The Cardinals haven’t had a losing record since 2007. Despite a recent playoff “drought” — a three-year stretch from 2016-18 that only qualifies as such by the St. Louis organization’s lofty standards — the Cards have run out a solid roster on an annual basis. Riding a blend of productive veterans, high-end prospects who emerge as key contributors and what seems like an out-of-nowhere success story or two every year (we see you, Tommy Edman), the Cardinals have established themselves among MLB’s more consistent franchises.
And while their strong track record in player development allows them to continually filter up quality young players to complement the veterans on the roster, it also inevitably leaves some talented players on the outside looking in. Because they’ve been able to develop so many quality youngsters, the Cards simply don’t have the space to play them all. (That’s a partial driver behind the outfield carousel they’ve experienced in recent years — though certainly not the only factor.)
Just look at some of the young players the Cardinals have traded away prior to 2019 while still managing to field competitive rosters:
- Carson Kelly, Luke Weaver — traded to D-backs in the Paul Goldschmidt deal
- Tommy Pham — traded to Rays in return for Genesis Cabrera, Justin Williams and Roel Ramirez
- Oscar Mercado — traded to the Indians in exchange for Conner Capel and Jhon Torres
- Luke Voit — traded to the Yankees in the deal that brought Giovanny Gallegos to St. Louis
- Sandy Alcantara, Zac Gallen — traded to the Marlins in the Marcell Ozuna deal
- Marco Gonzales — traded to the Mariners in return for Tyler O’Neill
- Randal Grichuk — traded to the Blue Jays in return for Dominic Leone and Conner Greene
That’s nine big league regulars/rotation pieces shipped out — in some cases, for disappointing returns — without causing the final on-field product to dip below .500. It’s a testament to the Cardinals’ amateur scouting and player development staffs that they’re so regularly deep with talent that they’re able to ship it off for veterans, potential areas of need or larger quantities of further-off talent. Certainly, not all of those swaps have worked out — Mercado or Pham would look nice in the outfield right now — but the Cardinals have rarely come up completely empty-handed on a deal.
Trades of this nature have become the norm for the Cards, and it’s likely that will continue to be the case. With Yadier Molina reportedly talking extension prior to the shutdown and Paul Goldschmidt signed five more years, for instance, the Cards look to have a pair of roadblocks to some more young talent. The outfield, too, has more names than playing time available. It seems likely that we’ll see more young players change hands as a result in the next calendar year, so let’s run through some possibilities.
If a Molina extension does indeed come together, that doesn’t leave much of a path to regular playing time for 25-year-old Andrew Knizner — a fairly well-regarded backstop whose bat looks close to big league ready. In 83 games and 341 plate appearances in Triple-A, Knizner is a .283/.362/.453 hitter with an 8.2 percent walk rate and just a 13.1 percent strikeout rate. Scouting reports on Knizner question his receiving and framing skills, but he notched a 42 percent caught-stealing rate with Triple-A Memphis in 2019.
If Knizner does indeed change hands following a Molina extension — the Cards brought Matt Wieters back to serve as his backup again — then perhaps 19-year-old Ivan Herrera will emerge as the true heir-apparent to Molina and his Hall of Fame legacy.
Luken Baker isn’t an elite prospect — few first-base-only prospects are considered as such — but FanGraphs’ Eric Longenhagen put a 70 grade on his raw power in this year’s scouting report on the hulking 6’4″, 265-pound slugger in the making. Baker hasn’t tapped into that power just yet, though he spent the 2019 season in a pitcher-friendly Florida State League (Class-A Advanced). He’s managed his strikeouts to this point (21.6 percent) and also walked in 10.5 percent of his plate appearances. With Goldschmidt entrenched at first base through 2024, there’s no hope of Baker emerging as a regular in the near future, which seemingly puts him on a similar track to Voit.
Elsewhere on the roster, 27-year-old Rangel Ravelo (28 later this month) is out of minor league options and limited to a bench role. A career .293/.369/.452 hitter in 1652 Triple-A plate appearances who also slashed .310/.385/.473 in 649 Double-A plate appearances, Ravelo has done enough in the minors to suggest that he could hit in the big leagues. He’s played a little corner outfield, so perhaps the Cards view him as a replacement for the recently traded Jose Martinez. However, it’s possible that another club could view him as a potential late-blooming regular at first base.
The Dexter Fowler signing clearly hasn’t panned out as hoped, but the switch-hitting veteran’s five-year, $82.5MM deal runs through the 2021 season. Had the 2019 campaign been as much of a struggle as his 2018 season, he’d perhaps be a release candidate, but Fowler’s bat bounced back to roughly league-average levels last year (103 wRC+, 98 OPS+), and his contract should grant him a decent leash.
Harrison Bader was one of the game’s best defenders in center (14 Defensive Runs Saved, 12.9 Ultimate Zone Rating, 13 Outs Above Average), so he’s probably locked into center field despite a rough sophomore showing at the dish (.205/.314/.366).
Left field was to be determined in camp, with the likes of Dylan Carlson, Tyler O’Neill, Lane Thomas, Justin Williams and waiver claim Austin Dean vying for playing time. Carlson ranks among baseball’s elite overall prospects and should be installed as a regular at some point in 2020 (assuming a season is played). Even in the unlikely event that the club quickly moves on from Fowler, there’d be O’Neill, Thomas and Williams left to compete for that theoretical spot.
O’Neill was a ballyhooed prospect himself when acquired from Seattle, and though strikeouts have been an issue, he’s a passable corner defender with light-tower power and a history of drawing walks in the upper minors. Thomas can play a solid center field and owns a career .270/.342/.472 slash through 444 plate appearances in Triple-A. Williams is a corner bat who draws good marks for his raw power. He’s yet to show off that power in the minors, but FanGraphs points to his high-end exit velocity as a source of optimism if he can add more lift to his swing.
Most organizations would love to have the “more talent than playing time” issue on the big league roster — and you certainly won’t head president of baseball ops John Mozeliak or GM Mike Girsch complain about the reality. But that duo and the rest of the Cards’ front office figure to continue to find creative ways to deal with those surpluses, and it shouldn’t come as a big surprise if some of the above names finally get their chance at playing time in another organization,