The Cardinals made it to the NLCS for the fourth straight year in 2014, but their season was overshadowed by Oscar Taveras’ tragic death last month.
- Adam Wainwright, SP: $78MM through 2018
- Matt Carpenter, 3B: $49.5MM through 2019
- Yadier Molina, C: $45MM through 2017
- Jhonny Peralta, SS: $37.5MM through 2017
- Matt Holliday, OF: $35MM through 2016
- Jaime Garcia, SP: $9.75MM through 2015
- Aledmys Diaz, SS: $5.5MM through 2017
- Randy Choate, RP: $3MM through 2015
- John Lackey, SP: ~$500K through 2015
Arbitration Eligible Players (service time in parentheses; projections by Matt Swartz)
- Jon Jay, OF (4.134): $4.5MM
- Peter Bourjos, OF (4.062): $1.6MM
- Daniel Descalso, INF (4.016): $1.4MM
- Lance Lynn, SP (3.119): $5.5MM
- Tony Cruz, C (3.105): $0.7MM
- Shane Robinson (2.141), OF: $0.5MM
One year after winning the NL Central with a 97-65 record, the Cardinals captured the division yet again, although this time they won 90 games and had to chase the Brewers most of the season. They also ran seven games ahead of their BaseRuns expected record, indicating that they weren’t as strong as they appeared.
Backing into a division championship betrays the kind of weakness many teams would love to have, of course, and the Cardinals’ 97-win season in 2013 was itself unsustainable, partially the result of a .330/.402/.463 line with runners in scoring position. Still, it’s worth looking closely at the Cards’ seven-win drop to see what it might mean going forward.
The 2014 Cardinals scored 160 runs fewer than the 2013 team did. Some offensive decline was inevitable, given the ’13 team’s hitting with scoring position and given that much of their 2013-14 offseason was dedicated to improving their defense — they let Carlos Beltran head to New York, signed veteran infielders Jhonny Peralta and Mark Ellis, traded David Freese for a good defensive outfielder in Peter Bourjos in a four-player deal, moved Matt Carpenter from second to third, and installed Kolten Wong at second. The moves worked, in a sense — the Cardinals’ team defensive efficiency improved from 21st in the Majors in 2013 to seventh in 2014. For all that, though, they actually allowed seven more runs than they did in 2013.
So what went wrong? Offensively, Taveras hit .239/.278/.312 in his first 248 plate appearances in the Majors. Outfielder Allen Craig had an awful half-season before being traded to Boston. Ellis batted a mere .180/.253/.213. And Matt Carpenter and Yadier Molina, while strong overall, took significant steps backward. Among the Cardinals’ pitchers, Adam Wainwright and Lance Lynn had great seasons, but Shelby Miller often struggled, Michael Wacha only pitched 107 innings, and the team got disappointing work from Nick Greenwood, Kevin Siegrist, Jason Motte and Justin Masterson.
Of course, none of this means it’s likely the Cardinals will struggle next year, only that they had a merely good season, not a dominant one. They can expect more in 2015 out of some of the players who were disappointing or hurt, like Carpenter and Wacha. Others who struggled, like Craig, Ellis and Masterson, have already left the organization.
The Cardinals have finally graduated everyone who’s likely to contribute from their brilliant 2009 draft, so the flow of talent from their farm system might be about to slow down somewhat, but in the meantime, they’ll have plenty of controllable seasons from young or young-ish players like Carpenter, Miller, Wacha, Wong, Matt Adams, Carlos Martinez and Trevor Rosenthal, and they have talented veterans at most of their other key positions.
The Cardinals’ collection of position players therefore needs only minor tweaking. Infielder Daniel Descalso hit .242/.333/.311 in a 2014 season and also didn’t grade well defensively; the Cardinals have said they plan to tender him, although they could consider dealing him instead. If they do, they could make a small move to acquire another bench infielder to pair with Pete Kozma — Cuban shortstop Aledmys Diaz, who played at Class A+ and Double-A last season, could need more time in the minors.
The tragic death of Taveras, a potential superstar, hangs over the outfield. Potential right fielder Randal Grichuk is unestablished and center fielders Jon Jay (who had wrist surgery this month and is expected to be ready for spring training) and Bourjos have at times been inconsistent. The Cardinals can, however, combat uncertainty with numbers — in addition to Grichuk, Bourjos, Jay, and left fielder Matt Holliday, they have credible fill-ins in Thomas Pham and top prospect Stephen Piscotty. The Cards already traded Allen Craig, and there was talk could deal another outfielder this offseason. Taveras’ passing might change their thinking on that, however, and someone like Bourjos, slated to be Jay’s backup, might seem less replaceable now.
The rotation is set with Wainwright, Lynn, Miller, Wacha and John Lackey, who has indicated he’ll honor the contract option that will pay him a league-minimum salary in 2015. Wainwright recently had surgery to fix some irritation in his elbow, but he’s expected to be ready in time for spring training. Jaime Garcia, who has a year and two team options left on the four-year deal he signed in 2011, will also try to return from surgery to fix thoracic outlet syndrome (a surgery the Cardinals weren’t thrilled about). It’s unclear when Garcia will return, whether he can stay healthy for any significant period, and what the Cardinals might be getting even if he is, so they’ll likely treat any contribution from him as a bonus. If anything goes wrong with the other five, the Cardinals have solid depth, with 2013 first-rounder Marco Gonzales possibly being the first to get the call. Gonzales could also work in relief.
The bullpen is set to lose Pat Neshek (who pitched 67 1/3 terrific innings after the Cards signed him to a minor league deal in February), the oft-injured Motte, and not much else. The Cardinals aren’t likely to re-sign Neshek or Motte, although they aren’t ruling out possible returns for either one. Rosenthal will likely return to the closer’s role, perhaps with the goal of reducing his high walk totals while remaining hard to hit. Martinez, who spent a chunk of his 2014 season in the Cardinals’ rotation, will be back as well, along with Seth Maness.
Lefty Randy Choate will be in the final season of a three-year deal, although the Cardinals could trade Choate (who they use in a specialist role that doesn’t allow him to get the amount of work he desires) and either use Siegrist as their top lefty or acquire another arm from outside the organization. Lefties batted .091/.205/.147 off Choate last season, but righties hit .357/.458/.481. If the Cardinals do look for a lefty pitcher, someone like Zach Duke or Neal Cotts, who are both usable against right-handed batters, might make sense. (Andrew Miller is also available, although at a significantly higher price.) Righty Sam Tuivailala, a third-round draft pick in 2010, could be the next hard thrower to make an impact in the Cardinals bullpen — he carved up Class A+ and Double-A this season, then threw 97 MPH in a couple September appearances in the big leagues.
Unlike last winter, when the Cardinals had an obvious hole at shortstop (which they filled with Jhonny Peralta, a signing that has gone brilliantly so far), this year the Cards don’t have many clear needs. They could therefore do most of their offseason shopping via small moves made on the trade market. Players like Descalso and Choate have limited value, but the Cardinals might be able to significantly upgrade somewhere by dealing an outfielder. They have expressed interest in finding a righty first baseman to pair with Adams, who posted a .528 OPS against lefties last year. Someone like Eric Campbell of the Mets or Tommy Medica of the Padres might fit the bill, or perhaps a Triple-A slugger like Jesus Aguilar of the Indians.
The Cardinals also could try to extend Lynn this offseason. They’re also planning to significantly increase payroll in the next several seasons, perhaps accounting for increased salaries for players like Lynn, Miller, Adams and Rosenthal, along with already-set increases for Carpenter. Even so, the Cardinals are in a good position going forward, since their deals for Wainwright, Holliday, Molina and Peralta aren’t backloaded. Eventually, the Cardinals might have to grapple with how long they’ll be able to depend on veterans like Wainwright, Molina and Peralta, but with that collection of stars and a large group of good, cheap players from their farm system, they appear set to contend again in 2015.
The Cardinals’ brief offseason has already been touched by tragedy. The sudden deaths of Taveras and his girlfriend Edilia Arvelo were awful not only for the Cardinals, but for Taveras’ home country. It’s impossible to know how the team might respond on the field, and that sort of speculation is outside MLBTR’s purview anyway. It seems early even to acknowledge, as we do here, that the organization will go on, and will pursue an offseason plan based partially upon the reality that it just lost a player in the worst way possible. Some things are bigger than baseball. Here’s wishing the Cardinals the best as they begin what will be a difficult winter.