The Cardinals have already gotten a jump on their offseason business, and with some money likely available to be spent, some major upgrades could be made to the 2022 roster.
- Nolan Arenado, 3B: $164MM through 2027 (Arenado has declined to use his opt-out clause following the season; he can opt out of contract following 2022 season)
- Paul Goldschmidt, 1B: $77MM through 2024
- Miles Mikolas, SP: $33.5MM through 2023
- Adam Wainwright, SP: $17.5MM through 2022
- Paul DeJong, SS: $17MM through 2023 (includes $2MM buyout of $12.5MM club option for 2024)(Cardinals also have $15MM club option for 2025 season, with a $1MM buyout)
- Yadier Molina, C: $10MM through 2022
Arbitration-Eligible Players (projected 2022 salaries via MLBTR contributor Matt Swartz)
- Alex Reyes – $3.3MM
- Harrison Bader – $3.7MM
- Jack Flaherty – $5.1MM
- Jordan Hicks – $1.0MM
- Giovanny Gallegos – $2.8MM
- Dakota Hudson – $1.7MM
- Tyler O’Neill – $3.5MM
- Matt Carpenter, IF: $18.5MM club option for 2022 ($2MM buyout)
- Carlos Martinez, SP: $17MM club option for 2022 ($500K buyout)(Cardinals also have $18M club option for 2023 season, with a $500K buyout)
While the Cardinals’ club-record 17-game winning streak was a nice twist for this year’s squad, the late-season surge has almost become routine in St. Louis. Over the last six years, the Cards are 239-238 in the first halves of seasons, and then a whopping 229-162 in the second half.
As fun as these late charges are, St. Louis fans probably wouldn’t mind a team that can actually bank a few more wins earlier in the year, since the Cardinals have only one division title in those six seasons. A few more wins in October also wouldn’t hurt; the Cards fell short in the playoffs for the third straight year, losing to the Dodgers in the NL Wild Card game.
Despite another early postseason exit, it was assumed that manager Mike Shildt’s job was perfectly safe, which is why his firing on Oct. 14 caught many in baseball by surprise. In the phrasing of president of baseball operations John Mozeliak, there were simply too many “philosophical differences” between Shildt and the front office for the relationship to continue, and thus bench coach Oliver Marmol was promoted to the top job in the dugout after the team held a relatively brief managerial search.
The 35-year-old Marmol is baseball’s youngest manager, though he has long been considered a future managerial candidate and (with his entire 15-year professional spent in the St. Louis organization) is no stranger to “The Cardinal Way.” He won’t have the benefit of a learning curve, however, as Cards fans are getting impatient after eight seasons without a World Series appearance.
Despite the deflating ending, there are plenty of positives to be found from the Cards’ season. Nolan Arenado came as advertised, Edmundo Sosa emerged as a nice surprise in the middle infield, and the Cardinals’ outfield went from a question mark to a major strength. Tyler O’Neill had a breakout year, Dylan Carlson had a strong showing in his first full MLB season, and Harrison Bader made a case for himself as a regular by hitting well against both left-handed and right-handed pitching. Considering that all three also displayed standout defense in addition to their strong hitting, the Cards suddenly had one of baseball’s top all-around outfield trios.
With the three outfielders all blossoming at once, 2021 had some vague feeling of a changing of the guard in St. Louis, and yet how different could things really be with Adam Wainwright still throwing to Yadier Molina? After the two franchise icons were re-signed relatively late last offseason, the Cardinals wasted no time in arranging reunions for 2022, signing Molina to a one-year extension in August and then inking Wainwright to another one-year pact in September.
Molina has announced that 2022 will be his final season, so the catcher will finally be hanging up the cleats after 19 years in the majors. Even in his age-38 season, Molina was still delivering quality defense and roughly average offensive production for a catcher, and his game-calling skills and clubhouse leadership are valued almost beyond measure in St. Louis.
Wainwright will return with a hefty raise, going from $8MM in 2021 to $17.5MM next season thanks to an outstanding year that could net him some down-ballot Cy Young Award votes. Though it seemed Wainwright’s career was winding down after a pair of injury-plagued and generally lackluster seasons in 2017-18, the veteran right-hander has found a second wind, and he has quietly been one of baseball’s better starters over the last two years.
Re-signing Molina and Wainwright for a collective $10.5MM increase on their 2021 salaries might have been a little unexpected for the St. Louis front office, yet it is certainly a price the team is comfortable paying, particularly since a lot of other money is coming off the books. Longtime Cardinals Matt Carpenter and Carlos Martinez have multiple seasons of struggles now under their belts, and the Cards are sure to decline expensive club options on both players.
Andrew Miller’s free agency opens up another $12MM in salary, and the Cardinals will also be entirely free of Dexter Fowler’s contract. That puts the payroll for 2022 at roughly $137.22MM, per Roster Resource. Since the Cardinals’ payroll approached $174MM at the end of the 2019 season, there would seem to be room for Mozeliak to add at least one more big contract.
Between Arenado, Molina, O’Neill, Carlson, Bader, and the ever-dangerous Paul Goldschmidt, the Cardinals already have a lot of their position player mix settled. There is much to be decided with the middle infield, however, and the possibility of the DH coming to the National League in the next collective bargaining agreement means that more offense could be required. Ideally, that offense would come from a left-handed bat or two, in order to balance out a largely right-handed Cardinals lineup. Adding some left-handed thump would give the Cards some flexibility to sign another right-handed bench bat…like, for instance, Albert Pujols in what might be the St. Louis legend’s final Major League season.
Turning back to the middle infield, Sosa, Paul DeJong, and Tommy Edman are all fantastic defenders, so they all bring something to the table even if they’re not hitting. That said, DeJong and Edman have both been below-average hitters for each of the last two seasons. And, as fun as Sosa’s 2021 was, there isn’t much in his minor league resume or in his brief MLB career to suggest that he can now be counted on as a reliable bat.
DeJong is by far the most expensive of the trio, so he’d be the most difficult to move if the Cardinals did decide to make a middle infield change. However, the $17MM remaining on DeJong’s contract isn’t an onerous sum, especially since he at least offers elite defense and some decent home run pop. As MLBTR’s Anthony Franco recently illustrated, a team that isn’t willing or able to spend at the top of this year’s free agent shortstop market could turn to a DeJong trade as a backup plan, or perhaps a team that loses its star shortstop (e.g. the Rockies or Astros) could see DeJong as a something of a short-term replacement.
Could the Cardinals themselves land one of the names from that star-studded shortstop class? The rumors of Trevor Story eventually joining his friend Arenado in St. Louis have percolated practically since Arenado was acquired. A big left-handed bat like Corey Seager would be a perfect fit for the Cards’ needs. Or, maybe the Cardinals’ play would be to keep DeJong and Sosa at shortstop, move Edman around the diamond as a utilityman, and acquire a new everyday second baseman. Marcus Semien, Chris Taylor, or Eduardo Escobar are all options on this front depending on how much of a financial splash St. Louis is willing to make. That trio can all play multiple positions, and Taylor could also figure into the outfield mix, just to guard against any regression from the starting trio.
It is also possible the Cardinals have a left-handed hitting middle infield solution already on deck. Top prospect Nolan Gorman has been showing some promise as a second baseman, and his power bat looks ready enough for an MLB debut in 2022. The Cardinals could give Gorman a look at the keystone and instead save their money for a big addition to the rotation.
As tremendous as Wainwright has been, going into a season counting on a 40-year-old to be the ace of a staff is an obvious risk. The next three pitchers penciled into next year’s rotation (Jack Flaherty, Miles Mikolas, Dakota Hudson) combined for 131 2/3 innings in 2021 due to injuries and, in the case of Hudson’s Tommy John rehab, recovery from past injuries. If Wainwright keeps fighting off Father Time and any or all of Flaherty, Mikolas, and Hudson return to their 2019 form, the front of the Cardinals’ rotation looks quite strong.
If not, the Cards run the risk of repeating this past summer, when injuries so badly frayed the team’s depth. Shopping at the top of the market for a frontline ace immediately removes some of the questions from the pitching mix, as the Cardinals could then be more confident that they have enough arms to not only withstand injury, but perhaps to help bolster the bullpen, or even to dangle as trade chips at the deadline.
St. Louis native Max Scherzer has long been coveted by Cardinals fans, and perhaps the veteran would like to cap off his outstanding career by trying to bring another title back to The Gateway City. Or, Marcus Stroman’s grounder-heavy approach could be even more effective if he was pitching in front of the Cards’ terrific defense. Kevin Gausman and Robbie Ray also stand out on the free agent market, or if Mozeliak prefers to swing another trade, he could check in with a team like the Athletics, as Sean Manaea and Chris Bassitt are two members of Oakland’s large and increasingly pricey arbitration class.
Trade deadline additions Jon Lester and J.A. Happ bailed the Cards out by tossing some quality innings, and a reunion with either free agent isn’t out of the question. The same goes for Kwang Hyun Kim. While Kim has also had his share of injury concerns and his peripheral numbers aren’t anything special, the southpaw has posted a 2.97 ERA over his 145 2/3 innings in Major League Baseball.
Turning to the in-house names, Jake Woodford is available to start or perhaps work as a swingman, Johan Oviedo gained more experience in 2021, top prospect Matthew Liberatore is knocking on the door, and the Cardinals are hopeful that at least one of Jordan Hicks or Alex Reyes can be healthy enough to be stretched out as starters. Hicks made a pair of Arizona Fall League starts, and the Cards will at least take a look at him in a starting role next spring (Twitter link via The Athletic’s Katie Woo).
Any of these pitchers could also be used in the bullpen, and the relief corps (like basically every other aspect of the team) rounded itself into a strength for the late-season surge. Giovanny Gallegos pitched well all season and stepped up as the first-choice closer down the stretch. St. Louis will probably add an external veteran or two to the pen, so the team could get someone with some closing experience to act as a safety net. Hicks or Reyes could also again factor into save situations, depending on what ends up happening with their rotation chances.
The Cardinals’ penchant for late comebacks has tended to alleviate some of the pressure on Mozeliak, but the Shildt firing might have removed whatever slack the fanbase has been willing to grant. Marmol is now the third manager hired by Mozeliak, so the pressure will only increase on the longtime executive to get the Cards back over the playoff hump. Could another big swing be in the works? Time will tell, but the Cardinals have the payroll space and perhaps some increased urgency to make a splash.