The MLB offseason is in full swing, as some of baseball’s biggest free agents begin to come off the board. Players like DJ LeMahieu, Liam Hendriks, George Springer and Michael Brantley are among the most recent additions American League Clubs. Meanwhile, some teams, especially those in the NL Central, are choosing to stand pat in the offseason thus far.
In St. Louis, the Cardinals almost seem oblivious to moves being made around them. The club actually has seen more players move off its 40-man roster this offseason than onto that list. But Cardinals fans know this feeling well; the underwhelming nature of offseason acquisitions is the favorite pastime of many. After all, not everyone can be the San Diego Padres.
Former bullpen piece John Brebbia signed a team-friendly one year contract with the Giants back in December. Plus, the Birds added 29 year-old catcher Tyler Heineman on a minor league deal in mid-November.
So what has transpired? St. Louis has completed no significant transactions, engaged with relatively few “top-tier” free agents and seems to be on a different schedule than most in baseball right now. Even Cardinals beat writer Anne Rogers announced that she was departing for a role with the Royals next season.
That move might only be coincidence, but the Cardinals do seem to be turning off fans the longer they wait to address personnel holes. Now three and a half months past the Cardinals’ playoff elimination, here are three needs the club needs to fill before the end of the offseason.
1. Catching Depth Chart & Re-Sign Molina
That Yadier Molina is on the top of the Cardinals’ list of concerns should no longer be surprising to anyone. Molina possesses future Hall of Fame potential even while entering what would be 18th season in St. Louis. Fans ardently hope for his return next year.
However, the Cardinals could see Molina’s free agency as an opportunity to correct a myriad of the franchise’s mistakes over the past several years. First, Molina has asked for a salary significantly higher than his talent valuation, something the Cardinals are reluctant to dish out. Secondly, St. Louis has the opportunity for young talent to compete for a starting role sans-Molina. For nearly two decades, the toughest role in all of baseball has been that of Molina’s backup.
Molina has appeared in at least 110 games every year since 2005. How many high-level prospects have been blocked during that time period? More than the rational fan would like to admit. Without Molina’s overshadowing presence, new faces, especially Andrew Knizner have hope for their own MLB careers.
Perhaps a shock, Molina has even threatened retirement should he be unable to come to terms with teams this winter. It could very well be a genuine sentiment from the catcher, though most fans view the statement as Molina’s final bluff. Salary negotiations have been difficult thus far, and retirement could very well be a power play to garner organizational support for a contract.
By and large, retaining Molina is the right move for St. Louis. Expecting Knizner, resume brimming with only 26 career games, to start 120-plus games might spell disaster in a weakened Central Division. Recent minor league signing Heineman is another backup option should Molina really depart, though he owns even fewer career games than Knizner.
Whatever deal Molina signs must transition toward the 38 year-old’s slow phase-out. He remains among the best in MLB at calling games from behind the plate but no longer presents much offensive prowess. All this will be a difficult pill to swallow for the franchise legend but is the right move for the club’s future success.
2. Consistent-Hitting Outfield Upgrade
Every year presents the same problem.
The Cardinal outfield underperforms. Left field is a revolving door. Harrison Bader plays spectacular defense but is probably a fourth outfielder at best. And so the beat goes on.
All these concerns beg the question: when will front office execs finally solve this subpar hitter logjam? At first, Jason Heyward seemed to be the answer. Then Dexter Fowler. Even Bader put together an encouraging season in 2018. Now, the discussion moves to top prospect Dylan Carlson.
Carlson, just 22 years-old, debuted for St. Louis last season and appeared in all three outfield spots. Towards the start of his campaign, he struggled mightily against Central pitching and was optioned to the team’s alternate site to reset. But Carlson went on a tear towards season-end, with a strong performance in the Wild Card round. He’s currently seen as a lock for a starting role next season, at least among fans.
As for the two other outfield spots, any number of possibilities remain in the mix. For next season, St. Louis has agreed on a contract to avoid arbitration with Bader. Fowler’s contract expires following 2021. Tyler O’Neill led the squad with seven home runs during the year, even won the Gold Glove playing left field, but didn’t record a single plate appearance in the playoffs.
To say that the Cardinals’ current outfielders present a conundrum, is putting it lightly.
But still, outside help could be an accepted alternative to the current circumstances. Taking a flyer on players like Tyler Naquin, Cameron Maybin or Matt Kemp must stay on the table for 2021. Find the right outfielder, and the club wouldn’t have to break the bank to add desperately needed offense to their roster.
So, Cardinals executives, please sign one outfielder this offseason. For the fans’ sake.
3. Starting Rotation Arm or Established Swingman
The starting rotation, though less of an immediate demand, should also be on the Cardinals mind next season.
Staff ace Jack Flaherty still performed admirably in the truncated season, but he is due for a rebound in 2021. Adam Wainwright, 39, who recorded the last out of the 2006 World Series, is a free agent St. Louis would love to re-sign. Such a move would massively reinforce the starting corps, since Wainwright led the team in wins, strikeouts, total starts and qualified ERA last season.
Sinkerballer Dakota Hudson will remain out for next season while he recovers from Tommy John surgery. But right-hander Miles Mikolas will return after a year away with injury, though some concerns will still loom over his head.
As for the back half of the rotation, St. Louis will likely utilize some combination of Alex Reyes, Austin Gomber, Kwang Hyun Kim, Carlos Martinez or John Gant. Among them, Martinez has the most experience starting at the major league level, though he was awful last season in limited action (9.90 ERA). Gant and Reyes have traditionally been used out of the bullpen for much of their careers, and Mike Shildt would much prefer to keep them in their high-leverage roles.
As always, the open market is flush with pitching depth. It would be impossible to project who the Cardinals might be interested at this point. Leveraging those like Gomber or Daniel Ponce de Leon as starters might suggest the need for a bullpen acquisition. A more traditional rotation, then, says that St. Louis needs to add a starter before winter ends.
Pitching coach Mike Maddux will be a calming presence for whoever joins the organization, but the reinforcements will still be important. Look out for the Cardinals to be in on guys like Mike Fiers, Ivan Nova or Brandon Kintzler. Low salary buys with potential for meaningful innings will be a target during a cash-strapped offseason.
With each passing day, fans become more concerned about the state of the Cardinals next season. But it could only take one free agent signing to start the dominoes falling. Those in St. Louis desperately hope the Cardinals will be the ones who take the step forward in the NL Central.
Because right now, it’s anyone’s division.
Featured Image Courtesy of Twitter & @yadimolina4
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