Following a devastating loss to the Chicago Cubs in the National League Division Series the St. Louis Cardinals ownership and management is now faced with a number of crucial decisions. The team executives reportedly met last Wednesday to begin setting a course for how they move forward to build the 2016 roster. The decisions the Cardinals make over the next few months may be the difference between slowly fading off into the sunset while the Chicago Cubs dominate the Central Division and a reloading to contend once again for a World Series title.
This offseason is the most important for the team since 2012, when Albert Pujols was allowed to leave for a bigger contract with the Angels. That decision gave the team flexibility and allowed them to pick up key players like Michael Wacha who have gave the Cardinals unprecedented consistency in reaching the playoffs. However, 2016 may be the year the team needs to change course, at least temporarily, and spend (or perhaps even overspend) to get the star power and depth to play deeper into October. Here are the three top priorities for the Cardinals in the 2016 offseason.
First, sign Jason Heyward or find his replacement. Jason Heyward will probably never hit 30 homeruns as one would ideally like from a corner outfielder. What he will do is get on base at least a .350 rate, hit lots of doubles and an occasional triple, steal about 20 bases, and provide gold glove defense to the tune of about 20 runs saved each year. He is not as exciting as Yeonis Cespeded, but he is comparable in worth. Heyward had a 6.0 WAR in 2015 compared to a 6.7 WAR for Cespedes.
Everything else the Cardinals do in 2016 is dependent on the status of Heyward. Heyward’s signing, or lack thereof, will dramatically affect the team’s payroll and their lineup. The team already struggled to produce enough offense with Heyward in the lineup, without him the lineup will be even more futile.
Some may argue that Stephen Piscotty or Randal Grichuk should take over the right field spot. There are multiple problems with this approach.
First, while both Piscotty and Grichuk did have success last year the sample size is still relatively small. A once promising offensive prospect can fade over time once Major League pitchers expose their flaws (see Matt Adams).
Secondly, Grichuk has been injury prone throughout his career. Relying on him over 162 games is a risky prospect.
Third, playing Piscotty in right field full time will make him unavailable to play first base if needed, or left field to spell the aging Matt Holliday.
Heyward is dependable. He can play both center and right field. He provides outstanding defense for a pitching staff that needs it and speed on the basepaths to a lineup that is otherwise lacking it. The team will likely have to overpay to keep Heyward (7 years, $175 million if the team is lucky), but at some point you have to invest in a core player the way the team did with Matt Holiday (7 years, $120 million) in 2010.
Secondly, find a dependable starter, and preferably an elite one. As the roster stands now, the Cardinals will have Adam Wainwright, Michael Wacha, Carlos Martinez, and Lance Lynn for the starting rotation. Both John Lackey and Jaime Garcia are scheduled to be free agents unless the team resigns Lackey and/or picks up Garcia’s $12 million option for 2016.
Wainwright, Wacha, Martinez, and Lynn appears like a good combination but only Wainwright and Lynn have ever thrown over 200 innings. Between those two Wainwright is coming off an Achilles tendon injury and Lynn has fallen apart at the end of each of the last three seasons.
Michael Wacha has promise but he too has faded at the end of the last two seasons, and his unique shoulder condition is always looming. Everyone hopes that Carlos Martinez recovers from his shoulder injury with rest this offseason, but no one really knows until the start of next season.
What that realistically means is that the team needs at least one, and possibly two additional starting pitchers before they enter camp next year.
The Cardinals could sign John Lackey back to the team but that will come at a high price following Lackey’s stellar year in 2015. The Yankees, Red Sox, and Cubs could all bid high for the veteran and offer more years than the Cardinals.
Jaime Garcia is unquestionably gifted, but also notoriously undependable and injury prone. Given the shakiness of the rest of the starting rotation he is not who you want as the dependable fifth man.
David Price would be a wonderful addition, but it is doubtful that GM John Mozeliak would be willing to spend the money and commit to the number of years necessary to get price. Mozeliak has avoided high dollar long-term contracts for every pitcher in history not named Adam Wainwright thus far, and even Wainwright’s extension was only for five years.
What may make the most sense is a trade for a pitcher like Oakland Sonny Gray using the Cardinals considerable minor league starting pitching talent base. Perhaps Mozeliak could also sign Jaime Garcia to his option and then trade Garcia to a team like Oakland by eating part of Garcia’s salary.
There are many methods, but one way or another the team needs to add starting pitching before the start of Spring Training 2016.
Third, find more power and more youth.
The Cubs announced their young presence with authority in the NLDS by hitting 12 homeruns off of the suddenly feeple Cardinal pitchers. The Cubs can only be expected to get better in future years with the growth and maturity of Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber, Addison Russell, and Javier Baez.
The Cardinals, meanwhile, are seeing the slow decline of older players like Matt Holliday, Yadier Molina, and Johnny Peralta. Both Holliday and Molina suffered from injuries in 2015, which was at least part the reason the Cardinals lost to the Cubs in the NLDS. Peralta showed signs of fatigue at the plate toward the end of the year after playing over 150 games at shortstop at the age of 33. The Cardinals office acknowledged the need to gain more depth in 2016, but it remains to be seen whether that means more Ty Wiggintons or a decision to invest more significant dollars in their bench.
In addition, while the Cardinals found ways to get key hits throughout much of the 2015 season, it was apparent that more offense would be needed in future years. The Cardinals pitching carried the team to 100 wins in the regular season, but when it fell apart in the postseason the lineup could not keep up with the Cubs firepower.
Grichuk, Piscotty, and Tommy Pham can help to give Holliday more rest days next year to hopefully keep him healthier for the postseason. All three players are young and offer considerable power. Piscotty may be the answer to the Cardinals’ underwhelming offensive performance at first base ever since Albert Pujols left.
However, there are no Major League ready replacements for Molina and Peralta.
Most likely through trades, the Cardinals need to acquire a more offensively capable backup to Yadier Molina at catcher for next season. Ideally, the team could also acquire a AA or AAA prospect who can be groomed to take over part of the catching duties in 2017 and full time catching duties in 2018.
Peralta may be the hardest piece to replace. The is some hope that Almedys Diaz will pan out with his better offensive stats at AA and AAA last year, but at this point that is more of a hope than a promise. The Cardinals do have a talented shortstop prospect named Edmundo Sosa, but he was just in rookie ball last year and is therefore at least two years away (probably three assuming steady progression). The most obvious prospect for a trade is Starlin Castro, who lacks a long term home in Chicago, but the Cubs are unlikely to trade a young prospect to the Cardinals in the post Lou Brock era. Jeff Gordon of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch advocated a more aggressive international free agent approach to go after players like Jorge Soler, However, there is no Major League ready shortstop like Jung Ho Kang in this year’s batch of international free agents. The Cardinals probably should have taken a more serious run at Kang when they had the opportunity last year. So Mozeliak will probably hope that Peralta can maintain his above average offensive production and average defense at shortstop for at least another year.
One thing is clear moving forward; the Cubs are now the ominous bears of the division. Whether the Cardinals make the necessary moves to neutralize the threat is yet to be seen.