Another year, another unhappy ending for St. Louis baseball. Entering the offseason, the Cardinals again have several questions on their radar. Most of them center around what the club will look like next season, as a couple of key players hit the free agent market.
Some questions are more-lighthearted. So what questions do the St. Louis Cardinals have on their offseason agenda?
1. What Additions Might be Made to the Offense?
There’s two major things to consider before Cardinals fans jump to this question. The first is that St. Louis scored 16 runs in the first two games of their postseason appearance before going scoreless in their season’s final game against San Diego. But by no means was that performance representative of their season, where they finished 24th in scoring and 22nd in team batting average.
Michael Girsch and John Mozeliak likely take the season with a grain of salt, rather than gospel. The Cardinals offense has been a major question of the offseason for several years by this point, and little has been done to address fans’ concerns.
The second factor that plays into a front office decision here considers the free agent talent pool this winter. St. Louis has never been one to outbid other franchises, opting instead toward small-scale deals that sure up what needs the team has targeted. See names like Brad Miller, Miles Mikolas and Kwang Hyun Kim.
St. Louis could use two consistent bench bats and an offensive upgrade at third base. And an above-average outfielder to pair with Dylan Carlson. George Springer is one option that would be a great fit, but the Cards don’t have the salary numbers to sway him. A Nolan Arenado trade seemed to be in the books last year but since has grown more unlikely, leaving the trade market the best option for St. Louis to acquire a hitter.
All this is a long way to say, the player that St. Louis will add is likely on no fan’s radar right now. Rumors will swirl, and fans will be frustrated by inactivity. Eventually they’ll sign someone. Because the offense needs more firepower than they’ve been producing.
2. Does Jack Flaherty Return to Form Next Season?
Short answer: yes. The young right-hander underwent extraordinary circumstances this season, and still found moments that showcased his brilliance. Flaherty pitched the opener for St. Louis and did not appear in another game for 25 days before his next start. That was largely due to the club’s COVID-19 outbreak, and that time off may have affected Flaherty’s rhythm and comfortability.
He is still St. Louis’s premier starter, as proved by Mike Schildt’s confidence to start Flaherty in a win-or-go-home Wild Card game three. Flaherty will start opening day next season against the Cincinnati Reds. No one is disputing any of these facts.
The nature of the question really asks, ‘Is Flaherty as good as 2019 says he was? Or was that performance just luck?’ Which is perfectly reasonable question to ask. With a 4.91 ERA this season and a -0.3 WAR, the ball started to look different out of Flaherty’s hand. Following his opening day start, Flaherty made it past the fifth inning just twice. He only accomplished it once during the regular season.
Five months to reset and prepare should do wonders for Flaherty’s mental acuity. He’s never been one to doubt his own abilities, and some semblance of a normal offseason is likely to help him “bring the spark” next season.
3. What Does the Rotation Look Like Behind Flaherty?
Dakota Hudson underwent Tommy John surgery in late September, so the second surest Cardinal starter might miss all of next season. As a sinker-baller, Hudson also benefitted from solid run support in his first two seasons as a starter, backed by his 2.77 ERA before his injury this year.
On the positive end, Miles Mikolas, who underwent season-ending surgery back in July to repair a strained forearm tendon, should return to the mix. The estimated rehab time for that injury is four months, meaning he’ll return in plenty of time to claim a rotation spot if he performs well.
Kim performed as advertised in his first full season on the mound and is on track to be an integral part of the pitching staff once again. After the Korean left-hander, there is significantly more gray area in the rotation.
It is worth noting that the veteran Adam Wainwright is not a lock to return next season. Wainwright turned 39 earlier this season and has gotten in the habit of signing one-year contracts. But it was Wainwright that proved to be the most effective Cardinal pitcher this season, and he pitched more than 65 innings with just a 3.15 ERA.
One sign the happy marriage might be over came this past week, as Wainwright worked as a commentator on Fox broadcast of the NLDS between the Braves and Marlins. The former ace’s energy was evident throughout the three games of the series. Wainwright even produced his own internet conspiracy, courtesy of his lovable, well-meaning Cardinal teammates.
Which lends the next question some significance…
4. Is Paul DeJong Really a Flat-Earther?
Yes. You read that question correctly.
Adam Wainwright just said on the Fox broadcast that half the Cardinals–including Paul DeJong–are flat-earthers and moon landing conspiracists. What a world we live in.
— Evan Davis (@EvanDavisSports) October 8, 2020
To argue on DeJong’s behalf, the infielder was a biochemistry major at Illinois State University. DeJong graduated with a 3.74 GPA, planned to attend medical school if baseball didn’t work out and was proclaimed by Wainwright as “the smartest guy on the team”.
Believers in a flat earth that reside in baseball’s own backyard? That’s simply unacceptable.
This comment is probably nothing more than some tongue-in-cheek razzing from Wainwright. Again… that’s what it probably is. Weirder things have happened this baseball season not to do some research about this comment validity.
DeJong himself has not responded to Wainwright’s claim. A reunion among the pair next season would certainly add an interesting dynamic to a Cardinal team not used to living in the limelight.
5. How Likely is it that the Cardinals Compete in the Central Next Season?
Remarkably, the answer is still ‘pretty high.’ The only team who finished better in the NL Central standings was the Chicago Cubs, who also had a host of roster problems. The Cincinnati Reds underperformed what their monster lineup should have produced, and the Milwaukee Brewers need reliable starting pitching.
In terms of questions for the Cardinals this offseason, this is the only critical one that has to be answered. So long as St. Louis can compete in the division without any major moves this offseason, they will do just that. The Cubs got the better of the season series with the Cardinals, but performed just as poorly in several seasonal stat categories. Anthony Rizzo has one final option on his seven-year contract this offseason, and Kris Bryant, Javier Baez and Willson Contreras all see their contracts expire in the next three seasons.
On the other side, Cincinnati is the most imposing possibility to dominate the Central in the next few years, especially after the emergence of Luis Castillo and the re-emergence of Sonny Gray. Eugenio Suarez and Joey Votto lead a talented crew of offense-first players in the Queen City. But they got swept by a powerful Atlanta Braves squad.
The Cardinals can remain in contention as long as they want to. The club’s resistance to trade anyone in their minor system assures fans the front office will stick with a similar approach. Each of these teams have holes, and the Cardinals were the only team among the four to win a single postseason game.
A Cardinals offseason full of questions will hope to bring more answers to the concerns of fans than past offseasons have wrought.
For now, playoff baseball is still running.
Featured Image Courtesy of KSDK.com
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