Column: Answers to tough questions will define Cardinals’ path

The 2016 season is finally complete and many Cardinals fans, myself included, breathed a sigh of relief. As I admitted to my wife almost a week ago, I was okay with the Cardinals missing the playoffs this season because I was tired of hoping. Tired of hoping that this team would find the next gear. Tired of hoping that they would click. Tired of hoping that things would finally fall their way. Tired of hoping they’d flip the switch.

I think Derrick Goold put it best in his article yesterday, “The Cardinals did everything within their power Sunday to push the season one day closer to their expected destination, but all they could do was watch as things they didn’t do all season caught up to them.”

The team that was going to do what it needed to do when it needed to do it and not a moment before waited a moment too long. Visions of Kolten Wong leading off the 9th inning with triple on September 28th and the Cardinals being unable to bring him home danced in my head. But the problems were much larger than one missed opportunity. There were a season’s worth of missed opportunities. And they all added up.

I believe it was during June’s UCB Radio Podcast, that Kevin asked me how many games I thought the Cardinals had given away by defensive mistakes or plays not made. My answer was that it was easily five, but I argued you could make the case it was ten or more.

By the end of the season, just one of those missing wins was the difference between preparing for a playoff game and clearing out your locker.

Usually it takes me a week or more after the end of a baseball season to come back and want to think about baseball in any meaningful sense. I call it my greiving period. But this year, I haven’t had that. Perhaps because I’d already greived. I’d already emotionally distanced myself from this season so the failure doesn’t hurt. I’m already on to how the team can win 2017.

For this team to do that, John Mozeliak will have work to do this winter and many tough decisions to make.

He’s already made one, revealing earlier this week that the Cardinals will likely not pick up Matt Holliday‘s option for 2017.

Holliday made three appearances this weekend in his final home series as a Cardinal as he returned from a broken finger. He got the first pinch hit home run of his career on Friday night before following it up with a pinch hit RBI single on Saturday night. The first two pinch hit RBIs of his career. His last one, a brief appearance in left field to give Sunday’s crowd the opportunity to give him one last salute of thanks for the seven and a half years he spent with the organization.

But there are more tough decisions to be made.

When thinking about whether Mozeliak can make them, I realized that this winter is very similar to his first offseason as the Cardinals’ General Manager.

After winning the World Series in 2006, the 2007 Cardinals struggled due to injuries and underperforming veteran players. After winning 100 games in 2015, the 2016 Cardinals struggled due to injuries and underperforming veteran players.

The Cardinals parted ways with Walt Jocketty after the 2007 season and promoted John Mozeliak. Effectively, Mozeliak’s first two moves as GM were to trade Jim Edmonds and Scott Rolen, two centerpieces of the franchise’s core. Part of the illustrious “MV3” of the mid-2000s for the Cardinals. Gone, but they were moves that needed to happen.

They way I see it, his biggest task this winter will be to uncomplicate the roster and finding a better fit for it. I catch some crap for the view that I believe this team is the most talented roster, top to bottom, that Mozeliak has ever given Mike Matheny. But for whatever reason, it just didn’t fit together. Something was missing. Like when you build that piece of furniture and a crucial piece of hardware is missing to keep it from working right.

Because of that, I don’t see many needs for Mozeliak to handle, but there are many tough decisions that need answers.

Uncomplicate the Roster. As I touched on before. There are tough questions that need answering and the roster needs to be decluttered.

Do you pick up Holliday’s option? Do you bring back Brandon Moss? Do you offer arbitration to Matt Adams? What do you do about Jhonny Peralta? Do you pick up Jaime Garcia‘s option? What do you do about Michael Wacha‘s recurring stress injury? Where does Lance Lynn fit into the 2017 Cardinals?

My answer to these questions, as we’ll find out later, is to basically “burn all the things.”

The 2016 Cardinals had plenty of positional flexibility, which gave Matheny the opportunity to play a lot of matchups and try to ride hot hands. But I think the Cardinals had the wrong kind of positional flexibility. Just because a player can play somewhere, doesn’t necessarily mean that they should. The Cardinals had flexibility because so many players didn’t have that perfect fit.

One of the benefits to decluttering the roster is that it will once again provide the potential for opportunities for young players. The Cardinals had a gap in the system, but next year Harrison Bader and Paul DeJong will likely head to Memphis for the season and should soon be knocking on the door. Mozeliak has always been interested in creating opportunities for young players and a veteran deep roster, like the Cardinals had this year, doesn’t do the job.

Improve the Defense. I think much of this solves itself, actually, but there is some more that can be done to ensure that it does.

Aledmys Diaz needs to continue to improve at shortstop. His glovework predictably improved as the season wore on and he got more comfortable in the field. This winter he needs to keep working on being patient, improving his footwork, and making good throws. He’s never going to be the rangy shortstop I want, but he can be a solid defender.

Kolten Wong hit .251/.341/.401 after being called back up from his stint at Memphis. He is the team’s best defensive option at second base, by far. In 2016, he duplicated his +5 defensive runs saved performance from 2015, but he did it in half the innings. If he has learned to just settle in, there’s no reason that Wong shouldn’t be capable of handling 80% of the workload at second base next year.

Matt Carpenter needs to permanently move to first base. He’s played it well when he’s been put there, and his passable defensive abilities at second and third make him a good first defensive first baseman. It also puts him at a less taxing position as well as less likely to be injured in the field due to collisions. For the team’s best hitter, he needs that protection.

That leaves third base as the question mark. Jhonny Peralta played a lot of third base down the stretch last year and Jedd Gyorko put up a good defensive season at third last year. But expecting Gyorko to duplicate his 2016 defensive success would be like asking Peralta to duplicate his 2014 success at shortstop. It won’t happen. I think this is where you need to improve by acquiring a third baseman who can make up for Diaz’s lack of range.

Fill Left Field. Matt Holliday’s departure opens the door for a starting player. The path of least resistance puts Carpenter or Peralta out here, but I’m sure that I’m not the only one hoping for more.

Letting Holliday go, one of the team’s core members, should open the door to only one answer for the organization: A serious pursuit of a new core member of the Cardinals’ future. A caliber of young player that the Cardinals have lacked since Oscar Taveras passed away.

Mozeliak is not a GM who makes moves without careful planning, so it’s safe to assume that he knows what he’s going to do in left field next season. He’s just waiting for the time to make it happen.

* * *

So those are the three, as Mozeliak likes to say, checkboxes that the Cardinals need to check off this winter.

You may notice the absence from my list of anything regardingthe starting rotation. This is mainly because I feel like it will be addressed by answering the tough questions. The futures of Garcia, Wacha, and Lynn need to be answered and those answers determine what will happen for a guy like Alex Reyes, who easily proved he belonged in the big leagues (even if I continue to doubt him).

Further, I think that Adam Wainwright will be better with another offseason between himself and Achilles surgery. He talked earlier in the year about lacking leg strength in the injured leg, and that’s not something you can rebuild overnight or in the course of a couple months.

I also believe that if you improve the defense behind Mike Leake, you’ll get a better Mike Leake. His peripherals reflect those a player who should have been having a career year, but the defense failing to make plays behind him cost him.