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Saturday 16th Dec 2017

Given my day job is covering the St. Louis Cardinals system, I understand why all eyes around the table at any fantasy draft fall on me when a Cardinals player is nominated. Especially in National League Tout Wars, my peers are conditioned to expect my actions could signal that I possess some “insider” information.

Bid aggressively, and I am high on the player. No bidding at all may mean something is up.

In reality, I have found that over time, I had been more negative than not about Cardinals players, focusing more on their weaknesses than strengths. As a result, I have missed out on some nice bargains over the years.

I resolved for 2016 to be more aggressive about those whom I know best. I just wish it was working out better.

I came into the second free agent period this past weekend with six holes in my NL LABR lineup. They occurred due to a combination of injuries (Aaron Altherr, Ender Inciarte, Tyson Ross, which put $47 of my draft-day spend on the DL), minor leaguers drafted to stash for later (Lucas Giolito and Dansby Swanson) and unexpected demotions to the minors (Andrew Susac).

Due to my missed first week of free agent bidding in NL LABR, the subject of this column last week, I felt like I had really missed out on important opportunities. This week, I was especially motivated to take action to recoup my time lost to inaction. Of course, it all depends on which free agents are available.

As fate would have it, I needed a middle infielder and outfielder most of all and the two top free agents this week are both Cardinals – Aledmys Diaz and NL batting leader Jeremy Hazelbaker. I really like their opportunities for the remainder of this season, especially after they ignited a Cardinals offense that had been flat in the club’s opening 0-3 series in Pittsburgh.

In LABR, it appeared I won both players after bidding $6 and $11 on the two Cardinals, respectively. However, due to snafus with the waiver process this week, my Hazelbaker bid was ultimately trumped by an $18 offer from Steve Moyer of Inside Edge.

After watching St. Louis’ home opener on Monday afternoon, I felt even worse about losing out. In the game, in which Hazelbaker started in left field, the 28-year-old went 4-for-4, including a triple, raising his batting average to .526 on the young season.

Of course, Moyer will not receive the benefit of Hazelbaker’s initial hot streak preceding Monday and certainly, the rookie will cool off. Yet, it does not seem to be a coincidence that I most often come in second place in my FAAB bidding. But that is a topic for another day.

With his recent success, Hazelbaker’s story is being repeated often, so I will just share the basics. The one-time Red Sox draftee was languishing in the Dodgers’ system and one month into the 2015 season, he was released. The Cardinals were the only organization who called - with a need for a Double-A outfielder.

Hazelbaker tore up the 2015 Texas League with a .900 OPS and raised that to 1.000 after his promotion to the Pacific Coast League, despite only touching .800 in his minor league past. Again a free agent last fall, he returned to the Cardinals for 2016 in gratitude for the confidence they showed in him in 2015.

Despite a strong spring, Hazelbaker was destined to return to Triple-A until the last possible moment – when shortstop Ruben Tejada was injured in the final Grapefruit League contest - and he bought more time in the bigs when oft-injured Tommy Pham was hurt during the second inning on Opening Day.

Speaking of openings, an opportunity for regular playing time on an extended basis may have presented itself for Hazelbaker, in part due to Matt Holliday’s winter experiment to learn how to play first base. Every day Holliday is used at first opens up left field for Hazelbaker. The real losers in this scenario could be Matt Adams and Brandon Moss.

Though Hazelbaker has made a few starts in center ahead of Randal Grichuk, it was due to the latter’s poor regular season start after a solid spring. I do not expect Hazelbaker to knock Grichuk out of his starting role. Same with Stephen Piscotty in right.

The stories of Diaz, a 25-year-old Cuban, and regular St. Louis shortstop Jhonny Peralta have been intertwined from the time they joined the organization – each as a free agent prior to the 2014 season. Though both secured four-year Major League contracts, the unproven Diaz began his career at Double-A.

The organization’s hope at the time was that after a year or two, Diaz would emerge as Peralta’s replacement in St. Louis, freeing the aging, mid-30’s version of Peralta to move to third base or left field or become a super-sub.

As it has turned out, Peralta’s offense as a Cardinal has been as good or better than expected. In fact, he led the 2015 club in home runs and RBI at the break and was named an NL All-Star. His defense, never his strong suit, has remained steady, dulling any expected need to move him off the position.

From his side of the equation, Diaz did nothing to push his way into the MLB picture for most of his first two professional seasons. The first year was ruined by a sore shoulder, perhaps aggravated by his pre-signing workouts after mostly being out of action for several years after leaving Cuba.

Last July, after languishing for most of two seasons in the Cardinals system, Diaz was outrighted – taken off the Cardinals’ 40-man roster. Whether it was motivation or sheer coincidence, shortly after, Diaz caught fire at Double-A Springfield, which continued with Triple-A Memphis and extended into the Arizona Fall League.

When Peralta was injured very early in camp this spring and expected to miss the first half, Diaz was thought to have a chance to fill in. Yet with his checkered history and just 17 games of experience at Triple-A, the Cardinals were more comfortable with a veteran - hence they signed Tejada, who had been released by the Mets a few days prior.

Matters changed quickly with the aforementioned injuries to Tejada and Pham, which led the Cards to revisit Diaz. He made his MLB debut just a few days after Hazelbaker, and like the outfielder, Diaz hit immediately. Unlike the Cardinals’ other primary option at the position, Jedd Gyorko, Diaz is a natural shortstop, though his defense has been a bit shaky early on.

Diaz has just a few more days to show he can be an everyday player - until Tejada is ready. As long as Diaz continues to perform, I think the Cards would start him over Tejada. In other words, Diaz is in the driver’s seat to earn starters’ at-bats until at least the All-Star break. Down the road, Peralta’s thumb injury could affect his power upon his return, creating more uncertainly from which Diaz could continue to benefit.

In closing, Tout Wars bidding this past weekend offers an interesting comparison to the prices in LABR. While I wanted both Hazelbaker and Diaz in both leagues, my needs were more pronounced in LABR. In other words, my bids were less in Tout and as a result, I lost out on both free agents there. The outfielder fetched $177 (on a basis of $1000) and the shortstop was acquired for $143 by others.

In the big picture, Hazelbaker’s price was almost the same in the two leagues, but Diaz went for more than double in Tout in comparable dollars ($14.3 vs. $6 on a basis of $100).

In both industry leagues, owners are showing they are not afraid to spend early. Hoarding FAAB in hopes of mid-season standouts changing leagues is becoming a less and less prevalent strategy.

These two acquisitions could offer their new owners almost a full season of production as a result, so if this pair of new Redbirds are still available, take a hard look at them - and if you want them, bid aggressively.

Brian Walton was the 2009 National League Tout Wars champion, scoring the most points in the league’s 17-year history. He also holds the all-time NL Tout single-season records for wins and saves. His work can also be found daily at TheCardinalNation.com and thecardinalnationblog.com. Follow Brian on Twitter.

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