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Offseason outlook: St. Louis Cardinals

MLB Trade Rumors logo MLB Trade Rumors 10/28/2020 Mark Polishuk, MLB Trade Rumors
a baseball player standing on top of a grass covered field: The potential departures of Yadier Molina (left) and Adam Wainwright have more than just symbolic importance, as the Cards would be left with two more areas of need on a roster that is lacking in sure things. © Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports The potential departures of Yadier Molina (left) and Adam Wainwright have more than just symbolic importance, as the Cards would be left with two more areas of need on a roster that is lacking in sure things.

For the second straight year, the Cardinals overcame a lackluster offense to reach the postseason, although 2020 also saw St. Louis emerge from a widespread COVID-19 outbreak. The Cards now face some tough decisions on veteran cornerstones while they also need to figure out how to make further needed upgrades despite a potential lack of payroll flexibility.

Guaranteed Contracts

  • Paul Goldschmidt, 1B: $103.5 million through 2024
  • Miles Mikolas, SP: $51.75 million through 2023
  • Paul DeJong, SS: $21 million through 2023 (includes $2 million buyout of $12.5 million club option for 2024; Cards also have $15 million club option for 2025 with $1 million buyout)
  • Matt Carpenter, IF: $20.5 million through 2021 (includes $2 million buyout of $18.5 million club/vesting option for 2022)
  • Dexter Fowler, OF: $16.5 million through 2021
  • Carlos Martinez, SP: $12 million through 2021 (includes $500,000 buyout of $17 million club option for 2022; Cards also have $18 million club option for 2023 with $500,000 buyout)
  • Andrew Miller, RP: $12 million through 2021 (club option vested into a guaranteed deal)
  • Kwang Hyun Kim, SP: $4 million through 2021

Arbitration-Eligible Players

Note on arb-eligible players: this year’s arbitration projections are more volatile than ever, considering the unprecedented revenue losses felt by clubs and the shortened 2020 schedule. MLBTR contributor Matt Swartz, who developed our arbitration projection model, used three different methods to calculate different projection numbers. You can see the full projections and an explanation of each if you click here, but for the purposes of our Outlook series, we’ll be using Matt’s 37% method — extrapolating what degree of raise a player’s 2020 rate of play would have earned him in a full 162-game slate and then awarding him 37% of that raise.

Option Decisions

  • Kolten Wong, 2B: $12.5 million club option for 2021 ($1 million buyout)

Free Agents

On the plus side of the payroll equation, the Cardinals don’t have a big arbitration class, and they have quite a few major contributors who are either just becoming arb-eligible or are still in their pre-arb years. The released Brett Cecil’s contract will come off the books, and the Yadier Molina/Adam Wainwright free agent duo represents $25 million in salary, so the Cards could have some money to play with this winter.

The question is, however, whether these savings will be reinvested into payroll. While St. Louis has a lot of inexpensive players, it also has almost $110 million committed to eight players for 2021 (that isn’t counting Kolten Wong’s $12.5 million club option, which we’ll cover later). Like every other team in baseball, the Cardinals are dealing with revenue losses and will be looking to make at least some cutbacks whenever feasible. That said, this is also a veteran win-now team, so the Cards will still be looking to contend.

It leaves president of baseball operations John Mozeliak and GM Mike Girsch with a difficult offseason ahead of them, in part because the 2020 Cardinals are a particularly hard team to evaluate. The coronavirus outbreak affected multiple members of the roster and kept the entire team sidelined for more than two weeks, only adding to the stop-start nature of an already abbreviated season. A case can be made that the front office could try to run it back with mostly the same core group, yet the Cardinals have enough weak points that some changes definitely need to be made.

Molina was one of the COVID-19 positive Cardinals, and the longtime catcher simply never got on track, hitting .262/.303/.359 over 156 plate appearances. That makes it consecutive seasons of subpar offensive production for Molina, but he is still looking for a two-year contract that would take him past his 40th birthday. Letting Molina go would open the door for noted prospect Andrew Knizner to assume at least a share of everyday duties (maybe alongside a veteran such as a re-signed Matt Wieters), and yet are the Cards willing to let a franchise icon depart?

Wainwright represents perhaps a slightly easier decision, as the 39-year-old was still a very effective player last season. Statcast metrics didn’t love his performance, but Wainwright still posted a 3.15 ERA, 3.60 K/BB rate, and 7.4 K/9 over a team-high 65 2/3 innings. Even with a big decline over a fuller season of work, Wainwright still looks like he has something to offer a team, so the question now becomes whether or not the Cardinals could be that team. Wainwright has said he wants to stay in St. Louis but hinted that his fate could potentially be linked to wherever Molina ends up.

Re-signing Wainwright to something close to the one-year, $5 million contract (plus several incentives) that he inked last year would seem like a logical move for the Cardinals, who head into 2021 with some question marks on the pitching staff. Nominal ace Jack Flaherty struggled in 2020, Carlos Martinez battled a severe case of COVID-19 and then suffered a late-season oblique strain and Miles Mikolas’ status for the start of next season isn’t yet known after the righty underwent flexor tendon surgery in late July. On top of that, Dakota Hudson will almost certainly miss all of 2021 after undergoing Tommy John surgery in September.

A lower-tier move such as a reunion with Wainwright might be all the attention the Cards focus on their rotation, since they still have some solid in-house depth. Kwang Hyun Kim proved to be a real find last winter, and the South Korean left-hander solidified his spot in next year’s starting five following an outstanding rookie season. Beyond Kim and Flaherty, the Cardinals also have Daniel Ponce de Leon, Jake Woodford, Johan Oviedo and Austin Gomber to pick up starts, and top prospect Matthew Liberatore could also potentially work his way into the conversation.

There’s also oft-injured Alex Reyes, who stayed healthy (apart from an asymptomatic case of COVID-19) and pitched well in a relief capacity. St. Louis could opt to just keep Reyes in the bullpen to avoid any further injury concerns, and the same logic could also extend to Martinez, who was returning to starting pitching in 2020 after an impressive season and a half working as a reliever. Depending on Martinez’s health situation and the overall state of the rotation, returning him to the closer role (or maybe situational closer duties shared with Reyes) could be a canny way of bolstering an already solid relief corps. Jordan Hicks also figures to be in the ninth-inning mix, although his status is somewhat up in the air after he opted out of the 2020 season due to health concerns and a setback in his recovery from Tommy John surgery in June 2019.

The Cardinals’ ability to deliver consistent pitching and quality defense made them a playoff team, although that path would be much easier with any sort of regular help from the lineup. Paul Goldschmidt wasn’t quite a one-man hit squad in 2020, as St. Louis got an unexpectedly big contribution from utilityman Brad Miller, and center fielder Harrison Bader at least crushed left-handed pitching, even if his splits against righties were mediocre.

Goldschmidt is obviously a cornerstone player, and the Cards would be pleased with Bader as an everyday player (with some platoon possibility) if he continues to mash lefties and provide solid center field defense, although his glovework dropped from excellent in 2018-19 to merely good in 2020.  Beyond those two, however, the Cardinals will go into next season unsure of whether or not Matt Carpenter, Paul DeJong, or Dexter Fowler can turn things around at the plate.

DeJong’s struggles could be explained by a positive COVID-19 diagnosis, although Carpenter has had two straight subpar seasons and Fowler has been hit-and-miss for much of his St. Louis stint. On top of that, Tommy Edman followed up his strong 2019 rookie year with an underwhelming second season, so it remains to be seen if Edman just had a sophomore slump (on top of everything else in 2020) or if he can adjust and become a regular contributor within the infield.

For now, the Cardinals’ infield picture lines up as Goldschmidt at first base, DeJong at shortstop, Carpenter at third base and Edman as the nominal second baseman until a decision is made on Wong. Even though Wong hit only .265/.350/.326 over 208 PA last season, the Cards know what they have in the Hawaii native — roughly average offensive production (a 99 wRC+ and 98 OPS+ from 2015-20) and an often spectacular second base glove.  In a normal offseason, exercising that $12.5 million club option would seem like a relatively easy call for St. Louis, but the Cards are thought to be exploring a contract extension with Wong that would lower his salary for the 2021 season but give him more long-term security.

If an extension can’t be reached, could St. Louis consider simply declining Wong’s option? It seems a little unlikely, considering Wong’s obvious value to both the Cardinals and other teams, yet the possibility can’t be ruled out if St. Louis is lacks payroll wiggle room. The Cards might have some confidence they could get Wong to re-sign at a lower price tag, but a number of second-base needy teams (i.e. the Athletics, Indians, Yankees, Rockies, Phillies, Angels, Cubs and probably others) would provide a lot of competition for Wong’s services.

With Carpenter a question mark, St. Louis will probably look for more infield depth beyond Edman, and re-signing Miller would certainly seem feasible considering how well he played last season. Miller has quietly hit .247/.343/.510 with 20 home runs over 341 PA since the start of the 2019 season, with much of that production coming against right-handed pitching.  Signing a player of Miller’s ilk will become even more of a need if the National League again has the DH for 2021, as he instantly provided the Cardinals with some pop from the new position.

That leaves the outfield, a big problem area in 2020 that nonetheless has hope for improvement. St. Louis outfielders combined for an 82 wRC+ in 2020 (the sixth-lowest total of any team), but Bader did hit lefties well, and star prospect Dylan Carlson seemed to turn a corner in mid-September after being recalled from a demotion to the alternate training site. The Cardinals likely have Bader and Carlson penciled in for two outfield spots, or perhaps 1.5 spots if Carlson plays center field on days when the Cards face a right-handed starter.

That puts no small amount of pressure on a 22-year-old, of course, and it would help the Cardinals immensely if they could count on anything from Fowler, Tyler O’Neill or Lane Thomas. COVID-19 limited Thomas to only 18 games, so there is some expectation that he can rebound as at least a part-time outfield option if healthy. O’Neill is only 25 and not far removed from being a top prospect, but he has yet to translate his hitting potential into big-league numbers.

This much wait-and-see is risky for a team hoping to win in 2021, so if St. Louis makes any sort of notable addition this winter, the outfield is the logical landing spot. As much as trading Randy Arozarena might still weigh heavily on the front office’s mind, the Cardinals could shop O’Neill, Thomas or Bader for a more proven veteran bat. With only one year left on his contract, Fowler might also be moveable in a bad-contract swap or if the Cards are willing to eat some money. If the trade market isn’t the preferred route, the Cardinals could look at free agents, whether it’s pure outfielders such as Joc Pederson, or perhaps multi-position types such as Jurickson Profar or Enrique Hernandez that could help in both the outfield and infield.

There’s probably bound to be speculation about the Cards trying to swing a bigger-ticket trade such as their acquisition of Goldschmidt two offseasons ago, or their rumored interest in Nolan Arenado last winter. But, if payroll concerns were an obstacle to an Arenado trade last year, a deal seems even more unlikely now in the pandemic’s wake.

It’s easy to imagine either a pretty quiet or a pretty busy offseason for the Cardinals, depending on how much change they feel is necessary. After all, this is a club that has been to the postseason in consecutive years, albeit via the expanded playoff field in 2020. The potential departures of Molina and Wainwright have more than just symbolic importance, as the Cards would be left with two more areas of need on a roster that is lacking in sure things.

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