MLBTR is publishing Offseason Outlooks for all 30 teams. Click here for the other entries in this series.
With an extra-inning loss to the division rival Cubs on September 28th, the St. Louis Cardinals were eliminated from postseason contention, marking the first time the club has missed the playoffs in back-to-back seasons since 2007-2008. However, the future of the organization looks bright. An invasion of talent from the minor leagues came up this season to support a core of proven veterans, and the continued development of that fresh crop of talent alone will probably help the team take a step forward. The Cardinals have a deep roster and a bit of wiggle room in their payroll to fill in the gaps, including a potential big one in the rotation should free agent starter Lance Lynn decide to sign elsewhere.
- Adam Wainwright, SP: $19MM through 2018
- Dexter Fowler, OF: $66MM through 2021
- Yadier Molina, C: $60MM through 2020
- Matt Carpenter, 1B: $28.5MM through 2019 ($18.5MM option for 2020, $2MM buyout)
- Brett Cecil, RP: $22.75MM through 2020
- Jedd Gyorko, 3B: $22MM through 2019 ($13MM option for 2020, $1MM buyout)
- Carlos Martinez, SP: $46MM through 2021 ($17MM option for 2022, $500k buyout/$18MM option for 2023, $500k buyout)
- Kolten Wong, 2B: $20.75MM through 2020 ($12.5MM option for 2021, $1MM buyout)
- Stephen Piscotty, OF: $29.5MM through 2022 ($12.5MM option for 2023, $1MM buyout
Arbitration-Eligible Players (service time in parentheses; projections via MLBTR & Matt Swartz)
- Trevor Rosenthal (5.058) – $7.9MM
- Michael Wacha (4.062) – $5.9MM
- Tyler Lyons (3.070) – $1.3MM
- Randal Grichuk (3.034) – $2.8MM
- Non-tender candidates: Rosenthal
While many were surprised at the Cardinals’ pessimistic preseason PECOTA projection, the club ended up finishing 83-79, good for third in the NL Central. But the team scored 761 runs while allowing 705, putting their pythagorean record at 87-75. If this record is a better reflection of the club’s true talent, then it’s easy to imagine that the Cardinals only need a little retooling to make it back to the playoffs in 2018. They have an astonishingly deep MLB roster, and equally impressive vertical depth in the upper minors.
That’s good news for manager Mike Matheny and the Cardinals’ front office… the club hasn’t missed the playoffs in three straight seasons since before the turn of the century. The expectations of St. Louis fans are always high, and there’s probably at least some pressure not to disappoint them for a third consecutive year.
After firing pitching coach Derek Lilliquist and bullpen coach Blake Ilsley, the Cardinals hired Mike Maddux to be their new pitching coach. The Redbirds were said to be seeking a “more modern approach to starter usage and bullpen deployment“, and ultimately landed on Maddux after considering many potential candidates. They’ll hope his 15 years of experience can help get the most out of their young set of hurlers.
One question facing the Cardinals is whether or not they ought to bring back Lance Lynn. They’ll first need to decide whether or not to give him a qualifying offer, which is set at $17.4MM this year. Lynn’s 4.82 FIP and 10.1% walk rate in 2017 were both career highs, while his 19.7% strikeout rate was a career low. Part of that could possibly be attributed to Lynn losing a full mile per hour on his fastball after missing all of 2016 due to a torn UCL and resulting Tommy John surgery. However, his actual results (3.43 ERA across 186 1/3 innings) were typically strong, and Lynn has a great track record of success in the majors. From 2012 through 2015, the right-hander posted a 60-38 record and was worth 13 fWAR, never pitching fewer than 175 innings.
Since the Cardinals did not receive revenue sharing in 2017, they wouldn’t be eligible to receive a compensatory pick after the first round under MLB’s new qualifying offer system if Lynn declines a QO. Instead, they’d receive a pick after Competitive Balance Round B, which takes place after the draft’s second round. Regardless, Lynn’s earning power is likely to be far more than $17.4MM in total guarantees, so the likelihood that he’ll decline a QO should be incentive enough for the Cards to offer him one and acquire the draft pick (and corresponding bonus pool money).
Beyond that, it doesn’t seem as though the Cardinals have all that much interest in bringing Lynn back. He’s rumored to be seeking a Jordan Zimmerman-sized deal, which seems a bit outlandish and certainly more than the Cardinals are willing to pay for him. Carlos Martinez, Michael Wacha and Adam Wainwright will occupy three spots in the rotation, and beyond that the Cardinals would probably like to see what they have in Luke Weaver and Jack Flaherty rather than take a risk on a 30 year-old who’s only a year removed from Tommy John surgery. Speaking of which, highly regarded young rightyAlex Reyes will return from his own Tommy John surgery at some point in 2018. The likelihood that he’ll return early in the year will be a factor the Cards take into consideration when addressing their rotation this offseason.
Wainwright, the longtime franchise icon, hasn’t been the same since missing most of the 2015 season due to a ruptured Achilles tendon. 2017 was his worst season ever, though his peripherals suggest he wasn’t quite as bad as his 5.11 ERA would indicate. Still, he missed significant time with elbow and back injuries. The four-time Cy Young vote-earner seems to no longer be a reliable rotation option, and while the club doesn’t seem interested in spending money to back Lynn, they could potentially look to dole out a one-year deal to a veteran swingman type who could pitch out of the bullpen while Wainwright is healthy. Mike Minor, Francisco Liriano and Wade Miley are potential options in that arena. It’s also possible that the Cards could sign a more reliable starter on a short-term deal, and have Weaver or Flaherty begin the season at Triple-A. However, with three high-upside arms (including Reyes) itching to prove themselves at the major league level, it’s somewhat difficult — albeit hardly impossible — to imagine the Cardinals shelling out significant dollars on a long-term contract for a top-tier or even second-tier free agent starter. If anything, they have enough prospect depth to attempt a trade for Gerrit Cole or Michael Fulmer. Still, they have the payroll space to go after Yu Darvish or Jake Arrieta, for example, and over the course of the offseason there are many scenarios that could leave them wanting to inquire on those names.
With Seung Hwan Oh and Juan Nicasio set to become free agents, and Trevor Rosenthal a good bet to be non-tendered after undergoing Tommy John surgery, the Cardinals bullpen will require some attention this offseason. Oh was mostly ineffective in 2017, but the club might seriously consider a reunion with Nicasio, who served as their closer during the final days of the season after joining the team in September. Tyler Lyons, John Brebbia, Brett Cecil, Matt Bowman, Sam Tuivailala and the hard-throwing Sandy Alcantara all pitched well during this past season and are all under contract for 2018; that group alone is a great start.
Whether the club brings back Nicasio or not, they might be interested in a free agent relief ace to close out games. They’re likely to at least inquire on Greg Holland, Addison Reed and Wade Davis. Spending big on top-tier relievers isn’t something the Cardinals have done historically, however. It’s arguably more likely they’ll give out a cheaper multi-year deal to a proven, high-upside reliever without the marquee closer price tag, like they did when they signed Brett Cecil last year. I’d expect them to be in on Bryan Shaw in particular, especially if they bring Nicasio back. Joe Smith, Anthony Swarzak and Pat Neshek are some other relievers they’ll probably be in on. There are plenty of late-inning options on the trade market as well. A while back, MLBTR’s own Jeff Todd took a look at the Cardinals’ late-inning reliever situation, and explored all potential options in an in-depth MLBTR original.
The Cardinals’ position player depth chart is as deep as any you’ll see in the major leagues. Seven different St. Louis hitters accumulated at least 2 WAR in 2017, which ties the Dodgers for most in the majors. The one area that was lacking in production for the Cardinals was right field. Stephen Piscotty and Randal Grichuk were both below-average hitters in 2017 by wRC+. It’s too soon to give up on either one, especially considering they’re both just 26 and were both above-average players last season. It’s also worth noting that Piscotty is signed through 2022, so the club is committed to him in a sense.
That being said, the Cards need more overall production and could enter the offseason willing to part with some depth in favor of quality. Their right field situation could put the Cardinals in the mix for Marcell Ozuna or Giancarlo Stanton of the Marlins. It’s been rumored that Miami could try and get out from under the remaining ten years and $295MM on Stanton’s contract, and St. Louis is one of very few teams with both the prospect depth and financial resources to pay up for last year’s home run champ. I wouldn’t expect them to overpay in terms of prospects, but if Stanton does get traded, St. Louis is as good a landing spot as any. And for a contending team, he could be willing to waive his no-trade clause.
As for Ozuna, he’d come with just two years of team control, but would cost a lot more in terms of prospects. The Cardinals have two Triple-A outfielders who rank within MLB pipeline’s top 100 prospects (Tyler O’Neill and Harrison Bader) and are seemingly blocked at the major league level for the near future. But neither seems to have the type of upside needed to bring back a hitter of Ozuna’s caliber. Their more valuable prospects (Reyes, Flaherty and catcher Carson Kelly) will all be relied upon at the major league level this season. I’d imagine that St. Louis will inquire on Ozuna, but that a trade is unlikely to materialize.
Any trade for a right fielder would make Grichuk an obvious trade candidate. Indeed, even if they don’t acquire an outside player, it would seem that the Cardinals don’t really have a need for Grichuk. Piscotty is under contract for at least the next four years, Tommy Pham was the team’s best player by WAR in 2017, while Dexter Fowler is owed $66MM through 2021. Grichuk is projected to make $2.8MM in his first trip through arbitration, and although those dollars won’t force the Cards’ hand, Bader or Magneuris Sierra would fill a fourth outfielder role at the league minimum salary. O’Neill is close to major-league ready as well.
Grichuk has solid power; he’s hit 66 home runs across 1,386 major league plate appearances. His plate discipline, however, has been the cause of multiple demotions since his first call-up in 2014. With a 30% strikeout rate for his career against just a 6% walk rate, Grichuk has mustered just a .297 OBP during his time in the majors. Still, with his power upside and impressive work with the glove, there are plenty of teams could be willing to take a chance on him.
Trading Grichuk is just one of a few routes the Cardinals could go in order to make use of a surplus of talent on their 40-man roster. The Redbirds have a surprisingly deep collection of solid talent on their expanded roster, but they might consider a number of moves aimed at consolidating that solid talent into elite talent. Though they have four players set to become free agents, they have a number of factors they’ll need to take into consideration in regards to their roster this winter.
Reyes will need to be re-added to the 40-man when he comes off the 60-day DL. While that might not seem like a big deal in and of itself, things get far more complicated when one considers that the Rule 5 Draft is fast approaching. In recent years, the Cardinals have lost high-upside players like Luis Perdomo and Allen Cordoba to the Padres. This season, they have another three players who rank within their top 20 prospects that will become vulnerable to being plucked away by another club, on the condition that they be kept on that new club’s 25-man roster for the entire 2018 season. No. 86 overall prospect O’Neill is a sure bet to claim a spot, while lefty Austin Gomber and outfielder Oscar Mercado might be deemed worthy of protection as well.
So St. Louis faces a tough set of questions in regards to their expanded roster. If they add all four of the above youngsters to the 40-man, those players would take the roster spots of all four of their outgoing free agents. At that point, they’d need to begin designating a player for assignment with each free agent signing they make this winter. If they don’t add Gomber or Mercado, they risk losing either or both for a paltry $50K apiece. So we certainly shouldn’t be surprised if the Cardinals end up trading multiple prospects for a single talented major league player early in the offseason, or even if they end up trading someone like Grichuk or Aledmys Diaz for minor league talent.
In recent seasons, the Cardinals have given out long-term contract extensions to young core players. Before the 2017 season, they extended both Martinez and Piscotty. The year prior, they gave second baseman Kolten Wong a contract extension. Going into 2018, there aren’t many players that fit the bill for this type of deal. Tommy Pham would seem like an obvious candidate at first glance, but he’s already 29, so the club might be better served to ride his contract out through arbitration. Paul DeJong and Jose Martinez performed well in 2017, but both have less than a full season’s worth of MLB experience; there’s no rush to lock either player up. The best extension candidate for St. Louis might be right-handed starter Michael Wacha, if they think he has turned a corner, although it’s worth noting that Tyler Lyons could get a consideration as a breakout lefty reliever.
The offseason path for the Cardinals will be one of the most difficult to predict in all of Major League Baseball. They don’t have any glaring holes on their roster, but they’re in need of some upgrades overall. They could make those upgrades in a number of different places and have the resources in payroll space, prospect depth and major league talent necessary to get something done. Count on a busy winter for the front office in St. Louis.