The Cardinals brought back a pair of familiar faces, and swung one of the winter’s biggest trades to add a new star to the lineup.
Major League Signings
Trades & Claims
- Acquired 3B Nolan Arenado and $51MM from the Rockies for LHP Austin Gomber, 3B Mateo Gil, IF Elehuris Montero, RHP Tony Locey, and RHP Jake Sommers
- Acquired a player to be named later from the Angels for OF Dexter Fowler and $12.75MM
- Acquired C Ali Sanchez from the Mets for cash considerations
- Acquired RHP Jose Quezada from the Phillies for cash considerations
Notable Minor League Signings
- Kolten Wong, Brad Miller, Max Schrock, John Brebbia (non-tendered), Rangel Ravelo (non-tendered), Matt Wieters (still unsigned)
For the first two-plus months of the offseason, the entire NL Central seemed focused on trimming payroll rather than adding talent. The Cardinals were no exception, as they chose to buy out Kolten Wong for $1MM rather than exercise their $12.5MM club option on the second baseman for 2021.
The decision brought a swift end to Wong’s eight years in St. Louis, and it left the team without one of the sport’s top defensive players. For a Cardinals team that relied on excellent run prevention (the Cards ranked first in Defensive Runs Saved, fourth in UZR/150, and fifth Outs Above Average) and pitching rather than a lackluster offense, losing Wong was no small matter.
In hindsight, St. Louis fans might not have minded the long wait, as the Cardinals aggressively swung into action in late January and found a significant upgrade on Wong. Nolan Arenado had long been speculated as a potential Cardinals trade target, and rumor became reality when the Cards landed the five-time All-Star in a complex deal that both required some reworking of Arenado’s contract, and left the Rockies fanbase irate.
The Cardinals gave up a decent but expendable pitcher in Austin Gomber and four middle-to-lower tier prospects in exchange for not just Arenado, but $51MM from the Rockies to help cover Arenado’s salary in 2021 ($35MM, with $20MM of that money deferred) and a newly-added contract year in 2027 ($15MM). Another opt-out opportunity was inserted into Arenado’s deal after the 2022 season to go along with his previously-existing opt-out following the 2021 season, so if Arenado chooses to walk away next winter, the Cards technically won’t have paid a cent of payroll for Arenado’s services.
Since Arenado is owed $179MM through 2027, would he really consider using one of his opt-outs and leaving the bulk of that guaranteed money on the table? If he turns in such spectacular numbers that the question is even debatable, the Cardinals would still probably consider the trade to have been worth the effort. But, needless to say, the Cards are certainly counting on Arenado as a franchise cornerstone for the bulk of the next decade.
There is some risk on the Cardinals’ end, as Arenado is coming off a subpar 2020 season that saw him hit only .253/.303/.434 over 201 plate appearances. A shoulder injury did hamper Arenado for much of the year, however, and between the health issue, the small sample size, and perhaps the cloud of frustration that surrounded Arenado’s final days in Colorado, there is certainly reason to expect that he can rebound with a vintage season in 2021.
With Arenado now locking down the hot corner, the St. Louis infield consists of Paul Goldschmidt at first base, Paul DeJong at shortstop, and Tommy Edman moving over to second base as Wong’s replacement. Since the NL apparently won’t have the designated hitter slot available, Matt Carpenter will now look to win some plate appearances away from Edman at second base, but Carpenter may ultimately just be a very well-paid bench bat. Despite Carpenter’s career track record, his lack of production over the last two seasons makes it hard to argue that he deserves more regular work on a team planning to contend.
Dexter Fowler had only been slightly more productive than Carpenter over the 2019-20 seasons, and the Cards chose to part ways with Fowler by swapping him to the Angels for a player to be named later. Since the Cardinals are covering almost all of Fowler’s remaining salary obligations, the trade wasn’t a salary dump. It seemed as if the Cards just wanted to move on from a player who had been an inconsistent performer over his four years in St. Louis, and clear room for younger outfielders.
The Cardinals are still putting a lot of faith in that young outfield mix, as they didn’t add any proven veteran names to the depth chart. Apart from Harrison Bader’s big numbers against left-handed pitching, there wasn’t much offense to be found in the St. Louis outfield in 2020, but with some extenuating circumstances — star prospect Dylan Carlson was in his first MLB season, and Lane Thomas had a rough time recovering from COVID-19.
Should any of this group or Tyler O’Neill struggle again, however, the Cardinals might consider a midseason addition to finally restore some consistent pop to the outfield. Further down the depth chart, Justin Williams, Austin Dean, or a minor league signing like Matt Szczur could find an opening for playing time, and if the Cardinals wanted to get creative, the outfield could be Nolan Gorman’s path to a quicker Major League promotion. The team was planning to test Gorman as an outfielder and second baseman, since third base (Gorman’s regular position) is now Arenado’s spot for the foreseeable future.
While the Arenado trade was being finalized and approved by the league, the Cardinals also worked to complete two contracts for a pair of St. Louis icons. Though other teams showed interest in both Adam Wainwright and Yadier Molina (with Molina even hinting that he could retire if he didn’t get an acceptable contract offer), it always seemed somewhat inevitable that the two long-time teammates would be back for what could be their mutual final season under the Arch.
There was obviously more than just nostalgia at work in bringing the duo back. Molina hit only .262/.303/.359 in 156 PA but his defense was still strong, and Molina was also one of the many Cardinals sidelined by a COVID-19 diagnosis. Molina has already outlasted multiple would-be successors in St. Louis, but for now, the plan is for Molina to act as a bridge for Andrew Knizner and (in a few years) prospect Ivan Herrera.
Wainwright ended up being a pillar of stability in the rotation, leading the team with 65 2/3 innings and posting a 3.15 ERA, even if his Statcast numbers weren’t very flattering. It may be a tall order to expect a similar performance in Wainwright’s age-39 season, yet the Cardinals may need all the help they can get considering how injury concerns have already surfaced in Spring Training; Miles Mikolas has been set back by shoulder troubles, while 2020 rookie sensation Kwang Hyun Kim has been bothered by a bad back.
The Cardinals at least explored signing Jake Odorizzi, Taijuan Walker, or James Paxton, but instead, Wainwright ended up being the only major pitching acquisition for either the St. Louis rotation or bullpen. There are enough notable relievers still on the market (or could join the market as Spring Training cuts commence) that the Cards could certainly still add at least one veteran prior to Opening Day, but just like with their outfield, the Cardinals are counting on a lot of youngsters to step up, and for experienced hurlers like Carlos Martinez and Jordan Hicks to return strong from injuries.
Getting even one more proven arm would be very helpful for the team, but the question remains about exactly how much John Mozeliak’s front office has available to spend. The Cardinals were reportedly looking for “cash-neutral” trades early in the offseason, and in a division where most other teams were looking to shed salaries, even standing pat payroll-wise gives St. Louis some advantage.
Before salaries were prorated due to the shortened season, the Cards went into 2020 prepared to spend roughly $167.5MM on payroll. According to Cot’s Baseball Contracts, the Cardinals have less than $142MM committed for 2021, factoring in the Rockies’ coverage of Arenado’s entire salary. That would seem to indicate that there’s probably some room for additional spending during the season, if Mozeliak and GM Michael Girsch need to make an upgrade at the trade deadline.
There is a bit of a half-measures feel to the Cardinals offseason given their relatively small number of transactions, though a case can be made that the Cardinals already have enough to win the NL Central. The team finished 30-28 last season despite a widespread coronavirus breakout in the clubhouse, so a healthier version of mostly that same roster plus Arenado looks pretty good on paper. What worked over 60 games in 2020 may not work over 162 games, of course, so Mozeliak and Girsch could certainly have more adjustments to make.
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