Check out all the entries in the 2015-16 Offseason Outlook series here.
After racking up more regular-season wins than any other team in 2015, the Cardinals are set to contend again, as they usually do. First, though, they’ll need to address Jason Heyward’s impending free agency.
- Adam Wainwright, SP: $57.5MM through 2018
- Matt Carpenter, 3B: $46MM through 2019 (plus 2020 club option)
- Yadier Molina, C: $30MM through 2017 (plus 2018 mutual option)
- Jhonny Peralta, SS: $22.5MM through 2017
- Matt Holliday, OF: $18MM through 2016 (plus 2017 club option)
- Lance Lynn, SP: $15MM through 2017
- Jon Jay, OF: $6.225MM through 2016
- Jordan Walden, RP: $3.75MM through 2016 (plus 2017 club option)
Arbitration Eligible Players (service time in parentheses; projections by MLB Trade Rumors)
- Brandon Moss (5.160) – $7.9MM
- Peter Bourjos (5.062) – $1.8MM
- Steve Cishek (4.143) – $7.1MM
- Tony Cruz (4.105) – $1.0MM
- Trevor Rosenthal (3.058) – $6.5MM
- Matt Adams (3.033) – $1.5MM
- Seth Maness (2.154) – $1.2MM
- Non-tender candidates: Moss, Bourjos, Cishek, Cruz
- Jaime Garcia, SP: 2016 club option for $11.5MM with $500K buyout (exercised). The Cardinals also have a $12MM 2017 option with a $500K buyout
- Jonathan Broxton, RP: 2016 club option for $9MM with $1MM buyout (declined)
After winning 100 games and then losing in the NLDS, the Cardinals will try to fly even faster into the wind this offseason. Whatever solutions they come up with to their immediate roster issues, it will be difficult for them to continue to perform at such a toweringly high level. Of course, they should still be a strong team. The problem of how best to maintain a 100-win team is a great one to have.
The possibility of losing Heyward looms large. Heyward, acquired last winter after the tragic death of Oscar Taveras, had the kind of season he usually has — his offensive numbers were, on the surface, a bit disappointing, but he contributed all sorts of value with his fielding and baserunning, frequently changing games with his glove and arm. His youth and broad skill set will make him a mint in free agency, although he could receive somewhat less per season than the usual top free agent might. MLBTR’s Jeff Todd recently predicted Heyward would receive a ten-year, $200MM contract, perhaps with an opt-out. Any contract at or near that level is a risk, and the Cardinals will have plenty of competition, but they could certainly bid for Heyward at that price, given their modest payroll commitments in 2017 and beyond.
If Heyward signs elsewhere, the Cardinals can be flexible. They could pursue a lower-cost free agent outfielder, but it’s more likely they’ll simply go with veterans Matt Holliday and Jon Jay plus some combination of young outfielders Randal Grichuk, Stephen Piscotty and Tommy Pham, all of whom had surprisingly strong seasons in 2015. The Cardinals could then spend their available funds on other positions.
One of those positions could be starting pitcher, but likely only if they’re acquiring a top-flight player. The Cardinals have Lance Lynn, Michael Wacha and a healthy Adam Wainwright under control for 2016, along with Jaime Garcia, whose option they’ve already decided to exercise after a successful comeback season. They also have Carlos Martinez, although a season-ending shoulder strain makes his short-term future somewhat uncertain. Their depth options, like Tyler Lyons and Tim Cooney, are also fairly good ones, and top prospect Alex Reyes could potentially enter the picture late in the season. So despite the impending departure of John Lackey, there’s little reason for the Cardinals to pursue an innings-eater type.
They could, however, conceivably aim higher — they’ve already been mentioned as a possible bidder for this winter’s top free agent, David Price. Pursuing a free agent like Price (or Heyward, for that matter) does seem a bit tricky from a budgetary perspective, at least in the short term; the Cardinals’ Opening Day payroll was $122MM in 2015, and between their $90MM or so in existing commitments for 2016 and arbitration-year salaries on top of that, they don’t appear to have much room for a highly paid player. Given their very limited future commitments ($65MM in 2016, $33MM in 2017, and practically nothing after that), though, it would seem possible for the Cardinals to increase their payroll somewhat for 2016 with the understanding that they can limit their spending in the future if they need to.
Besides, if the Cardinals were to decide to pursue top free agents, they would have ways to trim payroll. In addition to non-tendering Brandon Moss, Peter Bourjos and Steve Cishek (all of whom had subpar 2015 seasons), the Cardinals could conceivably clear payroll space by trading someone like Garcia, especially if they sign a top starter. Garcia had a brilliant comeback season in 2015 and is well worth his option, but the Cardinals could look at his injury history and figure they might be able to get more certainty by spending their money differently. The Cardinals have also already declined Jonathan Broxton’s option, and they could also attempt to save a bit by non-tendering light-hitting backup catcher Tony Cruz.
The Cardinals could also potentially upgrade at first base, particularly if Heyward leaves. They were 25th in the big leagues in home runs last season, with 137, and first could represent one way to address that problem. Chris Davis would represent a huge improvement, and Korean slugger Byung-Ho Park might be a lower-cost option. Of the two, Park might be somewhat more likely — the Cards bid on Jung-Ho Kang last offseason, and GM John Mozeliak said at the time that the organization was interested in delving further into the market for Asian players. If the Cardinals do re-sign Heyward, they could pass on first base upgrades and have Piscotty spell Matt Adams there on occasion, particularly against lefties. Adams could also become a trade candidate in that scenario — he didn’t hit well in 2015, but a team with a bigger hole at first (or a need for DH) could have interest in taking a flyer on his bat.
Trevor Rosenthal, Kevin Siegrist and Seth Maness will all presumably be back in the bullpen. The Cardinals can also hope for more from Jordan Walden, who missed most of 2015 with a shoulder injury. A variety of other pitchers, including Sam Tuivailala, Miguel Socolovich and Lyons, could also contribute. It wouldn’t be a surprise to the Cardinals add a lefty to complement Siegrist, though, particularly if they plan on saving Lyons to start if needed. Lefty Randy Choate is a free agent, and the Cards might benefit from adding someone who they trust a little more against righties. Someone like Antonio Bastardo or Tony Sipp would make sense, although those pitchers figure to be in demand this offseason, with a relatively thin group of lefty relievers on the market. If the Cardinals can’t find someone from outside the organization, minor league southpaw Dean Kiekhefer could be a possibility. The Cards will also likely at least consider re-signing righty Carlos Villanueva, who was effective in multi-inning stints last season, although the need for him would be lessened somewhat by replacing Choate with a lefty capable of pitching full innings.
The Cards will also need to address their bench somewhat. They have solid outfield depth, but they’re a bit thin on catching and infielders. At catcher, Cody Stanley would probably have been the next man up if Cruz departs, but he’ll be serving an 80-game PED suspension for much of next season. The Cardinals can also use a somewhat stronger backup catcher than they’ve had recently, too, with Yadier Molina getting older (he’s now 32) and coming off a subpar offensive season. And now that the Cardinals have outrighted Pete Kozma, they only have Greg Garcia as an obvious backup to Jhonny Peralta and Kolten Wong, unless they want to push Cuban shortstop Aledmys Diaz to the big leagues after only 58 Triple-A plate appearances (or use minor league vet Dean Anna, who remains on their 40-man roster even though they showed little interest in him last season).
Beyond the roster tweaking, though, a key problem for the Cardinals this season is how to maintain, or even approximate, the amazing pitching results they got in 2015. The Cards’ 2.82 team ERA ran a full run behind their xFIP and about three quarters of a run behind their SIERA. They held batters to a .275 wOBA with runners on base and .266 with runners in scoring position. Each mark was at least 20 points better than their nearest competitor. They left 79.4% of runners on base, more than four percentage points better than the next-best team. Ed Feng of the Power Rank calculates that the Cardinals saved 105 runs more than expected via the clustering (or lack thereof) of their opponents’ hits.
The Cardinals gave about a third of that cluster luck back on offense. Still, as Ben Lindbergh of Grantland suggested in August, it’s difficult to find reasons that fully explain how the Cardinals’ pitchers got such great results last season. It’s probably unwise, therefore, to expect them to do so again in 2016, just as the Cards’ 2014 offense didn’t maintain anything resembling the amazing .330 average with runners in scoring position they’d posted the previous year.
Obviously, though, there isn’t much the Cardinals can do to address that problem other than to attempt to upgrade their roster the way they normally would. And, of course, they won 100 games last year, and it generally takes some good fortune to be that successful, even if you’re great. The Cardinals could win ten fewer games in 2016 and still be competitive. If they’re able to re-sign Heyward, or compensate for his departure with additions elsewhere, they should be right in the thick of the NL Central race yet again.