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BenFred: Astros pending free agent Springer would check many boxes for Cardinals

BenFred: Astros pending free agent Springer would check many boxes for Cardinals

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Springer hits 2 HRs, Astros beat A's 5-2 for 2-0 ALDS lead

Houston Astros' George Springer, right, hits a solo home run off of Oakland Athletics relief pitcher Yusmeiro Petit, left, during the fifth inning of Game 2 of a baseball American League Division Series in Los Angeles, Tuesday, Oct. 6, 2020. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

Bruce Springsteen once had 57 channels and nothin’ on.

Cardinals fans can relate this postseason.

They had four divisional series to watch and all caused pain.

Seeing former Cardinals in key lineup spots for other teams after another lineup lagged in St. Louis is cruel and unusual playoff punishment.

It’s one thing to see your team knocked out.

It’s another to watch old friends — Randy Arozarena, Luke Voit, Tommy Pham, Marcell Ozuna — anchor October lineups elsewhere.

The only real reprieve was the series no one outside of Houston wants to watch, for entirely different reasons.

We, meaning everyone outside of Houston, have wanted the Astros to lose since we first read about the electronic sign-stealing scandal in 2017. But the Astros are back in October, and they just keep hitting. A potential silver lining exists. An answer to the Cardinals’ lagging lineup could be on that club.

George Springer, not Bruce Springsteen, is The Boss of October baseball.

He’s about to be a free agent, too.

The right-handed-hitting Springer, 31, is a three-time All-Star in the midst of another impressive season. His .265 average and .359 on-base percentage were consistent with his career norms, but his power has been up the past two seasons, checking in at a career-high .591 in 2019, and a robust .540 this season. His on-base plus slugging percentage since the start of the 2019 season has been higher than it was during the high point of the sign-stealing scandal. Springer’s .957 OPS since 2019 ranks fifth among all outfielders, landing right between Juan Soto (.995) and Charlie Blackmon (.922).

And then comes October, when Springer jumps ahead. Even if his 2017 World Series MVP carries an asterisk, and it does, don’t overlook what Springer has done in postseasons since, slugging .569 with 10 home runs and eight doubles in 31 postseason games as of Thursday morning.

Yes, a case could be made that nothing Astros-related should be touched with a 10-foot pole, but the Cardinals clearly don’t view things that way. They hired former Houston assistant hitting coach Jeff Albert before the sign-stealing scandal broke, and they stuck by him after it did. Albert always maintained his distance from the scandal, but surely he would know how much Springer was or was not helped by the banned approach.

Albert should be the one leading the Springer campaign. Two seasons of his instruction have left lots to be desired from the lineup. If the hitting coach is not going to be replaced, he needs more talent to shape. Something has to give. The Cardinals hired Albert in part because of Houston’s success. The same line of thinking should make Springer a desirable target.

The best reason to sign Springer is right there in the numbers. Unlike his teammates Carlos Correa and Jose Altuve, he did not max out at the plate in the season the Astros were found out to be breaking rules. He’s been a dynamic hitter since then, including during a season played in quiet ballparks where a banging trashcan could be heard from a mile away.

Less important, but still important, is that Springer is one of the few Astros who showed a sense of genuine remorse about the scandal. He’s not Correa, who has become the equivalent of a wrestler who turned heel. That’s not to be confused with Chris Correa, the former Cardinals scouting director who went to prison for hacking into the Astros’ database before Houston replaced the Cardinals as MLB rule-breakers. I bring that memory up as a reminder that Cardinal Nation doesn’t exactly get to play the high and mighty card against Houston.

The Cardinals are in a unique and difficult spot this offseason. Their offense is desperate for power. It lagged in runs per game, home runs per at-bat and slugging percentage this season, in a year that taught us once again that power plays.

MLB.com found that over the last five seasons, a team that out-homers an opponent in a regular-season game has a winning percentage of .870. Entering Thursday’s playoff games, home runs had accounted for nearly 54% of the runs scored in this postseason. Of the 20 postseason examples where one club hit more home runs than the other, the team with more homers had a record of 19-1.

Springer can homer.

He smacked a career-high 39 in 2019 and tacked on 14 in this shortened 2020, but he’s not just a slugger. He’s a hitter. He’s the Astros leadoff man, a better than average baserunner who does damage at the top of the order. The Cardinals had baseball’s seventh-lowest leadoff OPS (.666) and eighth-lowest outfield OPS (.677) in 2020. Springer has toggled between center field and right field for most of his pro career. His defensive versatility would be an advantage for a complicated outfield that includes Dexter Fowler’s contract and Dylan Carlson’s upside.

One more thing: Springer this season cut his strikeout rate to a career-low 17.1%, almost a half-point lower than it was in 2017. A recent Wall Street Journal study found that in postseason series of at least three games since 2000, the team with the lower regular-season strikeout rate won 63% of the time. If you are thinking the powerful Padres dodged that trend when they beat the Cardinals to win the wild-card series, think again. Lost in the home-run fireworks the Padres create so often was a top six regular-season strikeout rate (21.5%) that had the Cardinals beat by more than two percentage points.

Just another reason the Cardinals must find some way, in an unpredictable offseason, to improve a lacking lineup that often lagged because of its outfield.

Springer won’t be cheap, but because of his age he won’t be nearly as expensive as the in-their-prime stars who command the length of contracts the Cardinals tend to avoid.

If free agency pulls him from Houston, he will have to make another apology tour for what happened in 2017.

Here in St. Louis, it wouldn’t last long.

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