Our second edition of the Mailbag begins with considering St. Louis as a trade partner.
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This week's Mailbag starts with a trade proposal:
Question: Players I think would fit with the Rays are first baseman Matt Carpenter and short stop Pete Kozma from the St. Louis Cardinals. Kozma would allow Ben Zobrist a return to super-sub, and Carpenter is good enough to take over for Carlos Pena at a cost savings. Any thoughts?
This question is our second mailbag involving a trade with St. Louis, and understandably so. The Cardinals have three young, talented, and salary-controlled options at first base in Allen Craig, Matt Adams, and Matt Carpenter. The Rays have none.
All three platers already have major league experience. Craig and Carpenter began the year on the 25-man roster and have shared playing time between first base and the outfield. Matt Adams broke the major league roster for only a short while early in 2012, but was demoted back to AAA due to the logjam at first base and poor performance.
St. Louis clearly meets the Rays needs, but is the feeling mutual?
The best way to approach this question is to first as if the Rays can meet St. Louis's holes on the roster.
St. Louis has needs in a fourth outfielder, a power-right handed bat off the bench, an alternative at short stop for the injured all-star Rafael Furcal, at least one opening in the pitching rotation, and a LOOGY. (Furcal could very well be available for next season, but he is still recovering from a Tommy-John-esque near-tear in his elbow and the Cardinals lack a viable replacement at short stop.)
The first two needs could be met internally by St. Louis with Oscar Tavares climbing the minor leagues, and a LOOGY can be found on the market, so the Rays' best opportunity for a trade is through an alternative at short stop and a quality starting pitcher - both positions that are hard to come by via free agency.
The Rays are certainly able to trade a starting pitcher, and Tampa Bay has no dearth of middle infielders on the roster, so upon first glance there is potential. Unfortunately, none of those infielders are much high than replacement level. If St. Louis feels Elliot Johnson, Reid Brignac, or Sean Rodriguez are worth more than Pete Kozma, a trade should be painless, but Tampa Bay could also have tradable depth in Tim Beckham - with Ben Zobrist able to fill the void at short stop until Hak-Ju Lee (AA) or Jake Hager (A) are ready for the majors.
The Rays would be happy to acquire middle infielder Pete Kozma to maintain their depth, but considering his .415 BABIP last season, his shiny .396 wOBA is probably an illusion. Bill James's projection for Kozma in 2013 is only a .274 wOBA, and given the number of replacement infielders already on Tampa Bay's roster, I'd rather see the Rays acquire prospects.
So, should the Rays pursue Matt Carpenter?
To answer this question, let's analyze the three Cardinal first base solutions, starting with a subject from our first mailbag: Matt Adams.
Adams was originally projected as the incumbent to Albert Pujols, but now his path is blocked by Allen Craig. He has a smooth lefty swing that has produced 50 dingers over the last two years in the high minors, but his over-aggressive nature has seen walk rates and batting average suffer. His 2012 campaign with St. Louis was cut short in June after poor performance, but he returned to form in the minors. Through 258 at bats in AAA, Adams hit .329/.362/.624 with 18 home runs and a 147 wRC+, but walking just 15 times with 57 strikeouts.
Recovering from surgery to remove a bone spur in his right elbow, Adams should be available for spring training. At 24, he is enough to provide the Cardinals with depth at first base, but is not seen as a long-term solution. His best opportunity for major league time will likely come through a trade.
The other two players are already experienced at the major league level.
Allen Craig is a utility infielder/outfielder that hits for power (.240 ISO in 2011) and has established himself at first base for the Cardinals, playing 773.2 innings at the position in 2012. He rose to the majors after Lance Berkman was injured in 2011, but sidelined himself by cracking his kneecap on the unpadded wall in Minute Maid Park. Craig bounced back and performed well for the Cardinals, converting from the third to first base. He shared time in the outfield to help St. Louis win their world series after Berkman's return.
Craig started the 2012 offseason with two screws to stabilize his knee, but he never missed any playing time. Returning to first base after Berkman's April calf strain, Craig was hitting for slightly less power, but increased his extra base hits and batted .307/.354/.522 through the regular season. Craig has no significant contact issues (only 6.9% whiff rate), and no splits to speak of, with a 125 wRC+ against RHP and 175 wRC+ against LHP. Scouting reports claim he has issues with the change-up, but that's pittance for a 28 year old player who could reach elite status in the near future.
Matt Carpenter is the left handed version of Allen Craig, but with less power and one year younger (and, therefore, with one more year on his contract). A utility infielder/outfielder, he played 44 games at first, 33 at third, and 22 in the outfield for St. Louis last season. Carpenter is hailed as the second coming of David Freese, but often seems to be the odd man out for the Cardinals.
Carpenter batted .294/.365/.463 in his age 26 season, posting a 131 wRC+ against RHP, 113 wRC+ against LHP, and only six homeruns. He has significant splits against southpaws, with a 4% walk rate and 22% strikeout rate in 2012, so he may function best in a platoon role. Carpenter should always hit for average, but for less power than is expected of a third baseman - let along a first base prospect.
So should the Rays pursue Matt Carpenter? Probably not.
While the slash-line, defensive flexibility, and salary control are attractive aspects of a player like Carpenter, the Rays should not settle for a third baseman with potentially-severe platoon splits to fill the void at first base. Unless the Cardinals were willing to accept a lower level starting pitcher like Jeff Niemann or Wade Davis in the trade, I don't see either side finding common ground.
The Rays could ask about Matt Adams, but the Cardinals are likely more inclined to hold on to their depth. To my knowledge, none of St. Louis's three first base prospects have been mentioned in trade rumors this off season. But fear not, there are many other young and controllable first base options on the market that could contribute immediately should the Rays instigate a trade (Tyler Moore, Ike Davis, etc). Rumors have already circled concerning Royals über-prospect Wil Myers, so the hot stove is still cooking, even if it's a slow burn.