As outfield options quickly come off the board, should the St. Louis Cardinals consider plugging a hole by trading for Colorado Rockies center fielder Charlie Blackmon?
The developments that have occurred during this week’s Winter Meetings have placed major pressure on the St. Louis Cardinals, who are searching for a starting outfielder this offseason, to pull the trigger and make a move. While Dexter Fowler, who has been rumored to be the Cardinals’ top target all winter, is still on the market and could very well wind up a Cardinal, the fact that days keep going by without any progress being made on a deal is concerning.
While Yoenis Cespedes, Josh Reddick, Matt Joyce, and Jon Jay were the only outfielders to come off the board before the meetings began, there’s been a flurry of high-profile activity this week, as Matt Holliday, Carlos Gomez, and Ian Desmond have signed free-agent deals while Adam Eaton and Jorge Soler have changed teams via trade. There’s no telling whether the Cardinals were interested in any of those guys–Gomez, Desmond, and Eaton were the only ones that were connected to the Cardinals by insiders–but there’s no doubt that a run on outfielders has begun.
While there are numerous lower-echelon everyday outfielders remaining on the free agent market–Angel Pagan, Rajai Davis, Coco Crisp, and Austin Jackson, to name a few–the only big fish left in the free agent pond at this point are Dexter Fowler and Jose Bautista (plus Mark Trumbo, but there’s no point in talking about him since the Cardinals have been so adamant about making a defensive upgrade.)
With that in mind, plus vague rumors about Fowler not wanting to play for the Cardinals and the fact that Bautista is just about the least Cardinal-y player imaginable, might it make more sense for them to address their needs via the trade market? While Colorado Rockies outfielder Charlie Blackmon has been talked about as a possible trade target all offseason, the most credible suggestion yet that the Cardinals might be interested in him came Wednesday from FOX Sports and MLB Network’s Ken Rosenthal, who theorized that the Rockies might be willing to move Blackmon so that they could sign Trumbo to play first base and avoid having to move Desmond to that position:
Blackmon had a career year (a very, very good one) in 2016, hitting .324/.381/.552 and establishing career highs in doubles (35), homers (29), and runs batted in (82). While Blackmon has shifted back and forth as the years have gone by, either looking like a Coors Field special or a legitimately impactful hitter, 2016 was one of the years where he looked like the real deal, as he hit .313/.363/.563 with 17 homers on the road, compared to .335/.399/.540 with 12 homers at Coors.
While he’s playing in one of the toughest outfields in the majors for half his games, it’s pretty much a foregone conclusion at this point that Blackmon is a below-average center fielder. Since he became a full-time big-leaguer in 2014, he’s been one of the lowest-ranked center fielders in the league according to a variety of metrics: UZR (-20.0), defensive runs saved (-9), and FanGraphs defensive rating (-15.0), among others. Via FanGraphs’ “Outfield Arm Runs”, the number of runs an outfielder saves or costs his team with his throws, Blackmon has the worst arm of any qualifying center fielder over the past three seasons.
As an aside, Blackmon’s walk-up song might also be a major issue, depending on your music taste. Imagine having to hear this roughly 320 times without losing your mind:
While finances shouldn’t be a factor in this decision–the Cardinals freed up millions of dollars over the past couple months by declining Holliday’s 2017 option and trading Jaime Garcia–Blackmon would be a great value, as he’s got two seasons of arbitration remaining and made a very reasonable $3.5 million during 2016. It’s not the type of deal where the Cardinals should see that type of frugality as necessary to get by, but if saving money in the outfield motivated them to pursue less significant upgrades in other areas, such as adding a Brad Ziegler or Sergio Romo type to the bullpen or someone like Austin Jackson to be a fourth outfielder, then perhaps it’d be a solid trade-off.
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The biggest issue for the Cardinals would be parting with the necessary talent to acquire Blackmon. While Rockies hitters have historically brought lesser returns in trades, simply because of the Coors Field effect, one would have to think that Blackmon will still be pretty valuable since he’s a reigning Silver Slugger and former All-Star who is cost controlled for two more seasons.
The problem is that the Rockies don’t really have too many position player needs; their infield is perhaps the best in the league, especially if they sign Trumbo to play first, and even if they were to trade Blackmon, their outfield would still be stocked with David Dahl, Carlos Gonzalez, and Desmond as starters, plus prized prospect Raimel Tapia waiting in the wings.
Their only real needs are at catcher, where they’re currently relying on a rather pedestrian trio of Dustin Garneau, Tony Wolters, and Tom Murphy, and on the mound, where they’ve got plenty of young, intriguing talent but still could use further upgrades. Yahoo’s Jeff Passan tweeted Wednesday that Rockies are seeking a front-of-the-rotation starter via trade.
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The most obvious candidate for the Cardinals to move would be Carson Kelly, who’s currently viewed as Yadier Molina‘s heir apparent. It would be rough for the Cardinals to move a player who could be their long-term starting catcher as soon as 2018, especially for a player who’ll be a free agent in two more seasons, and it will surely take more than Kelly to acquire Blackmon, seeing as Kelly is roughly even with Murphy–the guy the Rockies already have–as a prospect.
The Rockies would probably at least ask about Alex Reyes, who GM John Mozeliak has already said he doesn’t want to trade this offseason. Reyes would certainly be the front-of-the-rotation arm that the Rockies are looking for, though at first glance, moving him would be an overpay just to acquire Blackmon. With that said, we saw the market change Wednesday as the Washington Nationals gave up Lucas Giolito (ranked as the top pitching prospect in baseball by MLB Pipeline), the 38th-ranked pitching prospect Reynaldo Lopez, and their most recent first-rounder, Dane Dunning, for White Sox outfielder Adam Eaton.
Much like Blackmon, Eaton had a career year in 2016, hitting 14 homers for the second straight season while posting a career-best 6.2 rWAR. While Blackmon’s 4.4 rWAR wasn’t as high as Eaton’s, a legitimate argument can be made that they’re very similar players.
Blackmon’s the undisputedly better baserunner, having stolen 101 bases over 605 games, compared to 54 steals in 521 contests. While Eaton had a fantastic season as the White Sox’s right fielder in 2016, he’s arguably as bad as Blackmon in center (the position the Nats acquired him to play), having posted a -15.7 FanGraphs defensive rating at that position since breaking into the league. Granted, Eaton is two-and-a-half years younger and is under club control for up to five more seasons, but the point is that it’d be surprising if the Rockies weren’t still able to get some major value back in return for Blackmon.
Assuming the Cardinals aren’t willing to part with Reyes–which they shouldn’t, seeing as he might be the ace of their rotation as soon as this summer and looked to be the future anchor of the pitching staff as a rookie–the Cardinals will likely have to part with multiple top pitching prospects if they want a chance at acquiring Blackmon. Assuming that the package it’d take to acquire Blackmon is anywhere close to the one the Nats gave up for Eaton, names to consider would include Luke Weaver, Jack Flaherty, Junior Fernandez, Sandy Alcantara, Dakota Hudson, and Jake Woodford.
With so many former first-rounders and big international signings among that group, it sounds like a devastating group of guys to potentially give up. But since the Cardinals have Reyes and Martinez under club control for a long while, still have to pay Mike Leake for four more seasons, and have 15 pitchers besides Reyes on their Top 30 prospects list (via MLB Pipeline), parting with a few pitching prospects probably wouldn’t be quite as harmful as it might seem at first glance.
For what it’s worth, Rosenthal also suggested the possibility that Carlos Gonzalez could be a candidate to be traded to the Cardinals on Wednesday evening’s MLB Tonight on MLB Network. Gonzalez might require a greater return than Blackmon, though he’s much more expensive (he’s owed $20 million in 2017) and is under club control for just one year, compared to Blackmon’s two. He’s long been thought to be the better offensive player, as he possesses a career .291/.347/.521 slash line and hit 40 home runs in 2015.
Gonzalez, though, has drastically different home/road splits, much like Blackmon but even more different, as he’s hit .323/.381/.602 at Coors Field and just .258/.312/.438 on the road. Considering the fact that he’ll be a one-year rental for 2017, maybe he’ll be a more ideal trade target than Blackmon.