Quick, pick the easiest position for the Cardinals to upgrade this offseason.
No, not the position that most needs an overhaul. And not the position you would personally prefer to improve.
Factor in the roster implications and contractual obligations, and point to one spot not on the pitching mound.
Sorry, Dexter Fowler’s big contract and full no-trade clause eliminate right field from this experiment.
The best answer can be found in the opposite corner of the infield.
A case can be made that the Cardinals should be getting more out of third base. And it seems to be perhaps the easiest path to pursue. So, they will do that, right?
The Cards are hiding their cards. Fans have been asking about the lack of an end-of-season news conference with team officials. It’s coming. Maybe. An offseason to-do list has not yet been revealed, perhaps because it is in the works. A request to preview the rough draft offered more open-ended options than highlighted needs.
“Just like every offseason, we will look at every opportunity to improve,” general manager Michael Girsch said Friday. “We won’t just look at one position, or one role on the team. We are not going to only focus on one thing. We are going to see what’s out there.”
Let’s examine the case for third base becoming one such opportunity.
For the past two seasons, Jedd Gyorko has led the Cardinals in innings played at the hot corner. But Gyorko has started only 173 games there during that span. Hamstring strains and a groin strain have sent him to the DL three times.
The 30-home run power and .495 slugging percentage that wowed in 2016 have since taken two steps in the wrong direction. Gyorko slugged .472 and hit 20 homers in 2017. He slugged .416 and hit 11 in a career-low 351 at-bats this season while displaying a concerning lack of pop (.374 slugging percentage) against righthanded pitchers.
Gyorko is owed $13 million in 2019, though a chunk of that is paid by his former employer, the Padres. The Cardinals traded for him in 2015 to add power in a utility role. He’s provided that, no question. His case to expand that brand took a hit this season.
With Gyorko in and out of the lineup and up and down in performance, and Matt Carpenter migrating back to first base, the Cardinals’ hot corner has become somewhat of a committee. Eight players have spent time at the position the past two seasons. That included five this year. During this two-season stretch, the cast of Cardinals third basemen combined to score well in on-base percentage (.358, seventh in the majors during that span) but lacked in slugging percentage (.437, 15th), home runs (46, 19th) and RBIs (148, 25th), power staples often associated with the position.
If the production were coming from another place, this might not matter as much. But the Cardinals have the third-worst slugging percentage among three-hole hitters in the majors since 2017, and they don’t crack the top half at cleanup or the No. 5 hole, either. These are lineup spots ripe for a run-producing third baseman.
See the need? Now the catch. Well, there could be a couple.
1. The Cardinals would really do themselves a favor by making sure this offseason’s lineup additions hit lefthanded. A right-dominated bunch would benefit from some balance. That could limit the field.
2. An organization that loves its internal options is excited — no, on the edge of giddy — about the ascension of three prospects who play third. Elehuris Montero, 20, could start the season in Class AA Springfield and might sniff Class AAA Memphis by the end of it. Fast-rising former first-round pick Nolan Gorman, 18, is about a year behind Montero. And then there is 17-year-old Cuban signee Malcolm Nunez, who destroyed the Dominican Summer League with an absurd batting line of .415/.497/.774.
By now you are perhaps seeing why Manny Machado does not make the most sense for the Cardinals. The pending free agent third baseman fancies himself a shortstop. He hits righthanded. He’s probably going to want a very long contract. Same for Nolan Arenado and Anthony Rendon, and those two are not free agents until 2020.
Those who cover 39-year-old Adrian Beltre believe he will retire. The Cardinals did not want Daniel Murphy the first time around. Kyle Seager has been a league average hitter, at best, the past two seasons.
What might suit the Cardinals best is a bridge, an upgrade over the present that does not block the future. It’s that line of thinking that leads to the discussion of familiar names like Mike Moustakas and Josh Donaldson. The latter, though righthanded, has a higher ceiling than Moustakas, but he comes with concerns about the calf injury that spoiled his contract year. He can answer questions beneath the postseason’s lights if Cleveland makes a run.
Here’s a new name to chew on: Eduardo Escobar. The switch-hitting, 29-year-old free agent is more powerful from the left side. He ranked 11th among third basemen in slugging percentage (.473) despite being traded from the Twins to the Diamondbacks. He knocked a career-high 23 homers after hitting 21 the year before. His career-high in fielding metrics came this season, as he played a career-high amount of innings (1,102.1) at third.
Of course, other teams know this, too.
An obvious upgrade rarely comes easily.