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The Cardinals had a middling 58-55 record as late as Aug. 8, yet a blistering stretch run saw St. Louis win the NL Central and end a three-year (lengthy by Cardinals standards) postseason drought. The Cards also defeated the Braves in the NLDS before falling to the Nationals in the NLCS, and the one-sided nature of that NLCS sweep continued the somewhat inconsistent nature of the Cardinals’ season. The focus will clearly be on upgrading the offense as the Cards look to take a step forward and get back to the World Series in 2020.
- Paul Goldschmidt, 1B: $130MM through 2024
- Miles Mikolas, SP: $68MM through 2023
- Matt Carpenter, 1B/3B: $39MM through 2021 (includes $2MM buyout of $18.5MM club/vesting option for 2022)
- Dexter Fowler, OF: $33MM through 2021
- Carlos Martinez, SP/RP: $23.5MM through 2021 (includes $500K buyout of $17MM club option for 2022; Cards also have $18MM club option for 2023 with $500K buyout)
- Paul DeJong, SS: $22.5MM through 2023 (includes $2MM buyout of $12.5MM club option for 2024; Cards also have $15MM club option for 2025 with $1MM buyout)
- Yadier Molina, C: $20MM through 2020
- Andrew Miller, RP: $14MM through 2020 (includes $2.5MM buyout of $12MM club/vesting option for 2021)
- Kolten Wong, 2B: $11.25MM through 2020 (includes $1MM buyout of $12.5MM club option for 2021)
- Brett Cecil, RP: $7MM through 2020
- Jose Martinez, 1B/OF: $2MM through 2020
Arbitration-Eligible Players (projections via MLBTR contributor Matt Swartz)
Four straight seasons without a playoff berth would’ve led to rumblings about changes within the St. Louis braintrust, though in the wake of the Cardinals’ solid finish, the organization gave contract extensions to president of baseball operations John Mozeliak, GM Mike Girsch, and manager Mike Schildt.
The front office now faces the challenge of upgrading a lineup that already has a lot of personnel in place. One look at the “guaranteed contracts” section above indicates how much money the Cards have already invested in position players, but none of that group showed much at the plate in 2019. Paul Goldschmidt led the pack with a modest 116 wRC+, which was the lowest of his nine-year career and perhaps a red flag given how the first baseman was just signed to a pricey five-year extension last spring.
Kolten Wong (108 wRC+), Dexter Fowler (103), Jose Martinez (101), Paul DeJong (100), Matt Carpenter (95), and Yadier Molina (87) all fell into the average-to-disappointing range in terms of offensive production. This isn’t to say that there wasn’t significant value here — Wong and DeJong are arguably the best defensive middle infield combo in baseball, and Fowler’s season actually represented a solid bounce-back after a disastrous 2018 campaign. But with this core group all likely to return in 2020, the Cardinals have only a few empty positions to add some extra pop to the lineup.
The infield is set with Goldschmidt at first base, Wong at second base, DeJong at short, and Carpenter penciled in at third base and looking to rebound from a career-worst year. Carpenter is another player who signed an extension last spring, and while his track record is strong enough that St. Louis likely might have brought him back anyway under the terms of his original contract (an $18.5MM club option for 2020, which became guaranteed under his new extension), there also isn’t any guarantee that he’ll avoid further decline as he enters his age-34 season.
Carpenter’s struggles made Tommy Edman’s emergence all the more critical to the Cardinals’ success in 2019. Edman hit .304/.350/.500 in 349 plate appearances as s rookie, getting increased playing time at third base down the stretch in addition to some time spent at second base and in right field. Edman spent the bulk of his minor league career as a shortstop, making him a valuable multi-positional bench piece for the Cards heading into next season. Ideally, the Cardinals hope to use Edman all over the diamond rather than require him to continually step in at third base, since a resurgent Carpenter would go a long way toward rebuilding the offense.
Fowler can play center field in a pinch but is best suited to right field at this stage of his career, thus leaving Harrison Bader as the Cards’ best in-house option up the middle. Bader’s center field glovework is so outstanding that St. Louis could probably live with him as just a defense-first regular, if the rest of the lineup could better pick up the offensive slack. The Cardinals would be overjoyed if Bader replicated his 2018 numbers (107 wRC+ in 427 PA), but if not, the club could go with some kind of a timeshare with Fowler in center. Fowler did play 377 innings there in 2019.
That still wouldn’t be a big solve in a St. Louis outfield that is full of question marks, though it isn’t to say that the Cardinals are short on personnel. Beyond Fowler, Bader, the defensively-limited Martinez, and utilitymen Edman and Yairo Munoz, there’s also top prospect Tyler O’Neill ready for a longer look, Lane Thomas and Randy Arozarena as two more youngsters who looked good in limited action during their rookie seasons, and another star prospect in Dylan Carlson down at Triple-A.
It’s a group that is long on potential, but there isn’t guarantee that that potential will manifest itself in everyday solutions for the 2020 roster. Free agents like Corey Dickerson, Kole Calhoun or other veterans who could be signed to relatively inexpensive shorter-term deals would add some proven ability to the mix.
In terms of longer-term commitments, the Cards have had some recent discussions with Marcell Ozuna’s camp about a possible reunion. The common thinking had long been that the Cardinals would let Ozuna walk in free agency after two decent but unspectacular years in St. Louis, with the Cards collecting a compensatory draft pick via the qualifying offer that Ozuna is likely to reject.
That extra pick could also make the Cardinals more likely to surrender a pick of their own to sign one of the other nine QO free agents. Of that group, Josh Donaldson has long been a Cardinals target, though signing him would create the problem of what to do with Carpenter. Will Smith would help firm up a bullpen that has some ninth inning questions — if Mozeliak and Girsch aren’t hesitant about committing another big contract to a reliever after the underwhelming results from Brett Cecil and Andrew Miller in St. Louis.
Gerrit Cole will likely fall beyond the Cards’ price range, but Madison Bumgarner, Zack Wheeler, Jake Odorizzi or even Stephen Strasburg could be targeted in an effort to further solidify an already strong rotation. Jack Flaherty emerged as the Cardinals’ ace down the stretch, while Miles Mikolas, Dakota Hudson, and Adam Wainwright all provided quality innings.
Wainwright seems likely to be re-signed, but given his age and the shaky peripherals that underlined Hudson’s seemingly sharp 3.35 ERA, one more veteran arm would definitely add some reinforcement to the starting five. Beyond the qualifying offer types, names like Cole Hamels, Dallas Keuchel, or Kyle Gibson would make sense. The grounder-heavy attack of the latter two pitchers would make them particularly good fits for a strong defensive team like the Cardinals.
In terms of in-house rotation depth, Daniel Ponce de Leon, Austin Gomber, or Genesis Cabrera could be deployed as starters or relievers. Former top prospect Alex Reyes is also technically in the mix, but it’s anyone’s guess as to what Reyes could add to the bullpen or rotation after yet another injury-plagued year. At this point, he’s thrown all of 67 1/3 innings between the majors and minors over the past three seasons combined.
Perhaps the more realistic X-factor is Carlos Martinez, who will be given another look as a starting pitcher in Spring Training. Shoulder problems forced Martinez into the bullpen in the last two seasons, though the righty made the most of the situation by delivering some strong numbers in 2019 (3.17 ERA, 9.9 K/9, 2.94 K/BB over 48 1/3 IP) and even taking over closing duties in the wake of Jordan Hicks’ Tommy John surgery on June 26. Hicks could return late next season.
Depending on what additions are make to the starting five, Martinez might well end up as the closer again, though St. Louis could still look to add another reliever with closing experience to the pen. Smith would be the biggest possible get, but even a lower-tier option like Sergio Romo would be much less costly and perhaps all the cushion the Cardinals need given Martinez’s success in the closer role. Among internal options, Miller has saved some games in the past, and breakout reliever Giovanny Gallegos could also be considered for save situations.
Backup catcher is the most obvious bench need, and re-signing Matt Wieters might be the easiest potential option. The Cards would likely prefer Wieters or another experienced backstop ahead of Andrew Knizner, who made his MLB debut last season and has been tabbed as the Cardinals’ catcher of the future….assuming the ageless Molina ever retires, that is. Molina is looking for a rebound season after his play, particularly his offense, was hampered by thumb problems in 2019.
One wrinkle to the team’s underachieving play for much of the season is that St. Louis might already have a good idea about what some of its assets might net on the trade market. Such players as Carlos Martinez, Jose Martinez, O’Neill, Thomas, and more were mentioned in trade rumors last summer and even last offseason. Given the crowded roster, one can certainly make the case that the Cardinals are well-suited to be a popular figure in trade negotiations this winter.
Aside from Goldschmidt, Flaherty, Molina, and probably Mikolas and Gallegos, it could be argued that every player on the Cardinals’ big league roster could be a trade candidate, depending on how big a splash the club feels it needs. Packaging a young outfielder with Fowler to clear the outfield logjam and get Fowler’s contract off the books? Likewise, maybe packaging a young player with Carpenter, if another team wants to take the risk on a Carpenter bounce-back? Selling relatively high on Wong or DeJong? There are no shortage of scenarios that could be floated, as the Cardinals have an on-paper surplus at multiple positions and have shown the willingness to spend in free agency to address any other roster holes. Currently, the Cards project to an Opening Day payroll of about $162MM, which would match their Opening Day mark from 2019. Trades could lower that total outlay, of course, and it’s possible that ownership is willing to push a bit further on the heels of an NLCS return.
The Cards have more questions than most teams coming off a League Championship Series appearance, but there’s enough talent on hand and enough potential for future moves that they could be one of the offseason’s more fascinating teams to watch.