look, with thunder on the corners and lightning up the middle. The world, we’re continually reminded, isn’t ideal. It’s particularly imperfect this winter for teams looking to remake their rosters, as the free-agent class as a whole is lousy and competition for coveted trade pieces will be ferocious.
Mozeliak and the Cardinals tend to zig when others think they’ll zag. Last year, many Cardinals fans seemed to think the team should go big in free agency, but Mozeliak went relatively small, not making his most costly signing (pitcher Mike Leake at $80 million) until Lance Lynn was diagnosed with a torn elbow ligament.
Now, everybody seems to expect the Cardinals to be heavily involved in pursuit of the top free-agent center fielders, Dexter Fowler and Ian Desmond. Many hope, probably against reasonable hope, that the team can make a trade for two-time American League MVP Mike Trout. Enticing Plan B's like Charlie Blackmon, Kevin Kiermaier, Lorenzo Cain, A.J. Pollock and Adam Eaton have gotten plenty of attention.
But it’s also quite likely Mozeliak, his scouts and analysts have explored lesser-known players who could, if things go well for them next season, help patch a glaring hole without sucking up a big chunk of the team’s payroll. Let’s explore four options for outside-the-box center-field solutions, one of whom is a free agent and three of whom would have to be trade targets:
When a pitch broke Matt Holliday’s right thumb in early August, the Cardinals explored a trade for Gomez, who had worn out his welcome with the Houston Astros while batting .210. Ultimately, the Cardinals decided to ride it out with Grichuk in center and Gomez ended up with the Texas Rangers. The move rejuvenated his career.
Gomez, 30, slashed .284/.362/.543 in 33 games with the Rangers and set himself up, perhaps, for a sizeable multiyear deal this winter. He is, in a way, the anti-Fowler, a riskier acquisition with greater upside. Just two seasons ago, Gomez was a 5.7 fWAR player. Fowler’s career high easily is 4.7 fWAR, and it came last season, meaning a team that signs him will be buying at the peak of his marketability. A team that signs Gomez could get a bargain. Unlike Fowler or Desmond, who rejected qualifying offers, signing Gomez wouldn’t cost the Cardinals a draft pick.
Gomez is a better center fielder and better base stealer than Fowler. He has stolen at least 30 bases four times in his 10-year career. He’s also one of the highest-energy players in baseball and his always-running motor could add excitement to a team that at times looked like it was standing around waiting for home runs.
This risk is that he simply lost the ability to hit, but the uptick in Arlington makes signing him a reasonable gamble. Fowler profiles much better as a leadoff hitter because of his on-base skills, but nothing says the Cardinals have to move Matt Carpenter out of the leadoff spot, where he is one of the best in baseball.
The degree of difficulty goes up with the last three candidates because they all would require trades, but the Cardinals think they have a surplus of pitching in their system, so why wouldn’t they trade a young pitcher or two in the right deal?
Inciarte, 26, was one of the primary reasons the Atlanta Braves played well enough after the All-Star break to give their fans hope as the team opens a new stadium this April, so he might be a difficult piece to acquire. Inciarte batted .341 after the break and scored 59 runs. He is an elite defender with a low strikeout rate (and equally low walk rate) and he has shown the ability to steal bases, which would make him novel in the Cardinals’ lineup. Inciarte’s brash style irritates some opponents, but the Cardinals probably could lose a little bravado after losing their edge in the National League Central.
It was just two winters ago that Mozeliak turned to the Braves to plug an outfield gap and acquired Jason Heyward, so why couldn’t he go to that well again?
For the second winter in a row, the Miami Marlins are considering trading Ozuna to get starting pitching help. The Cardinals not only have six veterans for five rotation spots after they picked up Jaime Garcia’s option, but they believe there are two bona fide waves in the minor leagues that will impact the next few seasons.
That means their greatest surplus is the Marlins’ greatest need. Why wouldn’t they have a chat or two?
Ozuna, 26, hit 23 home runs last season, so acquiring him allows the Cardinals to make up for some of the power lost with the departures of Holliday and Brandon Moss while gaining athleticism and speed. Some scouts view Ozuna as more of a left fielder, but his CF defense last year graded out as nearly average. He might not be the center fielder Inciarte and Gomez are, but he would be an improvement over Grichuk.
Presuming the Royals don’t want to part with their best position player, Cain, they might be willing to part with the other speed burner who could radically improve the Cardinals’ defense and inject action into their baserunning game.
Dyson is 32, so acquiring him would be more of a place-holder move, giving top prospect Harrison Bader time to develop in the minor leagues. Dyson also could give the Cardinals a platoon partner for Tommy Pham, a right-handed batter. Put those two together and you’ve got a pretty good center-field option, probably better than what the Cardinals have now.
FanGraphs pegged Dyson as a 3.1 WAR player last season, impressive since he played in only 107 games.
Already in St. Louis, local columnists and radio pundits have called on Mozeliak to make some radical moves to bridge the gap with the Cubs. Mozeliak rarely acts in tandem with public sentiment, and it has served him well -- as he seeks his second World Series title as general manager. But even if he doesn't sign the big-name free agents people are mentioning, it's apparent he feels he needs to make some more impactful moves than he did a year ago. Both the fans and the team's front office came away with the impression that what they had last season wasn’t working.