The St. Louis Cardinals have a big offseason ahead. They finished third in the NL Central, the first time since 2008 that the Cardinals have landed outside the top two in the division. There are holes on the roster that need to be filled, either via trade or free agency. The Cards need to fix their leaky bullpen, add an impactful bat, and bring on at least one starting pitcher. That’s no easy task.
With money to spend and a farm system stacked with mid-level talent, there should be no stopping John Mozeliak and new general manager Mike Girsh from making major improvements. With that in mind, here are three free agents who should be the top targets for St. Louis.
Another offseason, another year when the Cardinals should strongly consider stealing a big-time free agent from their rival, the Chicago Cubs. Of course with Wade Davis, much like with Dexter Fowler, it wouldn’t be so much a “steal” as inheriting a big brother’s old clothes. Either way, Davis is the best closer available on the market and would fill a major hole for St. Louis.
The Cardinals had eight different relievers pick up a save last season, and they went 43-for-60 in that department. A save percentage of 71.6 isn’t going to get it done. Seung-hwan Oh, the man who came into the season as their closer, posted a 4.10 ERA with a 4.44 FIP in 59 1/3 innings – converting 20-of-24 save opportunities. Suffice it to say, the ninth inning was shaky in St. Louis this season.
Davis has been anything but shaky. Over the last three seasons, the emotionless right-hander has tossed 241 1/3 innings with a 1.45 ERA, knocking down 79 of his 87 save opportunities (90.8 percent). Last season alone, Davis converted 32 of 33 for the Cubs, posting a 2.30 ERA in 58 2/3 innings.
Davis is going to cost a lot of money, something like the four-year, $62 million contract Mark Melancon received last year with the San Francisco Giants. The Cardinals need more help in relief as well, so they could look at Greg Holland, Addison Reed, and Juan Nicasio – the latter of which is their own free agent.
On the positional side, Arizona Diamondbacks outfielder J.D. Martinez is the best available player on the market. Martinez had an absurd season, hitting .303/.376/.690 with 45 home runs in just 119 games played between the Diamondbacks and Detroit Tigers. No doubt, he will be heavily sought and get a massive contract. MLB Trade Rumors is predicting Martinez to come away with a six-year, $150 million deal – and that could be light.
The main problem for the Cards is that they have several quality role players on offense but no star to carry them. A lineup full of No. 5 hitters is only going to get you so far, and last year it carried St. Louis to an 83-79 record with the seventh-best run-scoring offense in the National League. Martinez could solve some of their offensive problems.
Tommy Pham and Dexter Fowler – the two regular starters with the highest OPS+ on the Cardinals in 2017 – are settled into their outfield spots, but right field is available. Over the last four seasons, Martinez has averaged 3.8 WAR per year. He also won’t turn 31 until next August, which means the Cardinals could get considerable value on the first few years of the contract.
Of the five pitchers to begin the 2017 season in the Cardinals’ starting rotation, only Carlos Martinez, Michael Wacha, and Adam Wainwright are penciled in as of now. Luke Weaver may have a claim on one of the two open spots, thanks to a 4.23 ERA with 69 strikeouts in 55 1/3 innings over 10 starts in the big leagues this year. That leaves one other spot to be filled, either through free agency or the trade market.
Yu Darvish will be the most sought free-agent pitcher, but it’s hard to envision the Cards landing him and having enough money left for the rest of the names on this list. They’ll likely be in on Jake Arrieta, but Lance Lynn makes the most sense for this team. The Cardinals are obviously familiar with Lynn, whom they drafted in the first round in 2008. Lynn will be 31 next season and has had Tommy John surgery, missing all of 2016.
He bounced back nicely in 2017, starting 33 games, throwing 186 1/3 innings, and posting a 3.43 ERA. Lynn’s peripheral numbers are something to watch. He had the worst K/BB ratio of his career (1.96) and posted an ugly 4.82 FIP. Still, it should cost less to sign Lynn than it would to bring on Darvish or Arrieta.
The money required to land all three of these players would be enormous. That said, St. Louis can afford to spend. The Cardinals have around $118 million committed to the payroll next season prior to arbitration, and the only arb-eligible player expected to get a large dollar amount is Wacha.
Is adding the nearly $55 million (give or take) of payroll on these three free agents likely? Not with the Cardinals’ recent spending habits… but they do have the flexibility to chase any of them if they want to.