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Hot Stove Hoopla: Measuring the markets for Brantley, Moustakas, and closers

Hot Stove Hoopla: Measuring the markets for Brantley, Moustakas, and closers

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Cleveland Indians' Michael Brantley watches his ball after hitting an one-run double off Chicago White Sox relief pitcher Tommy Kahnle in the tenth inning of a baseball game, Tuesday, April 11, 2017, during opening day in Cleveland. Lindor scored on the play. The Indians won 2-1. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)

ST. LOUIS • This past All-Star break, I approached free-agent-to-be Michael Brantley about his free agency and what his view of St. Louis was as a market and a team. Brantley, of course, talked about focusing on Cleveland’s season first and that free agency would be a topic for the winter, but he also added that he couldn’t close out the possibility of any market – especially if it housed a team that intended on contending. That’s a common sentiment.

“We’ll see what options are out there,” he said.

This past week, reported how the Cardinals were “maintaining interest” in Brantley. True. That could also be said of a stockpile of free agents. The Cardinals have maintained interest in the same way with glove-first shortstops, even as they tell other teams and free agent that their preference is not to sign a shortstop. Again, maintain interest is what front offices do on Nov. 26. Now Brantley stands out beyond other options, for sure. Lefthanded bat? Check. Middle-order hitter? Maybe. No. 2 hitter? Sure. Corner infielder? Nope. And so on.

Two sources have described to me how it would take a series of other events for the Cardinals to have interest in signing Brantley. They didn’t offer specifics. It appears that one would have to be the Cardinals did not land other preferred acquisitions. The others would involve moving some of the outfielders they already have, including the guy they now have penciled in to start in right field. Look at this way: Signing a transcendent talent like Harper would also force the Cardinals to consider moves with other outfielders. The Cardinals would have to make moves after not being able to make moves to then fit Brantley.

A big reason for this exists in the overlap.

Here we are again.

Brantley will be playing this coming season at age 32, the same age that Dexter Fowler just played 2018. Cardinals ownership has not been shy about its reluctance to sign players deep into their 30s when, as they’ve said, “you have to expect a decline.” Since 2014, Brantley has been a superb player with a .311/.371/.475 line and a .846 OPS. He’s had a 127 OPS+ in that span. Quite superb. Fowler, by contrast, has been a .254/.356/.416 hitter since 2014 with a .772 OPS and a 110 OPS+. That gap narrows over the past three seasons to Fowler’s .779 OPS/107 OPS+ vs. Brantley’s .810 OPS/114 OPS+. As a lefthanded batter, Fowler has had a .784 OPS. Brantley still has the edge in rates. This past year gives him the clear edge in WAR, 5.7 to 4.3 since 2016.

(Harper, for contrast, has an 18.6 WAR that makes room for itself.)

The word that the Cardinals have underscored this season is “upgrade.” During his holiday season, that’s how they’re making their shopping list. They look at who they have to start in a specific spot, and then see if the market offers an upgrade, and then look at the cost. Brantley offers a lefthanded bat they want and the kind of contract and moving parts they have talked about avoiding. This is what the Cardinals are weighing – clear upgrades vs. incremental additions. They would prefer the former, but have to explore the latter, just like any team. Is the incremental benefit worth the cost or subsequent moves? Classic cost-benefit stuff.

Here is a snapshot that maybe helps explain how to weigh such a question even better. Below are the averages for two players from 2014-2018:

  • Player A – 121 games, 71 runs, 40 extra-base hits, 13 homers, 45 RBIs, 112 Ks, 66 BBs
  • Player B – 107 games, 61 runs, 43 extra-base hits, 12 homers, 63 RBIs, 45 Ks, 39 BBs

Player B has been in the All-Star Game three times in that span and finished third in the MVP voting once (2014) and won a Silver Slugger that same season. He’s Brantley.

Player A is Fowler.


St. Louis Post-Dispatch sports columnist Ben Frederickson gave Mozeliak the chance to say the Cardinals were out, out, out on any of the headliners in this free-agent class. Mozeliak declined. He stressed the team needs to be “open-minded.” The Cardinals see all the ways that Harper fits their needs and their wants. They are unsure of how high the price is going to soar for him. That's where their interest idles at this point. They see the fit. They await the cost.

• As with all trades, the sliding scale for a deal is all about the money taking on, the control a team is getting, and the prospects needed to make it happen. In the case of Paul Goldschmidt and Arizona, the control is one year and the money is reasonable, so the cost of prospects would be a pinch. (Think: Ozuna-like, though perhaps with a centerpiece that will be in the majors.)

There have been reports elsewhere about Zack Greinke getting wedged into a deal because it would increase the money taken on (significantly) and, thus, would force a give elsewhere, like in the prospect package. Keep that in mind. The thought exercise the Cardinals have had would be with the purpose of taking on more salary in order to spend less talent.

The Athletic, and other places, have reported that the Cardinals are on Greinke's limited no-trade list, as well.

• An interesting, inside-baseball element to any market is how agents approach teams with multiple clients. This year, two of the best left-side infielders are represented by the same agent, Dan Lozano, Albert Pujols’ agent. He is the agent for Manny Machado and Josh Donaldson. Machado wants to play shortstop and will be marketed as such. However, Machado could draw interest from teams in need of a third baseman – and those teams who don’t get Machado would then be in play for Donaldson. That could delay the market for Donaldson until post-Machado.

UPDATE: According to Ken Rosenthal, of The Athletic, Josh Donaldson has agreed to a one-year, $23-million deal with the Atlanta Braves. This is interesting because he jumps the market and is willing to return to it with Anthony Rendon and Nolan Arenado possibly available next winter. But, what an interesting and strong fit for the Braves' lineup.

• Rumors connecting to the Cardinals to big-name closers are as predictable as Advent calendars, but it does contradict so much of what the Cardinals said in the past 14 months. Under Mozeliak’s guidance, the Cardinals have been allergic to paying market-price for a closer, believing they can get better value and have better success creating a closer. They don’t want to pay for saves already had. It worked again this past year as Bud Norris emerged as the closer, just as Edward Mujica and Ryan Franklin did before him. Homegrown is the way they prefer to go. It’s cost effective. It also plays into the volatility of the role. The Cardinals said they wanted to avoid long-term commitments to free-agent closers because they did not want to block the arrival of Jordan Hicks & Co. That was a year ago. Hicks has arrived. Dakota Hudson, too. Ryan Helsley is on deck. The Cardinals signed Greg Holland to a one-year, $14-million deal and said, specifically, that the short-term deal would leave open the possibility of a young player emerging for 2019 as the closer. Holland reinforces their sticker shock while not interrupting their future. That hasn’t changed. Keep that in mind.

• The Cardinals intend to have Carlos Martinez come to spring training as a starter. Same with Alex Reyes. How they leave spring training is still open for discussion. The Cardinals don’t intend to have Martinez return to the closer role, but they aren’t shutting that door entirely until seeing how Martinez’s work goes this winter and how his health/strength/focus looks in spring.

• Speaking of Venn diagrams. There aren’t many free agents who are lefthanded hitters and play the corner infield position. Mike Moustakas stands out from the group. The Cardinals had little interest in Moustakas a year ago in large part because of the draft pick attached to him and because they saw Gyorko as the superior defender. Moustakas’ appeal was entirely that he hit lefthanded. There’s a bit more interest in him this winter because he doesn’t have a draft pick attached to him, the lefthanded bat, and the durability he’s shown with at least 135 games played in five of the past seven seasons.

• This is third in a trilogy of blogs that set the stage for a thawing of the hot stove season in the coming weeks. You can read about the Cardinals and Paul Goldschmidt here, and check out their search for a lefty reliever here.

• The list of lefthanded-hitting outfielders available on the open market is slightly longer, and that brings us back to … The Brantley Paradox.

Worst free-agent moves of the DeWitt era

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