Offseason In Review: St. Louis Cardinals

This is the latest post of MLBTR’s annual Offseason in Review series, in which we take stock of every team’s winter dealings.

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The Cardinals added a major star via trade but otherwise largely doubled down on their existing roster as they seek to break an uncharacteristic string of postseason-free campaigns.

Major League Signings

Trades And Claims

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Minor League Signings

Notable Losses

[St. Louis Cardinals Depth Chart | St. Louis Cardinals Payroll Information]

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The Cardinals have rolled off eleven-straight winning seasons, which is really quite an accomplishment. But the last three of those campaigns have ended without a posteason berth and the club last won the World Series in 2011. It’s hardly an epic drought, but this is an organization that holds itself to a high standard.

The problem, arguably, was that the club has of late lacked truly premium players on an otherwise deep and talented roster. In 2018, no St. Louis player reached five wins above replacement, as measured by Baseball-Reference. The organization seemed like a prime contender to chase after superstar free agents Bryce Harper and Manny Machado.

Instead of dangling $300MM+ contracts to those younger players, the Cards coughed up some of their solid young MLB assets in a swap that brought in outstanding first baseman Paul Goldschmidt from the Diamondbacks. Luke Weaver has at times looked like a quality, mid-rotation hurler; Carson Kelly at one point seemed the long-term replacement for Yadier Molina. Both will now seek to stake out a career in Arizona while their new team mourns the departure of an all-time franchise great.

That acquisition only brought the Cardinals one year of control over Goldschmidt, who was slated to test the open market next winter. But he and the team cozied up quickly and worked out a contract that meets the needs for each. Defensively limited sluggers just don’t earn like they used to. Goldschmidt turns 32 this September, so he’s hardly youthful. And he’ll take home a bigger deal (albeit without the opt-outs) than that secured last winter by top slugger J.D. Martinez (five years, $110MM). It’s sensible for him to take the money now and understandable that the club was willing to pay something close to open-market value to ensure they keep their new lineup centerpiece.

The other major deal struck by the Cards this winter went to an existing player. Having struck gold with their signing last year of starter Miles Mikolas, the team doubled down with a lengthier contract. It’s a manageable risk at $17MM annually over four years, but also represents a good bit of faith in a pitcher who had not even cracked one hundred MLB innings before his triumphant return stateside last year.

St. Louis president of baseball operations John Mozeliak obviously felt quite good about the organization’s pitching depth on the whole. But he did make one new acquisition to boost the pen, placing a sensible bet on veteran lefty Andrew Miller. The multi-inning relief ace was limited by a balky knee last year and just wasn’t as sharp as usual. If he can recover some of his lost velocity and get batters to start chasing out of the zone again, Miller could be a bargain. Even if not, he still ought to be an effective relief arm so long as he’s able to stay on the field.

Otherwise, the Cardinals picked around the edges of the roster. They decided to give another year to veteran Adam Wainwright to buttress the rotation — which ultimately made it easier, at least in the short term, to part with Weaver. Veteran receiver Matt Wieters was added late in camp; he beat out Francisco Pena for the right to spell Molina here and there. Drew Robinson was snagged as a utility option, while the team also made low-risk depth moves for hurlers including Ryan Meisinger, Mike Hauschild, Chris Beck, and Tommy Layne.

Questions Remaining

There aren’t many holes on this roster. As we touched on at the outset, though, that isn’t really the question. It’s this: did Mozeliak and co. do enough?

The Cardinals play in the most competitive division in baseball, from top to bottom. While most would tab the Reds and Pirates as underdogs, both project as approximately average teams. The Brewers and Cubs have their warts, but those teams won 96 and 95 games apiece last year, respectively. There’s ample wild card competition in the rest of the National League as well.

While adding Goldschmidt is precisely the kind of move the Cards could and should have made to put more wins into their lineup, it’s arguable they should have done more. A spirited pursuit of Harper or Machado may still have made sense. Had they gone big with another acquisition, the Cards could have used any displaced players as trade chips to boost the pitching. Or, the team could have gone straightaway after high-end arms in free agency or trade. A significant rotation upgrade, high-end closer, or multiple top late-inning relievers could all have made sense. Heck, perhaps they still ought to be in on Craig Kimbrel.

Going with the existing options was certainly defensible in many respects, but the Cardinals will need some things to go their way to take the NL Central. The organization continues to pump out young arms, but they’ll be put to the test to a greater extent than had been hoped due to ongoing injury issues for Carlos Martinez. When he’ll be back isn’t known. Neither can we guess at this point what the team will get from the aging Wainwright, oft-injured Michael Wacha, or still-raw Dakota Hudson — a groundball monster who won the final rotation spot in Martinez’s place. Alex Reyes is a fascinating talent but will be handled carefully after a brutal string of injuries. He’ll be in the pen to open the year. Mikolas and Jack Flaherty were excellent last year but are (in quite different ways) still thin on MLB experience.

The pen has some fire — Jordan Hicks, in particular — but would look that much better with a veteran closer sitting atop the depth chart. Otherwise, there wasn’t much need to spend on depth. The club opened with John Brebbia, Dominic Leone, and Mike Mayers supplementing the above-noted players as middle relievers and John Gant on hand as a swingman. There are some veteran pieces available if any of those arms falter; in addition to the minor-league signees, the club held onto Chasen Shreve after bumping him from the MLB roster and could still hope for contributions from rehabbing, high-priced veterans Brett Cecil and Luke Gregerson.

It’s hard to quibble with any of the position players on the roster to open the season; all seem like quality big leaguers. But it’s hard also not to wish that there was one more star-level performer in the mix, with the other players all bumped down a peg on the depth chart. There’s a plethora of ~2 WAR projected players on the roster. If deployed with precision, perhaps the exceedingly deep mix of individuals will play up as a unit. But truly optimal usage is difficult to pull off.

The potential lineup issues are most obvious in the outfield, where the Cardinals feature two bounceback candidates (Marcell Ozuna and Dexter Fowler) who realistically weren’t going anywhere after tough 2018 seasons. Harrison Bader impressed as a rookie, but projection systems expect his bat to take a step back with the bat; it’s the opposite situation for Jose Martinez, a highly talented hitter who probably ought to be on an American League roster. Tyler O’Neill has a chance to be the most productive member of the bunch, but he’ll have to pare back the worrying volume of strikeouts he ran up last year and prove he can overcome the adjustments of MLB pitchers. The Cardinals have already spun off a number of other outfielders in recent seasons — Tommy Pham, Randal Grichuk, Stephen Piscotty, Magneuris Sierra — and yet still seem to have a mix that’s deep but potentially lacking in top-end pieces.

It’s not altogether dissimilar in the infield, though it’s easier there to see why the Cards held pat. Matt Carpenter was the team’s best player last year and is an easy choice to pay nearly everyday. They already locked into Paul DeJong with an extension. There’s a sensible platoon match at second between Kolten Wong and Jedd Gyorko, with the latter joined by Yairo Munoz as utility pieces who can also spell DeJong and help keep the older corner players fresh.

2019 Season Outlook

This club has every hope of returning to the postseason. But it would hardly be surprising to see another disappointing conclusion to the year. It seems fair to say the front office could have pushed harder to boost the near-term outlook, though that would have meant giving up future value in a trade and/or further expanding an Opening Day payroll that is already topping $160MM for the first time in club history.

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