The Cardinals brought in some new faces and some old friends, as they look for a 15th straight winning season and fourth consecutive playoff berth.
Major League Signings
- Steven Matz, SP: four years, $44MM
- Drew VerHagen, SP/RP: two years, $5.5MM
- Corey Dickerson, OF: one year, $5MM
- Albert Pujols, 1B: one year, $2.5MM
- T.J. McFarland, RP: one year, $2.5MM
- Nick Wittgren, RP: one year, $1.2MM
2022 spending: $22.2MM
Total spending: $60.7MM
Trades and Claims
- Claimed SP/RP Ljay Newsome off waivers from Mariners (later outrighted to Triple-A)
- Claimed SP/RP Packy Naughton off waivers from Angels
Notable Minor League Signings
- Kyle Ryan, Aaron Brooks (later selected to the 40-man roster), Cory Spangengerg, Zach McAllister, Blake Parker, James Naile, Anderson Tejeda
- Luis Garcia, Carlos Martinez, J.A. Happ, Jon Lester, Matt Carpenter, Kwang Hyun Kim, Andrew Miller, Austin Dean, Wade LeBlanc, Justin Williams
Before the offseason even began, a lot had already happened in the world of the Cardinals. Yadier Molina signed a one-year extension in August and then quickly declared that 2022 would be his final season. In September, Nolan Arenado went public with the fact that he would not be opting out of his contract. In October, just a couple of days before the team was about to face the Dodgers in the Wild Card game, they reached a one-year extension with Adam Wainwright, thus keeping in place one of the most consistent batteries in the history of the game. If Wainwright and Molina can start 20 games together this year, they will pass the Tigers battery of Mickey Lolich and Bill Freehan for most in baseball history. (Wainwright, it should be noted, has not announced whether the 2022 campaign will be his last.)
Despite all that continuity, there was one major shakeup, with manager Mike Shildt being fired about a week after the Cards lost to the Dodgers in the Wild Card game. This was quite surprising at the time, as there hadn’t been any indication a change of this nature had been imminent. The Cardinals made the postseason in all three of his full seasons at the helm, and on the heels of last September’s 17-game winning streak, there’d even been talk of a potential extension for Shildt after the season. Within less than two weeks of the firing, the club had replaced him from within, promoting bench coach Oliver Marmol to the job.
As the calendar flipped to November and the World Series ended, awards season began, with the Cardinals becoming the first ever team to win five Gold Gloves, highlighting the tremendous defense that helped them be so successful. This defense would go on to be a central part of their offseason moves. It was even reported recently that the club considered moving in the fences of Busch Stadium to make it more hitter-friendly, but ultimately decided against it as that would negate their defensive advantage. With the position player core almost entirely intact for 2022, their offseason would largely be focused on pitching, as well as the new designated hitter slot.
Less than 24 hours into free agency, the club pounced and re-signed lefty T.J. McFarland. He had a nice season in 2021, throwing 38 2/3 innings with a 2.56 ERA. Though he didn’t strike out many hitters (14.6%), his 63.7% ground-ball rate made him an excellent fit in front of that elite Cardinal infield.
On the starting pitching side, the Cardinals reportedly had interest in players such as Andrew Heaney, Alex Cobb and Nick Martinez, but ultimately agreed to a deal with Steven Matz. His four-year, $44MM guarantee beat MLBTR’s three-year, $27MM projection in both years and average annual value. Matz doesn’t have McFarland’s elite ground-ball numbers, but he’s a bit better than most in that regard. He has a career grounder rate of 47%, and his 45.5% mark in 2021 checked in a couple points ahead of last year’s league-wide average of 42.7%. Matz doesn’t have huge strikeout totals, but he owns a career walk rate of 7.1% and was down to 6.6% in 2021. With that golden defense behind him, it’s possible he could improve upon 2021’s 3.82 ERA, as solid as that was.
The Cards further bolstered their pitching staff after the lockout by signing Drew VerHagen, the first MLB signing after the transactions freeze lifted. He had spent the previous two seasons pitching in Japan and used his sinker to record a 53.9% ground-ball rate in that time, continuing with the offseason’s broader acquisition pattern. Nick Wittgren was then added to the bullpen mix. He isn’t specifically a ground-ball machine, but does have good control. He’s only had a walk rate higher than 7.1% in one of his big league seasons thus far. Aaron Brooks, selected to the roster in late March, fits this profile as well. He spent the past two seasons pitching in Korea, with a mediocre strikeout rate but a minuscule 4.4% walk rate and incredibly posting a ground-ball rate above 75% in both years.
During the lockout, it was reported that the Cardinals had some interest in Colin Moran. Given the likelihood of the universal designated hitter being implemented in the new CBA, Moran made some sense as a left-handed bench/DH option. However, after the lockout ended, Moran signed with the Reds and the Cards landed Corey Dickerson for the job instead. The outfielder had slumped in the shortened 2020 campaign and didn’t have a great start to 2021 with the Marlins, but Dickerson finished well after a midseason trade to the Blue Jays.
The Cards had one final move up their sleeves, a move that might have been small in terms of cost but huge in terms of emotion. Franchise icon Albert Pujols, who spent the best years of his Hall-of-Fame career in St. Louis, headed back to Missouri after a decade in California. Shortly after signing, like Molina, he announced that this would be his last season.
Although Pujols’ productivity slipped during his time with the Angels, the Dodgers picked him up last year and showed he could still be a useful part of a team in a limited role. They tried to mostly send him up to the plate to face left-handed pitching, allowing him to hit .254/.299/.460 as a Dodger, around league average production. His overall work against lefties, a .294/.336/.603 output, further proves that he can still produce in the right role. Pujols will likely serve a similar bench/platoon/DH role with the Cards, but the image of him reuniting with Molina and Wainwright will resonate among Cardinals fans beyond his on-the-field contributions.
In the end, there’s a lot of continuity for the Cardinals. They’ve lost some now-retired veterans like Jon Lester and Andrew Miller, but added in a few fresh arms in Matz, VerHagen, Wittgren and Brooks. Although they’re not marquee names, they have a chance to succeed based on the marriage of their particular skills with what the Cardinals already have in house. With the Pirates deep in a rebuild, the Reds cutting costs and the Cubs retooling, St. Louis seems well-positioned for another strong season in the NL Central. In the past 21 years, they’ve only posted a losing record once (78-84 in 2007), have made the playoffs 15 times and won the World Series twice. Wainwright, Molina and Pujols have been huge contributors in that stretch, and this year will provide at least two members of that trio a chance to put the finishing touches on their legacies and an incredible run of success for the franchise.