It has been nearly a month since the Cardinals finalized the signing of catcher Willson Contreras and almost a month then since the Cardinals last major-league transaction.
The market has continued to move around them, past them.
Pending physical – a phrase that has taken on new gravity in recent weeks – the headliners from the shortstop market have signed. The top-tier starters have signed. The Cardinals have continued talks with representatives for several free agents, mostly pitchers, some of whom have signed. They had some interest in right-hander Drew Rucinski as he made his way back from Asia, but the role they could offer and the bid they made fell shy of what the right-hander ultimately got from Oakland. So, jot his name down on the list of future trade possibilities. That does illustrate the Cardinals’ spot in the market and why trades seem more likely, if less expedient to pull off.
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It is still that time of the offseason when free agents are looking for ideal role and playing time or a clear opening in the rotation, not a competition to be a starter alongside a handful of others. That’s what the Cardinals have to offer a pitcher who wants to start.
As spring training nears, the goal for free agents shifts from seeking a role to at least landing a roster spot.
An example of this happened already this week as Wade Miley, a familiar starter from the NL Central, remained in the division by signing with Milwaukee for a reported one-year, $4.5-million deal that also includes a $10-million mutual option for 2024. Miley, 36, is coming back from an injury-interrupted season that limited him to nine appearances. He’s looking for a place that will give him the stage to rebuild his value, and for offering him that the Brewers will have the chance to keep him if it works out. Role and innings over just a roster spot.
That said, there are still some free agents available who could help the Cardinals in their goals – specifically to add depth to the pitching staff and rotation.
It doesn’t have to be a starter who does that.
Below are five free agents who are still available as of 8 a.m. St. Louis time Thursday morning and would be interesting additions for Cardinals.
Some obvious. Some subtle. Some substantive.
Not the superstars who were available, but the potential contributors who still are available.
This is not a comprehensive list by any means, nor have I been able to link the Cardinals through reporting to all of these names. Some of them, yes. But research shows where they could contribute. And those are the types of discussions front offices have year-round.
What are your thoughts?
ANDREW CHAFIN, LHP
As mentioned in the StlToday.com Cardinals chat on Monday, there has been some interest in Chafin and that’s not new – he’s been on the Cardinals’ radar before in their annual quest for lefty depth. In this case, continuing the theme mentioned above, the Cardinals do have a clear role to offer, not a competition for one. Chafin, 32, would offer a late-game lefty, a companion (or alternate) to Genesis Cabrera, and that would also shift Zack Thompson into the swingman, long role or freeing up another challenger for a rotation spot. The Cardinals talk this winter about Thompson as if it’s finding a spot for him in the bullpen.
In his past 150 games, Chafin has a 158 ERA+, putting him well ahead of his peers. This past season, with Detroit, the former Cubs lefty – familiar for his “FAILED STARTER” tee shirt – had a 2.83 ERA in 57 1/3 innings, all in relief. He had an attractive 10.5 strikeouts-per-nine rate. That was in line with the 10.8 K/9 he had from 2016-2020, most of which was spent coming out of Arizona’s bullpen.
There is even a rough sense of price.
To become a free agent, Chafin opted out of his contract with Tigers that he signed in mid-March 2022. He signed a two-year, $13 million deal and would have made $6.5 million in 2023 with the Tigers. So, there’s a starting point.
MATT MOORE, LHP
Given how free-agent markets tend to move in bursts – a burst of catchers moving, a burst of shortstops moving – it could be that Moore is the lefty that keys a run that would also include Chafin. According to many recent statistics, Moore is just ahead of Chafin as a lefty reliever after making the shift from start to full-time lefty reliever. That happened in 2022 and Moore surged to a 1.95 ERA in 63 appearances. He struck out 83 over 74 innings for the Rangers just a year after making 13 starts and 24 appearances for the Phillies and striking out 63 in 73 innings. His addition to the bullpen would have the same influence – a leverage lefty that allows others to settle into swing or middle relief roles to begin a year.
In 2022, Moore had a 203 ERA+, for perspective.
His strikeout rate of batters (27.3%) is just behind Chafin’s 27.6% atop the remaining available free agent relievers.
Moore, 33, struck out 2.2 batters for every one walk, and his strikeout rate spiked to a career best 10.1 K/9. The shift to the bullpen inspired a shift in pitch use, too. He unapologetically showed off his curveball. Moore’s use of his curveball more than doubled, going from 15.3% in 2021 to nearly 40% in 2022, and the power behind the curveball jumped as it averaged 3 mph more. His fastball saw a similar hop, from averaging 92.5 mph to 94 mph.
No lefty specialist, Moore held right-handed batters to a .255 slugging.
The Rangers’ general manager, during a press conference in mid-December, described the bidding and interest for Moore as “strong.”
MICHAEL FULMER, RHP
The Tigers’ top prospect seven years ago as he started a season that ended with him winning the American League’s Rookie of the Year award, Fulmer asserted himself as a starter swiftly, going 21-19 with a 3.45 ERA in his first 51 big-league starts. The year after winning the ROY he represented the Tigers in the 2017 All-Star Game. And then, injuries. Fulmer missed 2019 after elbow reconstruction. He made 10 appearances (all starts) in the majors from 2019-2020, had an 8.78 ERA. He searched for misplaced velocity, consistency.
And then, in 2021, he shifted to bullpen, closed some games.
This second act is compelling.
From 2020-21, most of which Fulmer spent in the bullpen, he has a 3.17 ERA and 134 strikeouts and 128 hits allowed in 133 1/3 innings. That’s a solid 9.0 K/9. In his first full season as a reliever, Fulmer split time between the Tigers and Twins and finished 2022 with a 3.39 ERA in 67 games and had a 113 ERA+. Sporting a 95.8-mph fastball during those early days as a starter, Fulmer was back up to 95.7 mph in 2021 and 94.4 mph in 2022. The most significant shift in his pitch use as a reliever has been the use of his slider, which jumped to 63.5% -- nearly two out of every three pitches he threw in 2022. That came at the same time Fulmer, now 29, reduced fastball use.
The Cardinals arguably have a Fulmer or six in the mix. Drew VerHagen returns from injury and surgery for his second year with the Cardinals and he has the velocity and breaking ball (his is a curveball) that intrigue the Cardinals for a swing role. They were a few hours away from naming VerHagen their fifth starter last spring. This move would be similar – a competition to create a role, not arrive with a role waiting, and little chance of leaving spring training as a starter, if that’s the goal. Not sure how appetizing that is.
DAVID PHELPS, RHP
It’s been almost 15 years since the New York Yankees plucked a St. Louis kid out of the Notre Dame pitching staff with a 14th-round pick. David Phelps reached the majors in 2012, made 11 starts for the Yankees that season, and has been a presence in the majors ever since. The closest he’s come to returning to his hometown as a big leaguer is pitching for the Cubs in 2019 and the Brewers in 2020 or a handful of spring trainings with Miami in Jupiter, Florida. At 36, he’s coming off a second year with the Blue Jays and a 2.83 ERA in 63 2/3 innings. He struck out 64 – and walked 31. His strikeout rate dipped in 2022, down from a whopping 13.4 K/9 from 2020-21 when he also had a 100 ERA+.
Phelps has the classic mix for a right-handed reliever, snapping a cutter and a curveball to play off the fastball. He mixes in a changeup. And he’s spent a lot of his career in setup and bridge roles for late innings.
Yet, that 2012 season is the only season he appeared in the playoffs.
A graduate of Hazelwood West, the 36-year-old right-hander’s name pops up among the statistical leaders when sorted by available free agents. MLB Trade Rumors pointed out that Phelps ranks in the top ten for ERA (2.87), strikeout rate (23.9%), Fielding Independent Pitching (3.11), and innings pitched in 2022 (62 2/3).
A year ago, coming out of the lockout and coming back from an injury-abbreviated 2021 season (lat muscle), Phelps was a non-roster player in Toronto’s camp and earned a spot in the bullpen to trigger a $1.75-million base salary. He pitched in 65 games to max out his appearances bonuses and double his salary. The solid year came after surgery left him with the decision to retire or attempt a return few pitchers had made from the lat surgery.
“I had to really think about it. Like, ‘Do I have a year-long rehab in me at this point?’” Phelps told SportsNet.ca a year ago. “I’m thinking about how later in spring training, during the first month of the season, my kids are in school — you're getting to the point where you're starting to miss a lot of really big things. So, I spent some time praying about it, doing some soul searching. Asking myself, ‘Is this what I still feel like I'm called to do? Am I still enjoying it?’”
Clearly those questions would shape the offer he’s seeking a year later, too.
JURICKSON PROFAR, LF/UT
This list needs to include at least one position player, right? So, it stretches to find one. The group of free agents still available includes Corey Dickerson, who filled the role in 2022 that the Cardinals are now measuring for rookie Alec Burleson (or Nolan Gorman?) in 2023. It also includes Trey Mancini, a right-handed hitter at a spot currently earmarked for Juan Yepez, among others. Options, sure. Overlaps, too.
So, how about a name from the distant past?
It was a decade ago that a popular hot stove debate was whether Texas and the Cardinals should swap their top prospects, two of the top prospects in professional baseball. Profar was a rising, standout shortstop for the Rangers, the Cardinals had need of a rising, young, standout shortstop. They also had one of the best hitting prospects they’d ever had – the late Oscar Taveras.
In 2013, while doing a radio interview, John Mozeliak, then the Cardinals’ general manager, said he would ponder that trade talk if Texas approached him.
“Mozeliak’s comment essentially boils down to ‘Yes, I’d consider acquiring a 20-year-old potential superstar shortstop if I had the chance,’” wrote Dave Cameron on FanGraphs.com. “Which, well, of course he would.”
But not for long.
Internally, the Cardinals felt what was obvious externally, too – that Taveras was the left-handed hitter of their needs, their hopes, their wishes, too. During the Cardinals’ 2012 postseason run to the National League Championship Series, Mozeliak briefly considered promoting Taveras straight to the majors for an October debut if Carlos Beltran was too injured to start against the San Francisco Giants. Cameron captured the situation well in his conclusion to an article titled, “A Thought Exercise”: “The Rangers lover Profar, the Cardinals love Taveras, and neither side is itching to give up their crown jewel.”
What has happened in the 10 years since is well known. Taveras, 22 at the time, and his girlfriend, 18-year-old Edilia Arvelo, were killed in a single-car, alcohol-related automobile accident in 2014.
On the field, top prospect Profar did debut with the Rangers.
But he had only one season of more than 20 games at shortstop, and he was traded – twice. Texas sent him to Oakland in a three-team deal in 2018, and Oakland traded him to San Diego in 2019. In the past three seasons, he’s been a steady contributor to the Padres with a .244/.333/.375 slash line and an above-average 103 OPS+. And now he’s a free agent having turned down a $7.5-million guarantee for 2023 with the Padres.
Profar, 29, has spent most of the recent years in left field. He last dabbled as a middle infielder in 2021, playing second base. Still, he’s a switch-hitter with familiarity and ability to play a variety of positions. For conversation, it’s possible to squint and spy a role he’d have with the Cardinals – coming off the bench, spelling regulars, adding to the elasticity of the roster.
Hardly the view a player seeking a starting job finds appealing.
Until spring arrives and those jobs are harder to see at all.