On Monday I took a look at the Cardinals’ pending free agents and yesterday I looked at their pending salary arbitration cases. Today we’ll take a look at what I believe should be the Cardinals’ priorities this winter.
The Cardinals find themselves in a unique situation this winter. They have lots of quality players, but few star level players. Matt Carpenter might be the closest to a star player on offense that the Cardinals have, but he is not one. Which is why criticism of him is so strong. Carlos Martinez may be a star player in 2018 or 2019, but he was not in 2017. Nor were most pitchers at age 26 either.
But how do you talk about what a club has need for without feeling like you’re beating the proverbial deal horse once again?
Base running and fundamentals continue to hamper this team. The talent was there this season. The Cubs and Cardinals had the same record against the rest of the league. The Cubs’ made up their 9 game difference in the division in head-to-head play and seven of those losses to the Cubs came in one run games. The results indicate the teams were closely matched. A tweak or two could have put them over the top.
Bullpen management is another problem altogether, but the Cardinals seem to have a plan to address that with their new pitching coach. I am eager to see whether that changes anything or whether it was just more rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.
Unfortunately, given what the Cardinals stand to lose this winter on their pitching staff, they are not in position to simply need to build on what they have. The Cardinals have needs and they’re going to need to pursue them more aggressively than they have in John Mozeliak’s tenure as the chief decision maker in the front office. Otherwise, we’ll be looking at yet another season of regression.
Closer is really the primary need that the organization outlined this winter. With Trevor Rosenthal‘s injury, and what I expect to be a non-tender in December, the Cardinals need to replace that. Juan Nicasio was acquired in September and filled the role well, but he is also a free agent.
While the Cardinals don’t have a clear heir in house that they feel confident handing the role to or they would have last season when Rosenthal went down. Both John Brebbia and Sam Tuivailala turned in solid seasons last year and have closing experience, Brebbia in Independent League baseball and Tuivailala has been groomed as a closer in the minors. You’ve also got Tyler Lyons and Brett Cecil out there as well as setup guys. Mix in Matthew Bowman, Ryan Sherriff, Sandy Alcantara, and potentially Alex Reyes in the second half and you have a good base to a bullpen that really just needs the exclamation point to put on the end.
The Cardinals have indicated that they’ll pursue a free agent closer and it’s believed they are interested in Greg Holland who is expected to opt out of his contract with the Rockies. But Holland’s option could be worth as much as $21 million to stay in Colorado. I find it hard to believe that he would opt out, only to get less than he could likely get if he stayed one more year in Colorado before hitting free agency.
After that, the offense needs a boost. It’s really difficult to put your finger on where the Cardinals need to improve on offense next season. Yes, they need a run producer in the middle of their lineup, but the Cardinals got above average production from every fielding position except catcher and shortstop last season. And since June 6th when Paul DeJong made his first start at shortstop, it has been just catcher and it’s unlikely that Yadier Molina and his new $60 million contract are going anywhere.
That leaves plenty of options. Perhaps too many. How do the Cardinals turn a glut of slightly above average players into one or two well above average ones? Hopefully the club does not experience paralysis by analysis with all the different directions they could take.
The key here will be to look at who the club expects to be everyday players. In my opinion, Matt Carpenter, Dexter Fowler, Paul DeJong, Kolten Wong, and Yadier Molina are probably the only guys that you can lock in. That leaves two outfield spots and a corner infield spot to look for your update.
According to Derrick Goold, the Cardinals have long had interest in Josh Donaldson. They have also talked with Miami about their outfielders, but Marcell Ozuna will be sold high, Christian Yelich is essentially Stephen Piscotty, and the Marlins have indicated that Giancarlo Stanton may not waive his no-trade clause for St. Louis. That creates some issues.
On the plus side, the Cardinals have four positions they could upgrade at. The downside is that they need to trim the fat on their roster as well. That will be difficult for the front office to justify when they’ll likely have to sell off at a reduced return since everyone knows the Cardinals need to do it. That alone makes me reluctant to bet on the organization pulling the trigger.
The final need is starting pitching. With the Cardinals on the verge of letting Lance Lynn walk into free agency, I believe that starting pitching might be one of the most pressing situations for the team next season and it’s gotten very little coverage. John Mozeliak has expressed his desire to “go young” with the staff which likely means that Luke Weaver and Jack Flaherty being expected to break camp in the rotation with the big league club next season.
I don’t expect that Alex Reyes will be ready go until much closer to the summer, so I wouldn’t bet on him opening the season with St. Louis next year.
But who is your guy that will take the ball every five days? Flaherty and Weaver will both be rookies and on innings restrictions. Michael Wacha stayed healthy this season, but was on a controlled workload. If they increase that workload, how will his stress injury respond? Adam Wainwright still has some magic left in his arm, but his ability to stay healthy is a concern for me. And then Carlos Martinez started 32 games and threw over 200 innings for the first time in his career, so we need to see how he will respond.
The Cardinals could be planning to approach this as a situation where they start the season with Flaherty and Weaver and then mix in guys like Dakota Hudson, Austin Gomber, and even Alex Reyes later in the season to help stretch those guys. But if you intend to be a playoff team next season, you’re placing an awful lot of confidence in those guys to be able to step in and do the job without skipping a beat. Further, if you’re going to invest in a centerpiece bat for your lineup, you owe it to that same lineup to make sure your rotation can put them in position to win games.
There are guys the Cardinals could sign to fill innings, but that’s how you get a guy like Mike Leake. It’s one of the reasons why I support bringing Lynn back so heavily. But perhaps they piggy-back a rental starter like a J.A. Happ into a potential deal with Toronto or go trade some of their lower level talent for a guy like Jake Odorizzi from the Rays who are set to have a record high in payroll next season unless they make some changes.
There’s options here, but I don’t see a team entering 2018 with those five guys penciled into the rotation as a playoff team.