Chris Coghlan is Probably the Most Ideal Free Agent Option Remaining for the Cardinals

Oct 25, 2016; Cleveland, OH, USA; Chicago Cubs player Chris Coghlan (8) reacts after striking out against the Cleveland Indians in the fifth inning in game one of the 2016 World Series at Progressive Field. Mandatory Credit: David Richard-USA TODAY Sports
Oct 25, 2016; Cleveland, OH, USA; Chicago Cubs player Chris Coghlan (8) reacts after striking out against the Cleveland Indians in the fifth inning in game one of the 2016 World Series at Progressive Field. Mandatory Credit: David Richard-USA TODAY Sports /

With so many free agent outfielders having come off the market at this stage, Chris Coghlan is probably the best fit remaining if the St. Louis Cardinals want to boost their bench.

Chris Coghlan is by no means a perfect player. In fact, it might even be a stretch to call the 31-year-old utility player “good.” Coghlan, who broke into the majors back in 2009 and won the NL Rookie of the Year, has posted an OPS under .700 in four of his eight major-league seasons, including a disastrous .394 clip in 2012.

He was a passable center fielder in the early 2010s, but he hasn’t played that position since 2013. While he’s expanded his versatility while playing under Joe Maddon in recent years–he played more than 100 innings each at second base, third base, left field, and right field in 2016–he rates as below average defensively at all of those positions except left field.

With that said, Coghlan may be the best player remaining on the free agent market to fill a need that the St. Louis Cardinals deliberately created earlier this offseason and have yet to fill.

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The Cardinals shed a large chunk of their lefthanded-hitting outfield depth earlier this offseason, waiving Jeremy Hazelbaker (who was claimed by the Arizona Diamondbacks on November 4) and making no effort, at least that we know of, to bring back free agent Brandon Moss. They’d already depleted their depth in that area at the trade deadline by dealing center fielder Charles Tilson, who was on the verge of being big-league ready, to the Chicago White Sox in exchange for Zach Duke.

With Hazelbaker, Moss, and Matt Holliday gone, the Cardinals don’t have much outfield depth at all beyond their starting trio of Randal Grichuk, Dexter Fowler, and Stephen Piscotty. Tommy Pham, who once again flashed impressive on-base and power-hitting skills but was maddeningly inconsistent as a contact hitter and a fielder, is slated to be the team’s fourth outfielder.

28-year-old Jose Martinez is next on the depth chart, and while he posted a 1.000 OPS in 18 big-league plate appearances near the end of 2016, he’s viewed as a relatively low-ceiling player and is likely limited to the outfield corners at the big-league level. Things get really scary after that, as the candidates to be the next man up include Harrison Bader (.652 OPS in 161 Triple-A plate appearances), Anthony García (.690 OPS in 247 Triple-A PAs), Todd Cunningham (.520 OPS in 130 career MLB PAs), and Jordan Schafer, who became a pitcher last year but is keeping fresh in the outfield in hopes of filling a Swiss Army knife type of role.

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Cardinals GM John Mozeliak said last weekend at the Cardinals’ annual Winter Warm Up that the Cardinals would like to add a lefthanded-hitting outfielder (preferably on a minor-league deal) prior to the start of spring training. That’s somewhat of an interesting admission considering that the Cardinals passed on the opportunity to trade for Jarrod Dyson while he was being dangled by the Kansas City Royals–he was ultimately dealt to the Seattle Mariners for Nathan Karns–and also have sat back and watched as lefty-hitting outfielders like Oswaldo Arcia, Gregor Blanco, and Ben Revere have signed inexpensive deals with other clubs.

At this stage, there are only a few lefthanded-hitting outfielders with big-league experience left on the market. Via MLB Trade Rumors’ free agent tracker, the following players who fit the description are still available: Coghlan, Moss, Alejandro De Aza, Michael Bourn, Nick Buss, Coco Crisp, Sam Fuld, Kelly Johnson, David Lough, and Ángel Pagán.

Bourn, Crisp, Fuld, Johnson, and Pagán are all 34 years old or older, so it’d be odd to see the Cardinals pursue any of them considering their preference for younger players in recent years. Seeing as Fuld has been linked to the Cardinals on a few occasions in recent weeks, he’s probably the most likely of that group to end up with the organization, but there are two major complications to his case: he’ll be coming off rotator cuff surgery that wiped out his entire 2016 season, and he’s chosen to play for Team Israel in the World Baseball Classic, which will cut down on his chances to prove himself during spring training. That’d be alright if Fuld was a player that the Cardinals could reasonably guarantee a roster spot to, but since he’s 35 years old, hasn’t played in over a year, and is coming off an injury, it’d seem foolish to prevent potentially superior players like Pham and Martinez from having realistic chances to make the team by guaranteeing Fuld a job.

That brings us all back to Coghlan. He’s one of the few players on the above list who has the ability to provide depth in the infield in addition to the outfield, he’s had rather significant success in the not-too-distant past (.250/.341/.443 line with 16 homers for the Cubs in 2015, .283/.352/.452 line with nine homers for Chicago the year before), and since he’s still in his prime at age 31, he’d probably be one of the few players among those available who’d actually be motivated by accepting a minor-league deal and proving his worth during the spring.

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports /

While he’s probably not a viable option in center field, that shouldn’t be too much of a problem for the Cardinals, who could use Grichuk, Piscotty, Pham, or even Kolten Wong in center if Fowler goes down with an injury. He provides strong defense in left field, and if the Cardinals plugged him in at that position and adjusted accordingly on the days that he played, they likely wouldn’t experience much of a defensive drop-off with him in the lineup.

Many major-league front offices have written off the impact of veteran leadership and clubhouse presence in recent years, but that may be the greatest quality that Coghlan has to provide. He’s an experienced winner, having participated in their World Series win last season after helping them to the NLCS in 2015. He was apparently so valuable to that organization that they went out and reacquired him last June after having dealt him to the Oakland A’s during spring training.

It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking this Cardinals club is filled with proven winners who have done it all before, but in reality, there are only 11 remaining players that played on the 2013 Cardinals club that advanced to the World Series. If the Cards can find a World Series-tested player like Coghlan that’s still in the prime of his career, rather than one such as Crisp, Johnson, or Pagán who has firmly entered his twilight stage, it’s all the better.

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The Cardinals certainly could have done better than Coghlan this offseason–Dyson or Blanco definitely would have been preferable–but if they’re dead set on adding another lefty-hitting outfielder to boost their depth, Coghlan is probably their best bet.