The question with the Cardinals right now is one not about money but priority. With a gargantuan new local television deal set to kick in two seasons from now, the Cards have the financial muscle to sign at least one premium free agent this offseason, if they choose.
But what will they choose?
If pitching is the priority -- and in the wake of the Lance Lynn elbow surgery, you can certainly argue that it ought to be -- the Cardinals could make a serious play for David Price or Zack Greinke. They are attractive pitchers, no doubt. If a bat is bound to be the bigger expenditure -- and you can make an equally solid argument thatit ought to be -- the current line of thought is that the Cards will make every effort to retain Jason Heyward, an attractive hitter on his own.
Having said all of that, however, when you consider the current composition of the club, its recent trends and the depth of the free-agent pitching pool, one name makes more sense for the Cardinals than any other:
I get all the concerns about Davis, so let's lay them out:
1. He turns 30 in a few months. I don't know if Jack Weinberg had it right that we shouldn't trust anyone over 30, but trusting power hitters over 30 has proved precarious in many instances.
2. He strikes out nearly one-third of the time, which is, you know, a lot.
3. His 2014 season stunk on ice.
4. Are we absolutely certain he'll continue to get a therapeutic-use exemption for stimulant medicine? Because if he doesn't and ever gets caught using again, it's an 80-game suspension.
5. Though defensively sound enough to continue to handle his position now, he might be better suited toward the American League in the long run.
6. He's tied to Draft-pick compensation, whereas retaining Heyward wouldn't hurt the Cardinals in that regard.
All right, maybe the above is enough for many of the Cardinals fans reading this to be defiantly anti-Davis. Again, I get it. But hear me out. Because this is the kind of player the Cards need to continue to contend for the crown in an obviously dynamic National League Central, and opportunities to nab this kind of player aren't always in abundance.
Here are the reasons why Davis makes more sense than Heyward, Price and Greinke for the Cardinals:
1. Davis will cost less than Heyward.
Not that Davis will come come cheap, but, because of their disparate ages, the investment does not portend to be quite as outlandish.
Some people are touting Heyward as a $200 million player. Are his age and glove really worth that much? We don't exactly have ample evidence from the first six seasons of his career that Heyward has a major power surge ahead of him, and his defensive value could deteriorate rapidly with continued wear and tear. A premium defensive player in the middle infield is one thing. But to invest -- what? -- $25 million a year or thereabouts in a corner outfielder whose value is very much tied to his glove feels like a luxury item relative to the Cardinals' other needs.
2. First base is arguably a bigger need than corner outfield.
I say "arguably" because, really, none of us knows if we can assume the small-sample 2015 stat lines of Randal Grichuk and Stephen Piscotty are able to be extrapolated to full-season stat lines for 2016. But if they are, the Cardinals' outfield might just be fine -- especially if Tommy Pham can remain healthy enough to reliably serve as a fourth outfielder.
While I recognize that Matt Holliday is only under contract for another year and that the Cards could find themselves in the market for a corner-outfield bat a year from now if they don't retain Heyward, I'll repeat that there are very real questions about Heyward's long-term ability to provide corner-outfield-worthy production.
The Cardinals have options at first, don't get me wrong. They could sign Heyward and have Piscotty form some sort of platoon with Matt Adams and Brandon Moss. You might be able to achieve league-average production with that tandem. But right now, the Cards need better than league average, for reasons we'll get into in the next point.
3. The Cardinals don't pack a wallop.
This is a club with a sub-.400 slugging percentage iun each of the past two years and one that hasn't had a 30-homer hitter since 2012 (Carlos Beltran). Even with his drastic 2014 dip taken into account, Davis has averaged a .533 slugging percentage over the past four seasons. The Cardinals haven't had a player achieve a slugging percentage that high in a single season since 2011.
Though there are other power hitters at the top end of the free-agent market, the major defensive and consistency questions associated with Yoenis Cespedes and Justin Upton are cause for some worry (and, again, it's an open question whether the outfield ought to be the area of emphasis, anyway).
Davis is selective at the plate (his walk rate was the 13th-best in baseball this year), he has power to all fields, his isolated power mark since 2012 is second only to that of Giancarlo Stanton, he can produce against same-sided pitching and, based on true distance, all but two of his 47 home runs in 2015 would have cleared the wall at Busch Stadium -- a tough place to go deep. This is the most prolific power hitter in the game right now, and he'd look awfully nice in the middle of the lineup.
4. The pitching pool is deep.
If committing big money to a power hitter in his 30s is risky, committing similar or more money to a pitcher entering his post-prime years isn't much, if at all, easier to stomach. Thankfully, the current market affords the Cardinals a wealth of options to patch up their rotation beyond Adam Wainwright, with value to be found among the Mike Leakes, Scott Kazmirs and Yovani Gallardos of the world. The Cards have pieced together their starting five without one of those splashy free-agent aces in the past, and they might have to do so again if the Price or Greinke price tags don't prove to be palatable.
Frankly, if I'm general manager John Mozeliak, I'd rather pay for power.
5. The Draft-pick issue isn't much of an issue.
The Cardinals would lose the 30th overall pick in the 2016 Draft if they sign Davis. But they're going to gain at least one and possibly two compensation-round picks, depending on what happens with John Lackey and Heyward. So losing No. 30 overall is no biggie.
6. Hey… maybe the position thing isn't an issue, either.
Not that I would use this as a guiding principle in my free-agent forays or anything, but let's just throw this out there: The designated-hitter rule is likely to, at the very least, be a topic of discussion in the next round of collective bargaining after 2016. Who knows? Maybe the DH will come to the NL during the life of the Davis deal (that sound you hear is my email account being barraged with hate mail).
Anyway, the bottom line to all this is that the Cardinals are in a good position. They've got money to spend to augment a team built to win. If they prioritize Heyward in their considerations, that isn't a bad decision, by any means. But I just can't help but believe that Davis' big bat might be the better target.