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Yu's a Cub, so Cards must make a splash

Closer Holland and third baseman Moustakas would both fill voids in St. Louis
MLB.com @RichardJustice

In an offseason of extraordinary fiscal discipline by teams, the Chicago Cubs just gave us a moment to celebrate. If they hoist another World Series trophy next fall, who is going to remember the details of Yu Darvish's contract?

There's a message in there for every other team, especially the St. Louis Cardinals, who have finished behind the Cubs in the National League Central in back-to-back seasons.

In an offseason of extraordinary fiscal discipline by teams, the Chicago Cubs just gave us a moment to celebrate. If they hoist another World Series trophy next fall, who is going to remember the details of Yu Darvish's contract?

There's a message in there for every other team, especially the St. Louis Cardinals, who have finished behind the Cubs in the National League Central in back-to-back seasons.

Now, it's their turn to respond. Lucky for the Cardinals, there's a smorgasbord of available free agents who could help them close the gap on the Cubs.

Video: Justice on how Cards can keep pace in NL Central

One is closer Greg Holland, who recorded 41 saves for the Rockies last season and would bring a sense of certainty to the back end of a bullpen that hasn't had enough in recent years.

Since 2013, Holland has averaged 12 strikeouts per nine innings and just an eyelash more than a baserunner per inning. He apparently turned down a three-year offer from the Rockies, who then signed Wade Davis.

Yes, Holland is 32, and two years removed from Tommy John surgery. On the other hand, there are no sure things in personnel. If a team waits for the perfect fit in free agency, it's going to spend a lot of time finishing second. Right now, Luke Gregerson is penciled in as St. Louis' closer, and while he's a formidable reliever, he does not instill fear in opponents. Young flamethrower Alex Reyes could wind up in that role, but he's recovering from Tommy John surgery and is no sure thing.

Video: Outlook: Holland can build on a great bounceback 2017

And then there's third baseman Mike Moustakas. He, too, would make the Cardinals better. His free agency has been perhaps the most puzzling of all. While Eric Hosmer and J.D. Martinez, both unsigned, have received offers north of $100 million, it's unclear what is out there for Moustakas.

That is a mistake. He hit 38 home runs for the Royals last season and is an above-average defender at third. In the last three seasons, his .834 OPS as a third baseman is the eighth-highest in the Major Leagues. As a handy reference point, Manny Machado is right above him at .835.

Beyond the numbers is the makeup. The Royals say Moustakas is as conscientious as any player they've ever had, and that he's both a good teammate and a good man. He's also 29 years old and surely has another three, four or five really good years left in him. To add him to the middle of the St. Louis lineup would go a long way toward gaining ground on the Cubs.

Right now, the Cardinals' third base situation is uncertain. Jedd Gyorko will likely get most of the reps there, but he's more valuable in a utility role. Matt Carpenter is capable of playing third, but the club would prefer him at first, splitting time with Jose Martinez in a modified platoon, while also getting some reps at second and third. Depth is extremely important in the modern game, and Moustakas would provide the Cardinals with plenty, while allowing Gyorko to return to the role where he is most valuable.

To repeat: There are no guarantees in free agency. Players do get hurt. Players do get older. But in one of the country's best and most passionate baseball cities, the signing -- or signings -- would send a message that the Cardinals are all-in for 2018.

Ben Zobrist was 34 years old when he signed a four-year, $56 million deal with the Cubs prior to the 2016 season. To some, that deal seemed like a stretch. Surely, the Cubs would end up with a non-productive 38-year-old in the final year of that contract.

That may be the case. But what Cubs fans are going to remember is that Zobrist was the World Series Most Valuable Player in '16 and that he was huge in delivering a celebration Chicagoans will remember for the rest of their lives.

In that way, left-hander Jon Lester was an uncomfortable signing for the Cubs. He turned 31 shortly after signing a six-year, $155 million contract prior to the 2015 season. He did regress some last season, but in the championship run, the Cubs won six of his seven postseason starts.

This is what free agency is all about. It's not for building the core of a championship team. That must be done internally. Instead, it's for adding those final building blocks. These moves -- as uncomfortable as they might be -- can be difference-makers in October.

The Cubs gave Darvish a six-year, $126 million contract that will run through his 37th birthday. But the Cubs may look at it another way. At $21 million a year, Darvish is a relative bargain in baseball's financial ecosystem.

If, say, it's viewed as a four-year deal -- through Darvish's 35th birthday -- it would be worth $31.5 million per season, which is more in line with the average annual salaries of baseball's top pitchers.

And even that doesn't matter. The Cubs believe they have a window to contend for more championships, and are willing to go outside their comfort level to do it.

On Aug. 31 last summer, Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow telephoned team owner Jim Crane with some bad news. He told him he had been unable to finish a trade with the Tigers for Justin Verlander because, in his words, "I can't get the money right."

To trade for Verlander, the Astros would have to assume $40 million of the remaining $56 million on his contract. At the time, the Astros were playing their worst baseball of the season and did not look like a club capable of winning a championship.

Crane could not pass up the opportunity.

"Make the deal, Jeff," Crane told him, "and I'll worry about the money."

Seven weeks later, the Astros won the first World Series in their 56-year history.

"Was it worth?" Crane asked that night. "Yeah, I think you could say it was worth it."

Richard Justice has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2011. Read his columns and follow him on Twitter at @RichardJustice.

St. Louis Cardinals