Offseason Outlook: St. Louis Cardinals

The Cardinals fell to the Red Sox in the World Series last week, but with a roster well-stocked with young talent, their short- and long-term futures appear bright.

Guaranteed Contracts

Arbitration Eligibles

Free Agents

With a terrific 2013 season, a strong big-league core in place and more young talent on the way, the Cardinals are in excellent shape, and nothing that happens this offseason is likely to change that. Their four free agents include two players (Chris Carpenter and Rafael Furcal) who didn't even play in 2013, which means that they'll only have to deal with the possible departures of two players (Carlos Beltran and Edward Mujica) who made meaningful contributions. (They'll also likely lose Jake Westbrook, whose option they recently declined.) That will leave them with only a few areas that they clearly need to address this offseason. And with Beltran, Carpenter, Furcal, Mujica and Jake Westbrook's combined salary of almost $45MM now available to spend, they'll have plenty of cash on hand.

Besides Mujica, every pitcher who made an impact in 2013, including many who will continue to make league-minimum salaries, will be available to return to a staff that finished fifth in the Majors in runs allowed. If anything, there's a chance that the Cardinals' pitching might be even better next year, given the likely departure of  Westbrook, who threw 116 2/3 of the Cardinals' weakest innings in 2013. The likely recipient of many of those innings will be 2013 rookie Michael Wacha, who pitched well in 64 2/3 regular-season innings and was nearly unhittable throughout much of the postseason. Three other spots in the rotation will likely be taken by perennial Cy Young candidate Adam Wainwright, top youngster Shelby Miller and workhorse Lance Lynn.

That leaves Joe Kelly, who isn't nearly as good as his 2.69 ERA in 2013 suggests but is more than capable in the back end of a rotation. Jaime Garcia will also likely be a a possibility — he's currently rehabbing the shoulder injury that shut him down in May. Carlos Martinez could also vy for a rotation spot, and Tyler Lyons will be available as depth. Tim Cooney, who's coming off an outstanding season at Double-A Springfield, may emerge as a possibility later in the season. With front-line starting pitching and quality depth, there is little reason for the Cardinals to pursue a starting pitcher in free agency.

They'll also have few meaningful losses in their starting lineup, although there are plenty of moving parts. They're set with Yadier Molina at catcher, Allen Craig and Matt Adams at first base, and Matt Holliday in the outfield. At their other outfield positions, letting Beltran depart might open up more opportunities for Adams (with Craig moving to the outfield so that Adams can play first) and top prospect Oscar Taveras. They also have Jon Jay, who they could leave in center field or upon whom they could attempt to upgrade. Kolten Wong will likely become the Cardinals' primary second baseman, with Matt Carpenter, a potential MVP candidate in 2013, moving to third. The Cardinals could also keep Wong in Triple-A if need be, leave Carpenter at second, and stick with David Freese at the hot corner.

That leaves shortstop, which was a glaring weakness for the Cardinals all season, with starter Pete Kozma playing at replacement value and showing few signs of the ability to climb much above it. The free agent class at shortstop isn't outstanding, but Stephen Drew or perhaps Jhonny Peralta would make sense. There may also be options on the trade market, although Troy Tulowitzki of the Rockies doesn't appear to be a possibility. In any case, expect the Cardinals to do something to upgrade the position.

The Cardinals can rely on their deep well of power arms to fill out their bullpen. Trevor Rosenthal and Kevin Siegrist emerged in 2013 and should continue to play key roles in 2014. Martinez and Kelly will also be good bullpen candidates if they aren't in the rotation. Lefty Randy Choate and ground ball specialist Seth Maness will also be back, and Jason Motte will return after Tommy John surgery shut him down for the 2013 season. As effective as Mujica was this year, there's no reason for the Cardinals to overpay for his services, given their stockpile.

If nothing else, the Cardinals can improve by acquiring a shortstop who can hit even a little. There's also still room for them to improve on the defensive front, not only by replacing Beltran and perhaps Jay, but also by implementing more defensive shifts, one of the few areas where they're behind the rest of the game. The Cardinals limited their number of shifts in 2013 upon encountering resistance from some of their pitchers. They plan to be more aggressive in implementing shifts next year, which should meaningfully improve their defense.

If the Cardinals take a step backwards next season, it might be because their three top 2013 performers regress somewhat. Matt Carpenter, Wainwright and Molina all posted in excess of 5 WAR in 2013, and expecting them to repeat their 2013 showings may be asking a lot. Carpenter's 7.0 WAR season, in particular, likely represents a career peak, and he shouldn't be counted on to do that again.

That's the curse of being an excellent team, though — a 97-win season isn't easy to repeat. Still, the Cardinals have a star-studded roster, and a farm system that should be able to continue to deliver solid contributors after others depart.

That means the Cardinals don't have to be aggressive this offseason. They could play it safe, find an upgrade at shortstop, and get ready for 2014. If they do want to get ambitious, though, there are ways for them to do that, too, as the New York Post's Joel Sherman recently noted. Perhaps the Cardinals could upgrade by pursuing a big name like Jacoby Ellsbury in the outfield — Ellsbury would represent a big upgrade over Jay, both offensively and defensively. (With the No. 31 pick in the 2014 draft and a deep farm system, they won't have to worry much about losing a pick by signing a player who has been extended a qualifying offer; they'll also likely be able to replace any draft pick they might lose with the one they'll get if another team signs Beltran.) The Cardinals could also trade Taveras or Adams for help elsewhere.

Somewhat more conservatively, the Cards could trade from their pitching stockpile to acquire a shortstop. The Indians, for example, will be looking for pitching this offseason, and they can offer Asdrubal Cabrera. Alexei Ramirez or Erick Aybar might also be possibilities.

In other words, the Cards have plenty of flexibility, and aside from the shortstop position, they can make moves proactively, rather than simply acquiring players to fill obvious needs. The Cardinals' core of stars (Wainwright, Molina, Carpenter, Holliday) and recent influx of cheap, high-quality young pitching (Miller, Wacha, Lynn, Martinez, Rosenthal, Siegrist, Kelly) should put them in an enviable position for years to come.

Leave a Reply

Be the First to Comment!