Column: So you want a cleanup hitting first baseman…

It’s been hard to miss that the hot topic since the Cardinals inked the deal for outfielder Dexter Fowler is that they may wade into the waters for Edwin Encarnacion or Mark Trumbo if their asking price continues to fall. The reasoning is obvious, adding another big bat to the Cardinals lineup and one that is proven at producing runs. Both get the title as “100 RBI” guys.

But as I tweeted this weekend, I hate the moniker of “100 RBI” guys. RBI are a function of team performance. For example, Encarnacion led the American League with 127 RBI last year, but if he had batted third for the Cardinals instead of the Blue Jays, he would have likely missed out on 100 RBI due to the lack of opportunities.

Encarnacion had 490 runners on base when he took an at bat last season. Meanwhile Matt Carpenter drove in runs at the same rate as Encarnacion, but had just 271 base runners on base when he came to the plate. Yet another reason why moving Carpenter down the lineup is so important for the Cardinals.

But not only that, the Cardinals actually had four players who could have been 100 RBI guys given the same number of base runners that Encarnacion had. Those are Carpenter, Stephen Piscotty, Aledmys Diaz, and none other than Matt Adams.

This column began as an analysis of the projectability of Encarnacion and Trumbo outside of their hitter friendly ballparks. Instead, the more I dig into it, the more I come to one inescapable conclusion. The Cardinals already have their cleanup hitting first baseman. His name is Matt Adams.

If you haven’t yet closed out the tab in your browser yet, I can’t believe those words are coming out of my brain onto my keyboard and into this article either. A year and a half ago at the trade deadline I wrote that the team should find another starting first baseman and dump Adams at the first chance they got. Last winter I called for him to be non-tendered. Last April I suggested he should be the guy to go when Jhonny Peralta came off the disabled list.

But here we are. Last week suggesting it’s time to schedule Yadier Molina’s exit and now suggesting Adams should be the team’s first baseman next year, I’m certainly picking the popular topics.

Through the minor leagues, Adams’ numbers fit the stereotypical cleanup hitter. He hit for average and he hit for power. I remember figuring that the power would probably carry into the Majors, the question would be how much he could hit.

In 2011, Adams won the Texas League Player of the Year Award after hitting .300/.357/.566 with 32 home runs. The previous year he’d hit .310/.355/.541 with 22 home runs and 41 doubles for Quad Cities. He was rewarded before the 2012 season by being named Baseball Prospectus’ #69 prospect on their annual top-100.

Adams would go on to hit .340/.375/.603 with 9 home runs in 37 games for Memphis before getting called up for his first taste of the big leagues in May 2012.

In 2013, Adams stuck with the big league club, spending all but about two weeks with the team. He would put his name on the map by hitting .315 with 8 home runs after taking over the everyday first base job following the injury to Allen Craig in early September. Perhaps setting the bar too high for him to follow up.

He put together a quietly solid 2014 season, his first as the team’s regular first baseman, hitting .288/.321/.457 with 15 home runs over 142 games for a 116 OPS+. A hot start in 2015 would give way to a rough May before a quad injury would rob him of the next three months.

His .249/.309/.471 slash line last season wasn’t much to write home about, but it was perhaps the most intriguing season Adams has had for the Cardinals since the September back in 2013.

There was a point in May where Adams was one of the Cardinals’ most productive hitters, leading the team in RBI.

He has proven himself as a slightly above average defensive first baseman that belies his size.

And Adams slayed left handed pitching last season. He came into the year having hit .197 and slugged .317 against left handed pitching in his career. He hit .283 against left handed pitchers and slugged .522 against them.

For Adams, it’s really that ability — or inability, as it may be — to hit left handed pitching that’s been the question mark for him. If he couldn’t hit left handed pitching, he was no better than a platoon player. If he could hit both ways, well, then we’re talking about a very good cleanup hitter.

As I’ve mentioned several times on The UCB Podcast over the past few years, I love Freddie Freeman as a comp for Adams. Both first basemen. Both left handed. Both had time on the Top-100 prospect lists. Both profiled as middle of the lineup bats in the minors. Both could hit both ways in the minors.

When you dig into Freeman’s early Major League stats, you see that it took him a couple seasons — roughly 400 at bats — before he became a consistent threat against both right and left handed pitching. And once he figured that out, he went from a 114 OPS+ player to a guy who has averaged 145 OPS+ and finished in the top-6 in MVP voting twice in the four years since.

The difference for Freeman was that he got to play every day. Atlanta gave him a chance to develop his approach at the plate against both left handed and right handed pitchers. Adams has not been given the same opportunity. Freeman had 414 at bats against left handed pitching in his first two seasons in the Majors. Adams has had just 264 in his career, and he’s been in the Majors for the better parts of four seasons now. Whether we realized it or not, Mike Matheny has basically had him in a platoon situation.

It’s because of the lack of sustained opportunities, that Adams hasn’t had the ability to develop his approach against left handed pitchers in the Majors. Regardless of what Matheny will say about there being no time for development in the Majors, the only place Adams can develop that approach against Major League caliber left handed pitchers is in the Majors.

It’s not just his potential that makes him the right guy to be the Cardinals’ regular first baseman, he does two things the Cardinals need to do better next year: play defense and drive in runs.

The Cardinals were 8th last season in at bats with runners on base, but were just 22nd in batting average with men on. Adams was tied for the second highest RBI rate on the team last season, driving in 17.1% of base runners when he came to the plate. Only Carpenter’s 17.3% was better.

Starting Adams and sliding Carpenter back over to third takes Jedd Gyorko (11.2%) and Jhonny Peralta (10.8%) out of the lineup. Already that’s a 6% improvement in driving in runs.

Adams is a solid defensive first baseman. He may not win any gold gloves, but he gets the job done. In his only full season at first base, he had +8 defensive runs saved. His UZR has been positive in each of the last three seasons.

Meanwhile over at third base, neither Peralta nor Gyorko are known for their exemplary defense. Peralta wasn’t a good third baseman seven years ago when he played the position every day, why is he going to be now at 34? Gyorko had a good season last year defensively, but has not historically been a good defender. Part of me believes that we will look back on his 2016 as we do Peralta’s 2014 season.

Carpenter isn’t going to win any gold gloves at third base either, but he is a competent third baseman. And he will benefit from playing the same position, wherever that ends up being. His worst defensive seasons are those where he’s played multiple positions. When he’s been given one position to play, he’s been fairly neutral and that’s better than the other options on the roster.

Encarnacion wants $20 million a year at age 34 for a guy who hasn’t played more than a half season in the field since 2010. He hit a ton of home runs in a hitter friendly ballpark. For those dollars, the risk and the questions are too great. And on Trumbo, I think that he might have a little more pop, but ultimately won’t give you the value over Adams that you want.

Much like Jon Jay before him, Adams may never be the player the fans expect him to be, but he can still be a very valuable player for this team.

Column: It’s time for the Cardinals to lay out the Molina succession plan

It was during the 2002 World Series that I first heard anything about Yadier Molina. His older brothers Bengie and Jose were catchers for the Anaheim Angels during the series. During the game, FOX broadcasters Joe Buck and Tim McCarver were talking about the Molina brothers who were all catchers and how Bengie and Jose would say, “You think we’re good? Wait until you see our brother.”

At the time, Yadier was just a 19 year old kid who had wrapped up his second season of professional baseball in the Cardinals’ organization. He’d been drafted a year before in the fourth round by the Cardinals and they were definitely onboard with the hype.

The Major League roster and Yadier’s advancement merged perfectly, perhaps exactly to plan, as their incumbent catcher Mike Matheny was a pending free agent. Matheny, a two-time and defending gold glove winner at that point, was widely regarded as one of the best defensive catchers in baseball. But the organization’s plan was clear to anyone with eyes.

Matheny would mentor the youngest Molina for a season before he left in free agency and Molina became the starter in 2005. Matheny would win his third Gold Glove Award in 2004. He would head to San Francisco in free agency and win his fourth Gold Glove Award in 2005, making it his third in a row.

But on the Cardinals, Yadier Molina began to emerge as one of the greatest catchers of his generation, if not Major League Baseball history. A four-time Platinum Glove Award winner, eight-time Gold Glove winner, seven-time All Star, MVP Candidate, Silver Slugger, you name it. If they award it to a catcher, Molina’s probably won it.

Next season will mark Molina’s 13th as the Cardinals’ starting catcher. He will turn 35 this year in what could be his final season with the team. There is a $15 million mutual option for a 14th season next year that, if Molina has his way, will turn into an extension.

Over his years in St. Louis, because he has been so good, that what I like to call the “cult of Molina” has developed.

After the Cardinals traded Joe Kelly to Boston in 2014, he talked about how there were a number of things he had to learn how to do in Boston because he never learned to do it in St. Louis. Yadi handled it. Reading batters, strategizing at bats, and holding base runners isn’t something pitchers have had to deal with because Yadi’s handled all of that.

I think we see struggles with guys stealing bases now because Cardinals pitchers have never worried about holding guys on and now that his skills have diminished in that area, throwing out just 21% of base runners last year from a career average of 42%, runners can take advantage.

You don’t shake Molina either. Kyle Lohse has spoken about shaking Molina off just a few times and allowing a hit each time. But on the other hand, Marc Rzepczynski was never comfortable with the culture in St. Louis that you don’t shake Molina off and he has pitched better since leaving.

I’m not saying that other catchers don’t put in the preparation, but in many ways Molina is a rare combination of talent, skill, work ethic, and preparation. And as Molina’s career approaches its close though, it’s time to lay out the post-Molina road map.

Last winter the Cardinals signed Brayan Pena in the hopes that he would be the guy who could finally allow the team to give Molina more rest and hopefully extend his career. That didn’t happen as Pena injured his knee slipping on a wet dugout step in spring training and Molina logged more innings behind the plate than ever before.

The Cardinals released Pena a few weeks ago in a roster squeeze which left Carson Kelly as the only catcher on the 40 man roster. John Mozeliak indicated during the winter meetings that they’d like to bring in a veteran backup for Molina this year so that Kelly can continue to develop by playing everyday.

But with Kelly on the cusp, the organization has reached a tipping point. You can only hold off Kelly for so long.

If the organization feels like Kelly is Molina’s future replacement, then they need to lay out the road map for Kelly’s transition to the starting role. Perhaps that’s Kelly serving as Molina’s backup in 2018 before Kelly steps into the starters role in 2019, much like Matheny and Molina’s transition in 2004. But Molina would need to know that he wouldn’t have a role on the team for 2019.

I know what you’re thinking. Molina is the face of the franchise. He’s the rock of the pitching staff. Of anyone, he has to retire a Cardinal.

That’s the reaction I always get when I bring this topic up. Eventually the transition to Molina’s successor will have to happen and we’re at the point where once you identify that successor, you need to move on when the new guy is ready. The organization has built their philosophy on not holding up the future for the sake of sentimentality. I love Molina, but the organization can’t afford to string Kelly along as his backup for multiple years like they did with Tony Cruz.

“Yeah, but Cruz was never a good hitter,” is the reaction I usually get when I bright this up. I’ll admit that he wasn’t great, but he wasn’t horrible either. Cruz hit .282 across three levels of the minors in 2010 and would be hitting .262 in Memphis when he got his first call up to the Majors in 2011. He hit .262 over 38 games in the Majors in 2011 and then followed it up, hitting .254 in 2012. But over his final three seasons with the Cardinals, from 2013 to 2015, his batting average collapsed to just .203.

In my opinion, a big factor in Cruz’s declining performance was playing time. Pitchers were able to get ahead of him and stay ahead of him because he wasn’t getting enough opportunities to learn and adapt at the plate. Whenever he did get a stretch of playing time while Molina was injured, he would usually string together a few excellent games at the plate, perhaps giving a glimpse at what he could have been.

Because of this, ensuring that Kelly gets consistent playing time and doesn’t waste away for too long as a backup is of utmost importance to the future of the Cardinals. If they wait too long, will we see the same struggles that Tony Cruz had?

If Kelly isn’t viewed the successor, then the organization should put him to use. Use him as trade bait or use him as the backup now. The only reason to delay him at this point is to time up the hand off. But that requires actually handing the job off at some point. It’s time to figure out exactly when.

Column: With Fowler signed, what’s next?

This morning the St. Louis Cardinals introduced Dexter Fowler as the newest member of the team as he has signed a 5 year, $82.5 million deal. It was an aggressive move by the team to make sure that they acquired the best option on the market before another team did. He will wear the #25 for the Cardinals.

With the acquisition of Fowler, the Cardinals get better. Fowler was worth 4.1 WAR for the Cubs last year while Aledmys Diaz led the Cardinals with a 3.5 WAR.

Even if Fowler takes a step back, he’s been a consistent 2.5 WAR player over the past few seasons, which is still an improvement on what the Cardinals had in left field last year where Matt Holliday and Brandon Moss combined for a 1.1 WAR. The impact by metrics is 1–3 wins. All for less than we would have paid Holliday to stick around for another year.

With their top priority now completed, the question is what the Cardinals do next. At today’s press conference, John Mozeliak was asked about that. He kept expectations low that they were only looking to add complimentary pieces at this point. Though he did say Wednesday night that they might not do anything before the holidays and two days later, here we are.

It’s been said that, with Fowler signed, the team may pivot their plan to add another hitter, perhaps even chasing Mark Trumbo or Edwin Encarnacion. If the Cardinals could find a taker for Jhonny Peralta, I’d totally be onboard with that. Though I still feel like Justin Turner is the best fit for what the Cardinals want to accomplish this winter, even if he lacks the same offensive punch as Trumbo or Encarnacion.

The Cardinals mashed offensively last year, but lacked on the defensive side of the ball.

While Trumbo and Encarnacion are truly designated hitters who can “play” in the field, Turner is an exceptionally capable third baseman. He would likely be the best defensive third baseman the Cardinals have had since Scott Rolen was playing over there. The problem with Turner is that it’s hard to bank on his offensive numbers.

Turner broke out with the Dodgers in 2014 after being claimed off of waivers and hit .340 with 7 home runs in 109 games. In 2015, he hit .294 with 16 home runs in 126 games. Last season he hit .275/.339/.493 with 27 home runs in 151 games for the Dodgers. Will he duplicate those numbers? Can he duplicate those numbers? That’s really the question.

But the answer I keep coming back to is that even if Turner can’t replicate that offensive performance, he is still a plus defender. He can contribute to the team even without his bat.

It’s not like Trumbo and Encarnacion are easily projectable players either. Both are coming off great seasons in hitter friendly ballparks.

Trumbo played half of his games in Camden Yards and hit .256/.316/.534 with a league leading 47 home runs. But outside of Camden, he has not nearly been as standout. He hit just 22 home runs in 2015 between Arizona and Seattle, though he hit 22 home runs on the road last year but with a .258/.299/.518 line.

Encarnacion, no relation to Juan who played for the Cardinals in 2006 and 2007, has played his entire career in hitters ballparks. Either the Great American Ballpark in Cincinnati or the Rogers Centre in Toronto. He hit .263/.357/.529 with 42 home runs last year. While just more than half of his home runs actually came on the road, he hit just .242/.343/.492.

The problem with Trumbo and Encarnacion is they do not have a fielding position. Sure, Trumbo can play right field and first base and Encarnacion has played both third and first bases in their careers, but they don’t improve the Cardinals’ defense, which was a stated goal for the organization this winter.

I see the Cardinals as about a 92 win team right now. Still likely a few games behind the Cubs, but signing a guy like Turner would draw that gap ever closer.

Column: As outfielders fall off the board, Mozeliak remains steady

In the week leading up to the winter meetings, the media was all in on the idea that the Cardinals were prepared to be one of the league’s most active teams. Multiple sources suggested that baseball execs backed up those theories, expecting the Cardinals to land both a free agent and make a trade. Here we are with three days in the books and still nothing. Yesterday evening John Mozeliak tempered expectations for the first time, saying that they might not even get anything done before the holidays.

Carlos Gomez, Ian Desmond, and Adam Eaton are officially off the board. The former two signing pretty fair deals with Texas and Colorado respectively. The latter going for a big prospect haul to Washington. The Cardinals and the Blue Jays have similar offers out there to Dexter Fowler, with the Cardinals likely in the lead due to the tax advantages. But there is a pesky rumor that Fowler doesn’t want to play in St. Louis and would prefer a larger market.

The deal for Eaton establishes that pretty much any attempt to acquire a center fielder by trade involves Alex Reyes, something the Cardinals are obviously unwilling to do after the way he wrapped up the 2016 season. That means attempts to trade for Charlie Blackmon and Lorenzo Cain likely do too.

So as the market moves around him, John Mozeliak sits and waits. He is no longer the master of the Cardinals’ offseason timeline. Dexter Fowler is.

When teams have options, they have the leverage. With pretty much every option for the Cardinals off the board, Fowler is now in the driver’s seat. There is little danger of the Cardinals walking away, and he isn’t in a rush to sign anything. And I wouldn’t be either.

He is rumored to have a pair of 4 year, $60 million offers on the table from both the Blue Jays and the Cardinals.

The hope of holding out is two fold. Either that someone new will put a better offer on the table or that one of his two offers will be improved to move things along.

And I think it’s time to move things along.

Unsaid, but widely reported by the reporters who cover the team closely this week, is that the Cardinals’ goal this winter was to take a step forward and contend with the Cubs next year.

That’s a goal that we are all onboard with. Even as some will question whether it’s possible to make up 17.5 games in one offseason, I believe you can. More than half of those can be made up purely by cleaning up the defense and improving fundamentals. Add in a few targeted acquisitions, and you’re right there with them.

But you have to swing, right?

The Cubs have been unafraid to swing. They spent big to acquire Aroldis Chapman last summer and Chapman was a big reason why the Cubs made it to and won the World Series. This morning, they acquired Wade Davis for Jorge Soler. They are swinging to repeat.

The Cardinals? Still playing three years down the road.

Now, a few years ago, with no clear rival in the division, that strategy could work. It did. We saw the results first hand. Now the Cubs have a core that is set to contend for at least the next five years and they’ve already got a World Series title under their belts.

If your rival is playing for this year, and you’re playing for three years from now, you’re not going to win now and you might not win later either.

The Cardinals need to do a better job of keeping up with the Jones’. The Red Sox acquired Chris Sale. The Nationals acquired Eaton. The Cubs acquired Davis. They stepped outside of their comfort zone to improve their team today (and some years down the road in the cases of Sale and Eaton).

To keep up, Mozeliak will likely need to figure out how to step outside of his comfort zone.

If he’s unwilling to do that, it’s time to pull the plug and rebuild. Aim to return to the top of the division in 2022 after every member of the Cubs’ core has hit free agency. As we’ve seen this winter, the returns could be tremendous. Do something. Anything. Anything other than sit on our hands.

And that’s where it’s time to move things along.

Fowler wants $18 million per year? Give it to him. Call his agent and offer that 4 year, $72 million deal. The price is likely going to get up there anyway, so get it done. The longer you wait before trying to close the deal, the bigger the chance that he goes somewhere else. Someone whose GM is a better closer.

The Red Sox, Nationals, and Cubs had prospects they were willing to part with in order to improve their team. The Cardinals may not have that, but they do have money to spend. We’ve heard it from them for over a year now. So it’s time to spend it. They’re paying Brayan Pena $2.5 million this year to not play for them. They can pay Fowler an extra $3 million a year without blinking.

One of the reasons that Mozeliak was so successful early in his career is because the Cardinals created a system under him that identified and exploited market inefficiencies in prospect development. Now everyone has identified those and prospects are the new gold standard. The irony of it all is that free agency for position players might be the biggest market inefficiency in baseball right now and it’s staring Mo in the face.

The prices were projected to be outrageous this winter because of the thin free agent market and teams scrambling over themselves to sign the available players. If anything I feel like they have been pretty normal, if not a little discounted, compared to some of the prices on the board last winter and the price in prospects being paid in trade.

It’s time to take advantage. Strike now, Mo.

If Fowler is your guy, go get him. If someone else is who you want, go get him. We all know that this roster, as currently constructed, isn’t going to win much of anything next year. And if we know it, I’m pretty sure their agents know it too.

Column: Moving Randal Grichuk out of center field might not be a good idea

During his postseason press conference in October, John Mozeliak talked about his desire to improve the Cardinals’ defense in 2017. Specifically, pointing out center field and his desire to move Randal Grichuk to left field. In theory it sounds great, because there were times that Grichuk looked iffy in center field, but should the Cardinals do it?

My first reaction was to be against it purely because the floor to be an average hitting center fielder is lower than to be an average hitting left fielder. A .240 batting average and 24 home runs seems to play better in center field, if he can remotely play the position, than it does in a corner outfield position where there are more offensive standouts.

What I found when I looked further is that it’s really not.

Looking at players who had at least 400 plate appearances last season, the top-20 center fielders averaged a 108 OPS+. In left field the number only increased to 109. Grichuk posted a 103 OPS+ last season.

So the organization must think his defense must not be good enough to stick, right?

There are an assortment of defensive metrics available, and I’m honestly not a huge fan of any of them. Defensive WAR (dWAR), defensive runs saved (DRS) and Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) are the most popular and readily available that people refer to when discussing defense. So how well did Grichuk do?

Starting with dWAR, Grichuk posted a +1.0 last season which was twice what he did in 2015 in about 25% more innings. However it’s shortcoming is that it includes the 45 innings he spent in the corner outfield positions last year and the 440 he spent there in 2015. So the numbers are skewed, but this number would seem to indicate that he performed better defensively in center field than he did last year.

Then there is Defensive Runs Saved, where Grichuk was +7 in center field over 949 innings. In the 1,260 innings he’s played in center field for his career, Grichuk has +14 defensive runs saved in center field alone.

There’s also Ultimate Zone Rating, and it’s normalized brother UZR/150. For Grichuk, his UZR/150 in center field last year was -1.8. He got plus marks for his arm and his glove, but his range was lacking. But UZR’s shortcoming is that it can be skewed by positioning if you don’t start in the center of UZR’s defensive zone for your position.

His numbers seem like a mixed, but generally positive bag when you look at them. But let’s consider where Grichuk stacks up against other center fielders. Among qualified center fielders, Grichuk had the sixth most Defensive Runs Saved and the 11th highest UZR/150.

I think it’s fair to say that Grichuk is one of the ten best defensive center fielders in baseball based on those numbers.

When you break down his UZR into it’s three main components — arm, range, and glove — you find that Grichuk was the best center fielder in two of them: arm and glove. His range was the only minus factor against him and I think most fans would agree that there were times where he seemed to take weird routes which would have limited his range. But I would also argue that it’s the easiest thing to improve and that it should with time and experience. Until 2016, he’d always played mostly in the corners. He even went a year in the minors without playing it. Some guy named Mike Trout played it instead.

So when you look at Grichuk’s metrics, he stacks up favorably against his peers. And how he stacks up against his peers is really the biggest question that should be asked before figuring out whether to make replacing him a priority. Because unless you’re getting someone who stacks up better than him, what’s the point?

And that list of players who would be clear improvements over him is very short. And dare I say that none are likely available.

The Cardinals have most been linked with Dexter Fowler when it comes to bringing in a center fielder to improve the team’s defense. And while Fowler put together his best defensive season last year, good enough that people are lauding him as a good defensive player this winter, historically his numbers do not back that assessment up.

Fowler posted a +0.3 defensive WAR last season, his first positive defensive WAR season since 2010.

He posted a +1 Defensive Runs Saved, the first time he’d ever posted a positive Defensive Runs Saved. The previous two years he’d combined for -32 Defensive Runs Saved.

He had a +1.0 UZR/150 last season, which was also his first time ever posting a positive UZR in center field.

In only one of those metrics, UZR, did Fowler outperform Grichuk last year. And historically, Fowler has not been better than Grichuk.

In 2016, Fowler’s UZR was driven by an improvement in his range, something that is historically his worst component. In 2015, Grichuk had pretty good range too before it fell in 2016. Perhaps playing next to a guy named Jason Heyward had some effect? After all, there’s a lot of plays in right-center field that they would not be being asked to make thanks to the rangiest right fielder in the game.

The numbers seem to indicate that Grichuk has Fowler beat on both glove and arm, so the only question is range and both seem challenged.

Fangraphs also has Inside Edge Fielding, which has their scouts break down the likelihood that player makes a given play. Fowler made 84% of all the plays last year while Grichuk made just 80%. But Fowler never made a single play judged to have less than a 60% likelihood of being made. Grichuk made 7 of them.

Grichuk made more plays on balls that had a low probability of having plays made on them. Seems like a vote of confidence in his range being better. Or at the very least, his ability to make difficult plays.

It’s one of the reasons when I talked last week about the organization needing to look at Marcell Ozuna that moving Grichuk out of center field shouldn’t be a priority. And it’s because I think that Grichuk will be a better center fielder than most available potential center fielders you could find to replace him with.

Column: Five players the Cardinals should have interest in this winter

With the signing of Brett Cecil to shore up a bullpen that had been expecting Zach Duke to play a key role before his Tommy John surgery, the Cardinals kicked off what I consider to be an important offseason for them. Last season, the organization was caught with a cluttered roster that limited their ability to move. This winter, John Mozeliak has a chance to fix that.

Even now the organization finds themselves in a tight roster crunch as they released backup catcher Brayan Pena to make room for Cecil on the 40 man roster. That roster is currently full to protect a handful of players from the Rule 5 draft, so any moves at this point become potentially painful decisions for the organization to make outside of a trade.

As the offseason picks up steam heading into the winter meetings next week in Maryland, here are the five players that I believe the Cardinals should have on their radar as they look to improve their 2017 team.

OF Marcel Ozuna, Marlins. The Marlins are reportedly shopping some of their offensive parts in an effort to recover the pitching depth that they lost following the untimely death of Jose Fernandez in September. Because of that, I feel like the Marlins and the Cardinals would be a great match on the trade market.

I spoke often last year that the Cardinals still feel the loss of Oscar Taveras on the organization. It’s really not my intent to reduce the loss of Taveras to the Xs and Os of baseball, but it’s a fact that Cardinals’ GM John Mozeliak had essentially cleared a path for him to the majors only to have it never come to fruition. As a result, the team is missing a middle of the order bat. And that’s where the Marlins and Cardinals could help each other out.

The Cardinals need a hitter to help fill the void left by Taveras. The Marlins need a pitcher to help fill the void left by Fernandez. The Marlins have hitting, the Cardinals have pitching. It seems like a good match.

After a slump in 2015, Marcell Ozuna rebounded in 2016, backing up his 2014 campaign with near identical numbers, hitting .266/.321/.452 with 23 home runs in 148 games. When the topic of trading Ozuna came up last season, both manager Don Mattingly and hitting coach Barry Bonds spoke highly of Ozuna, claiming that they believed he could be a 30/30 guy if he was given the opportunity.

Defensively, he may not be the player who would be able to move Randal Grichuk out of center field, but I don’t think that’s an absolute must for the team. Ozuna’s tools include speed, which means his defense comes down to instincts and reactions. Much of that can be taught if he’s willing and the Cardinals have some excellent center fielders who could help him out.

What would Ozuna cost? It’s a good question. At age 26 with three years of team control ahead, he would not be a rental, which I believe is important to Mozeliak as he surveys his options this winter. But I would think that Jaime Garcia or Michael Wacha and a lower level, high ceiling pitching prospect would be a great starting point in those talks.

OF Carlos Gomez, Free Agent. I was the driver of the “Carlos Gomez to St. Louis” bandwagon last summer after the Astros designated him for assignment. He would end up going to Texas as the Cardinals stood pat and Gomez would rebound hitting .284/.362/.543 over 33 games with the Rangers. Wouldn’t that have been nice to have?

But one of the biggest reasons I find Gomez an attractive option is because of the outspoken fire he brings, a fire that the Cardinals severely lack in my opinion. As I said in August, he would either light a fire under the team or burn it all down, and either way that could be a good thing.

Now I’ll admit that there’s a little more risk involved now because the deal would be for more than a month and a half, but I think Gomez can provide a good value signing. He hasn’t been the consistent 130 OPS+ hitter and plus defensive center fielder he was in 2013 and 2014 for the Brewers, but I think he can be again. Bring him to the NL Central against teams and pitchers he knows well and I think you have a winner of a deal.

MLB Trade Rumors projected him to get a 3 year, $36 million deal this winter, which I think is a steal of a deal for the potential that Gomez brings.

3B Justin Turner, Free Agent. The Cardinals have Jedd Gyorko and Jhonny Peralta as options at third base going into next season, but if Mozeliak is serious about improving the team’s defense, he needs to reconsider those options. Peralta has a big question on his defense, even if I do believe that his offense will return. And I don’t believe Gyorko is a rounded enough player to be an everyday guy. His best role is to be a super sub kind of player.

Justin Turner would be the best option on the market at third base after hitting .275/.339/.493 with 27 home runs last year for the Dodgers. Defensively too, he’s generally plus, posting a +18 defensive runs saved over the past three seasons at third base. He was also a +17.2 UZR/150 over 1200 innings this past season, his first playing it every day.

MLB Trade Rumors projects him to get a 5 year, $85 million deal, which feels a little risky to me, but I think he’s definitely worth taking a run at and he would improve the team’s performance on both sides of the ball. And absorb some of the power lost by Brandon Moss’ departure.

LHP Chris Sale, White Sox. Say what you will about Chris Sale, the guy is fiery. Like another tall, lanky starting pitcher named Chris that all Cardinals fans know and love. He’s also a guy capable of being your ace and that’s something that every team needs. Couple him with a Carlos Martinez, who I feel is about ready to come into his own and be the Cardinals’ ace, and you’ve got a potent 1–2 combination with Adam Wainwright behind them.

Sale was 17–10 last year with a 3.34 ERA over 227 innings in 32 starts. He threw 6 complete games. And he’s owed a complete steal of $38 million over the next 3 seasons.

He won’t come cheap, but the Cardinals have the assets to bring a guy like Sale in if they want to. Given how much Mozeliak sounded like he knew a lot about Sale’s contract, I’d bet that they’ve talked to Chicago about it at least once before. It’s time to pull that trigger and I’d even offer Alex Reyes.

Jurickson Profar. It sounds as if the Rangers would listen on offers for Jurickson Profar, which I think would be fitting considering the favorite hypothetical a few years back as whether you’d trade Profar for Oscar Taveras straight up.

Injuries kept Profar off the field for two years, but he returned this year and hit .284/.356/.426 with 5 home runs over 42 games for Triple-A Round Rock before being called up in late May. He would go on to hit .239/.321/.338 with 5 home runs over 90 games for the Rangers while playing all four infield positions and left field. And while it feels like he’s been around forever, the former #1 prospect is still just 23 years old too.

I see Profar as an intriguing option as a guy who could legitimately play any position. He would also be a quality backup option for Aledmys Diaz as needed. And if he even partially begins to deliver on the promise of being the player everyone believed he’d become while flying through the minors, he could be the guy to shift Diaz to second or third base in the future.

Obviously, if the Rangers are asking for the moon, you hang up, but I think it’d definitely be worth putting your feelers out. My understanding is that the Rangers would like to add some starting pitching this winter, and I believe the Cardinals have some available.

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.

There’s nothing wrong with replay (at least that part of it)

I’ve read a few articles already this morning that are already criticizing Major League Baseball’s replay review procedures following last night’s Cardinals/Reds game and the final play that led to a walk off Cardinals’ hit. Some have dubbed it a massive flaw in the system, but I don’t think there’s a problem with that part of it at all.

Here’s the setup. Two out and Matt Carpenter on first in the bottom of the 9th of a 3-3 game, Yadier Molina rips a ball into left field which bounces in the grass and then up over the wall, off an advertisement and back into the field of play. Reds’ left fielder Adam Duvall plays the ball and throws it back in as Carpenter rounds third base. Carpenter arrives a moment before the ball and celebration ensues.

But Dan McLaughlin and the FOX Sports Midwest guys were on it pretty quickly that it looked like it should have been a ground rule double because the ball bounced off the advertisement, which is beyond play. The Reds’ video guy rang the dugout trying to get them to challenge the call, but Reds’ manager said he didn’t hear the phone ring due to fan noise.

I’m not even sure Bryan Price is to blame here, actually.

But first let’s look to make sure if protocol of the rulebook was followed.

Except as otherwise set forth in Sections II.D.2, 3 and 5 below, to be timely, a Manager must exercise his challenge (by verbal communication and/or hand signal to an Umpire), or the Crew Chief must initiate Replay Review (if applicable pursuant to Section II.C above) before the commencement of the next play or pitch. Such challenge or request will be considered timely only if the Umpire acknowledges that communication within the time period specified above. For purposes of these Regulations, the next “play” shall commence when the pitcher is on the rubber preparing to start his delivery and the batter has entered the batter’s box (unless the defensive team initiates an appeal play in which case any call made during the play prior to the appeal still may be subject to Replay Review). A challenge to a play that ends the game must be invoked immediately upon the conclusion of the play, and both Clubs shall remain in their dugouts until the Replay Official issues his decision. No substitutions or pitching changes may take place while the Umpires are in the process of invoking Replay Review.

The added emphasis is mine, but it’s clear that the manager must challenge the play “immediately” after the play finishes. So right after Carpenter slides across home plate. And that makes sense because a questionable play would obviously present itself and at that point there is no downside to challenging the play.

After the game, Bryan Price told reporters that he was told that managers have 10 seconds after the game ends to challenge a game ending call. MLB responded, saying that there is no specific time frame involved, simply referring to the wording of “immediately” in the rule book. But I think it’s a good rule of thumb for how long immediately really is because it’s a subjective measurement. I feel like 10 seconds is more than enough time to consider the play and it’s ramifications and make the call.

So I went back and timed it. There was 20 seconds from when Carpenter slid across home plate until FOX Sports Midwest’s Dan McLaughlin told those us at home that the umpires were leaving the field. It took 12 more seconds, a total of 32 seconds, for Bryan Price to pop out of the dugout to find an umpire to challenge the call.

It’s also worth noting that the umpires congregated in front of the Reds’ dugout before leaving the field, seemingly expecting the Reds to challenge the call. But after getting no indication from the coaching staff that they were going to challenge the call, left the field.

So the Reds had every opportunity to challenge the call. In fact, the umpires did more than the rules require them to do in that situation to give the Reds an opportunity to challenge the call. They didn’t. Game over. Cardinals win.

An option for the Reds is to protest the game, but in my lifetime, Major League Baseball has only granted protests based on procedural grounds. In this instance, the rules were followed as written.

So why didn’t the Reds challenge?

They were waiting on the video guy to save them.

You see, the problem isn’t with the replay system itself. Why wouldn’t you immediately challenge that call in the hopes that some obscure ground rule might save you? What’s the downside? If you win the challenge, the game goes on. If you lose the challenge, you lose anyway. Why are you sitting there waiting on the video guy?

It’s the “let me check with my video guy first” mentality that’s permeated every team in baseball. The rules say that the managers have to initiate the challenge, but they’re not making the decision. It’s a video guy, holed up in an office under the stadium somewhere.

I don’t know about you, but I hate seeing the manager standing on the top step of the dugout, looking over at his bench coach who is on the phone with the video guy deciding whether to challenge a play or not. Why are you waiting on the video guy?

This is the problem. Teams are too dependent on the video guy.

Every link in the chain was waiting on the video guy to save them. Neither Adam Duvall nor Bryan Price knew Busch Stadium’s ground rules or weren’t even generally aware of them enough. If Duvall had known, he could have immediately brought attention that it was a ground rule double. If Price had known, he could have initiated the replay review himself before it was too late.

Most managers have spent their lifetime in the game. Bryan Price has played in 252 games and managed 483 more. That’s not counting games he watched but didn’t play in or took in as a pitching coach. He should have the ability to analyze pretty quickly if a play is worth challenging based purely on previous experience. Certainly within 10 seconds. Especially if it’s game ending.

And that’s how the rules are written. The rules are written for the manager to make the decision to review, not the video guy. As well they should be.

But nobody on the Reds apparently, except the video guy, knew the rules.

This actually goes into another way I’d change baseball’s review system. I’d give managers unlimited challenges, with the stipulation that if you lose twice, you can no longer challenge for the rest of the game. But as long as you keep getting challenges right, why not let you keep challenging? If the stated goal is to ensure you get the calls right, what’s stopping you?

Time? The games will get so long, the argument will say. Well, I’d ask what’s more important, short games or correct calls. What’s better for baseball? A 2 hour, 55 minute game with a couple blown calls or a 3 hour, 5 minute game that’s called correctly?

But the problem last night wasn’t with the review system. It was that the Reds (and every other team) relied on a guy who isn’t immediately available to immediately determine whether a challenge should be made.

Molina putting “overused” narrative to rest

Every season it seems we’re talking about how much Mike Matheny has been using Yadier Molina. When he slumps or gets injured in the second half, it becomes a talking point to criticize Matheny. Every spring the team pays the fans lip service that they’re looking for ways to rest Molina more, so that he can be around when the team needs him most. And every September he’s still racked up as many innings as the year before.

None more than this year.

And as Molina struggled through June, hitting .222/.281/.283, fans blamed Matheny for overusing the star catcher. But it didn’t slow down.

With 7.33 innings caught per team game in the second half of this season, Molina is setting a career high for second half usage. And it’s not like his first half was a breeze either, clocking in at 7.63 innings caught per team game as his third most usage behind 2015 (7.91) and 2013 (7.71).

Entering play tonight, Molina is 14 1/3 innings away from setting a new career high in innings caught this season. If he starts at least 6 of the final 7 games this year, and there is no reason to think he won’t start all of them, surpassing 1200 innings behind the plate seems like it’ll be a slam dunk.

We know Molina likes to play, but perhaps the most astounding part of it is that he’s doing while being one of the best hitters in baseball in the second half.

Molina’s .358 average is 3rd in baseball among players with more than 200 plate appearances. His 19 doubles stack up 9th. He has a 146 OPS+ in the second half, the second best of his career behind 2012 where he hit .328 with 9 HR and had a 147 OPS+. And Molina still has 7 games to go to surpass it.

Over the full season, Molina has a 106 OPS+, which makes it his most successful offensive campaign since he hit .319 with 12 HR in 2013 and finished third in MVP voting. He leads the team with a .301 batting average, 35 doubles, and 153 hits.

Behind his three standout offensive seasons from 2011 to 2013, Molina is having his best offensive season. The kind of season many of us doubted we’d ever see from Molina after he shed a bunch of weight a couple seasons ago to increase his longevity. At 34. While catching 1,200 innings.

And he’s finishing stronger than ever. He has a .388 batting average over the last four weeks and .436 over the last two weeks.

Is it a fluke? Probably.

But the last time I bet against Molina, saying that he’d never hit double digit home runs again after hitting 14 in 2011, he went and bettered it, hitting 22.

The bottom line is that basically, Yadier Molina is laughing at your idea that he’s “overused.”

I still believe in Jhonny Peralta, just not right now

Since returning from his DL stint on August 2nd, Jhonny Peralta has hit .257/.307/.371 with 2 home runs and 11 RBI. He has appeared in 42 games and started 37 of them. But those numbers are carried by a better August and have dropped in September, where he is hitting .213 and has just four extra base hits in 54 plate appearances.

I agree with a lot of Cardinals fans: It’s time to sit Jhonny Peralta.

With a 74 OPS+ in September, only Carson Kelly has hit worse on the Cardinals this month.

I know that Peralta has provided the team a great value for the past two years, but it’s time to let someone else play. Especially when you have the kind of depth, combined with hot players available right now. Jedd Gyorko is a guy who Matheny has been trying to find ways to fit into the lineup, he has 20 home runs in the second half, third most in baseball.

But where I depart with many fans is that I still think Peralta has things to contribute.

I understand why people look at Peralta’s three seasons with the Cardinals and see a 117 OPS+ in 2014, a 103 OPS+ in 2015, and currently a 79 OPS+ in an injury abbreviated 2016 and are clammoring that the 34 year old Peralta is declining. And he very well might be, but I’d also like to point out that Peralta has never been a model of consistency at any point in his career.

Since 2005, when he became a full time player in the Majors (12 seasons), he has five seasons where he has put up a 110 OPS+ or higher and now likely four seasons where he’s had a 90 OPS+ or lower. Since he started playing everyday, he has been a career 103 OPS+ player. And even that has been carried by a few very strong seasons.

Just a few years ago, Peralta posted a 122 OPS+ in 2011 and then followed that up with an 84 OPS+ in 2012 at age 30. Was he declining then too? History shows us no, as he went on to post a 121 OPS+ in 2013, and then became a Cardinal.

Even defensively he’s not ever been a defensive whiz. No matter what metric you used to consider Peralta’s defense, he was lightyears better in 2014 than he had ever been before in his career. UZR/150 likes his 2011 and 2012 season at shortstop, but when it comes to defensive runs saved, Peralta saved +17 runs in 2014. He was a career -16 defensive runs saved before that season. That’s how much of an abberation 2014 was for Peralta defensively, that he made up for a career of questionable defense in one season.

I think expecting him to be 2014 Peralta, even in 2015 was unlikely. But I feel like his numbers bounce around enough that he can bounce back. But that’s not the only reason I feel like he can once again become, at least an average hitter for this club.

He and Yadier Molina had the same surgery, and I still feel like it took until this summer before he was completely back to normal. There’s a difference between “healed” and “healthy.” I think Peralta is still somewhere in between right now. That doesn’t do anything for the team right now though.

Going into the offseason, I think we will get a much better Jhonny Peralta next year than we have this year, but with what the Cardinals have going on in the infield right now, if you can unload him, I think you have to. And I think that’s going to be the best thing for the team.