With a vested — and invested — interest in upselling teams on all the added benefits of offense, agent Scott Boras, who reps a handful of free-agent hitters this winter, arrived at last week’s GM meetings with a metaphorical map, one he said would lead teams out of the wilderness and into “Playoffville.”
The route is paved with runs.
“What we discovered was the one consistent metric for teams’ probability of being in the playoffs: If you’re top three in runs scored, you’ve got about an 85 percent chance,” he said. “If you’re top eight, you have about a 72 percent chance of being in the playoffs. And the same is true of OPS. So, when you increase slugging, increase your runs scored, you can really do something that most teams don’t have, and that’s a playoff probability that exceeds the majority of the teams in the league.”
The Cardinals hear you, Scott.
In search of star power this offseason, the Cardinals aim to improve an offense that lagged behind the league and, in turn, halt any flagging interest from their fan base. True to Boras’ metric, the Cardinals ranked 13th in runs scored and 12th in OPS, sitting out October for the second consecutive year. They watched the top nine teams in OPS play on. That gave the Cardinals an eyeful of what they’re missing — just in time for a market to open with options, from the newly crowned National League MVP Giancarlo Stanton or one of his Miami teammates to, yes, Boras’ stable of hitters.
“We don’t just want to be competitive. We have to figure out a way to get our way back into the dance,” said John Mozeliak, the Cardinals’ president of baseball operations. “Look at the teams that are playing (in October) and they have impactful players. It’s talent that drives you. When you look at playoff teams they have a couple of signature players. When you have someone like an MVP player it helps make everybody else rise.”
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At the GM and owners meetings at the Waldorf Astoria Orlando, the Cardinals’ interest in reshaping the team was palpable.
Two executives with other teams remarked how “aggressive” the Cardinals appeared to be, according to media reports they read and chatter they heard about Mozeliak’s intent to assert the team’s playoff presence. An agent referred to how it was clear to him that the Cardinals “are thinking big.”
For weeks, the Cardinals have talked to the Marlins about the shape of a deal for Stanton, who is owed $295 million over the next 10 years, or another available Miami hitter, like Christian Yelich or Marcell Ozuna. The Marlins are motivated to cut costs. Name a free agent hitter, such as Eric Hosmer or Carlos Gonzalez, both Boras clients, and the Cardinals have considered him. In recent winters, the Cardinals have been known for their misses (David Price, Jason Heyward) more than their hits (Dexter Fowler), and chairman Bill DeWitt Jr. has said the team is not comfortable routinely finishing a runnerup.
What has happened several times in the market has become the truth in the standings: The Cardinals finishing behind.
“Stars do energize a fan base,” DeWitt said this past week. “In the end, though, what you want to do is win. Whatever the best formula is for winning, that’s what you pursue. It’s not necessarily getting a name player. … What we want to do is get better offensively – and defensively and pitching.”
DeWitt confirmed that the Cardinals, while selling 3.4 million tickets and ranking second in paid attendance this past season, did see an increase in no-shows during 2017. The team has increased and positioned giveaways to lure fans to the ballpark, and the Cardinals did set a single-game Busch Stadium III attendance record on July 29 with 48,052. That support coupled with the start of a billion-dollar broadcast rights deal gives the Cardinals payroll to utilize this winter after a season that saw them slip out of the top 10 in spending.
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The Cardinals have $103.5 million guaranteed to nine players for 2018, and that does not include $6 million going to Seattle as part of Mike Leake’s salary. The luxury tax for 2018 is set at $197 million, and DeWitt said there would be “financial implications” of nearing that level. Going over it is not happening. Still, the Cardinals have more payroll flexibility than most teams pursuing Stanton, and they have high-end prospects to engage in a variety of deals.
“We’ve got capacity to increase our payroll depending on the right situation,” he said.
Right, in this case, could be runs.
This past season, the top eight teams in slugging percentage reached the playoffs. Since Boston and the Cardinals faced each other in the 2013 World Series as the top run-scoring teams in their league, each season six of the top-10 teams in OPS have reached the playoffs. Those are the odds Boras described, and one transformative bat can be the difference. The Cardinals’ right fielders ranked 19th in OPS (.764) and slugging (.439). Sub in one of the available outfielders and watch those rates relocate into “Playoffville” territory.
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Stanton’s stats — the most extreme examples — would have upped the Cardinals’ slugging to .447, good enough for fourth, and OPS to .786. That would have ranked third in prime playoff range. Replace the Cardinals’ right field production with Ozuna’s and their OPS rises to .777 and their slugging to .438. Both would have ranked ahead of the Cubs’ .775 and .437, respectively. And, in this simplified exercise, those hitters are not alone. Yelich’s production would have vaulted the Cardinals’ OPS into the top 10; Hosmer’s too and of course free agent J.D. Martinez’s would, too.
“There is a significant correlation between slugging, scoring runs, and such that increase your probability,” Boras said. “Certainly having starting pitching and bullpens and such is very, very important. That (OPS and runs) indices seem to operate, when you have that characteristic working for you, you have a much higher chance of winning.”
The GM meetings annually serve as a prelude to pursuits that usually climax around December’s winter meetings. The Marlins did not expect their various trade talks to linger late into December, especially when so few teams — San Francisco and the Cardinals being two — could stomach a salary like Stanton’s.
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The Cardinals entered the weekend open to lower-level trade talks as Monday’s deadline to protect minor-league talents on the 40-man roster neared. The team’s need for such moves lessened when they set free Trevor Rosenthal and cleared four other spots on the roster. The Cardinals plan to protect prospects Tyler O’Neill, Austin Gomber and Oscar Mercado. Third baseman Patrick Wisdom, who led Class AAA Memphis with 31 homers, is expected to be left available for the Rule 5 draft.
The trends in baseball over recent seasons favor stout bullpens and power offenses. The Cardinals just happen to be looking to improve both. This winter there is an abundance of relievers available — from free agents to even trade targets, like Tampa Bay’s Alex Colome or Baltimore’s Zach Britton — and a variety. There are hitters, too.
But the kind that can drive a team to the place Boras mapped?
“There aren’t many. There are not many,” Boras said. “The value of those elite talents to franchises (is) to be really, seriously in the playoff hunt vs. not being.”