The 2019 Cardinals made it to the National League Championship Series. They were the second-best team in the National League if you look at it that way. They were four wins from making it to the World Series, which albeit sounds much closer than it felt while watching the NLCS. By all accounts, by basically all measures, it was a successful season.
Assuming that’ll repeat in 2020, though, is a really dangerous assumption.
That seems to be the fear for most fans right now. They believe (and, I think, with good reason) that the front office will look at where this team finished up, think they can tinker around the edges, and they’ll be right back in the same position next year. You could imagine John Mozeliak and company saying, “Man, Matt Carpenter will be better next year and Dylan Carlson will provide some pop so, really, there’s not much to do besides maybe get a bullpen arm or something. We have enough depth to cover basically anything.”
That would be an incredibly short-sighted mistake.
This team could use upgrades everywhere. Tara and I have talked on Gateway occasionally about how they may have a lot of bodies, a lot of major league talent, but that doesn’t mean it’s upper-level talent. Sure, if Kolten Wong got injured they wouldn’t have to get someone out of the stands to play second base, but having a gaggle of 1-2 WAR players isn’t likely to push you to the top of the division.
Look at these numbers:
Batting average: .245 (23rd in MLB)
On-base percentage: .322 (17th)
Slugging percentage: .415 (23rd)
Home runs: 210 (24th)
Doubles: 246 (28th)
Total bases: 2260 (25th)
Basically, the Cardinals succeeded because their defense was so good and their pitching was solid–though even the pitching went through spurts, as the bullpen was good early then the starting rotation caught up later on while the relievers faltered. Counting on the defense to again be golden (congrats to the Cardinals for six Gold Glove nominees, BTW) and the pitching to be as good or better is asking a lot. That’s also asking for the Cubs, Brewers, even Reds to not take another step forward this offseason.
It’s also asking people like Carlson, who as you know is the Official Prospect of the Blog but still has limited AAA experience and no major league at bats, and others to cover for Marcell Ozuna‘s departure. I’m not advocating a return of Ozuna (a topic that Allen and I discussed at length in the latest Meet Me At Musial) but it’s safe to say that he did provide value to the Redbirds. He was third on the team in home runs with 29, second on the team in RBI with 89, and was third on the team in OPS with .800. Again, I’m not saying the Cardinals should sign him this winter (though if he accepts the qualifying offer, I’m fine with it), I’m just saying that his shoes are going to be hard to fill.
Even if you fill those shoes, what about Matt Carpenter? If he’s, well, this for the rest of his career, he’s going to wind up a bench bat and will not be able to help improve those numbers at all. Dexter Fowler may have rebounded from 2018, but he was still 100 points shy of his 2017 OPS and he’ll be 34 next year. Thinking that someday we’ll see “the real Dexter Fowler” is a pipe dream.
There’s not really a lot of places you can expect improvement from the current squad. Paul DeJong might do better if he got some more rest and he’s young enough to still adapt to what Jeff Albert is preaching. You might be able to improve offensively somewhat if Andrew Knizner played 30-40% of the time next year. We don’t know if he can hit major league pitching consistently but Yadier Molina, for all his attributes, isn’t the bat he used to be. A more equitable split of time would probably do well for both players, though I don’t know that anyone expects that to happen. The idea that Tommy Edman is going to be this good or better going forward might be a bit iffy as well.
The front office needs to upgrade and do so significantly, not just tinker with the edges. The problem is, I don’t know how they can do it.
The time to do it, of course, was last year, when they could go get Paul Goldschmidt while still having the chance to get a Bryce Harper or even someone else of lesser quality to help with the offense. We said all winter they needed at least two bats and they just got one, with the one they got not quite performing at the level they expected.
Now, they have Goldschmidt locked in for five more years. They gave that extension to Carpenter so he’s on the team for two more years. Between that and needing a regular spot for Tommy Edman (perhaps), it makes it difficult to see how they would go out a third baseman. Second is locked with Wong, and if you trade him you only open up more issues. DeJong has short and without bringing in another shortstop, he’s not going anywhere. I mean, the man didn’t get but like two days off the second half because they didn’t trust Yairo Munoz out there.
That leaves the outfield and they already have a lot of young guys that they should look at, even though they may not be THE bat they need. Could Randy Arozarena, Tyler O’Neill, or Lane Thomas contribute next season? Of course. Could one of them replace Ozuna’s numbers? Maybe, though that seems more of a stretch. But unless the club wants to bench Fowler on the regular and run out an outfield of Arozarena, Carlson (if he is what he seems to be), and O’Neill or Thomas, the offensive jolt isn’t coming from there. And even if they do that, we’re back to where we started, hoping internal options will pan out this time and not be just a reasonable, solid player but a real star.
To me, the team feels like it’s painted itself into a corner. There’s not a lot of trade value on this squad and most of the ones that are tradable are really needed here. They have young prospects but they’ve not had a chance to be proven and none of them, save Carlson and Nolan Gorman who aren’t going anywhere, have that sort of cache that would bring you back a good piece. Even bundling two or three together might not work the way baseball is going now.
When you look at the free agent list, not much pops out. Of course everyone would like to see them get Anthony Rendon, but that’s not going to happen. Could they go get Josh Donaldson? Seems unlikely that he’d want to settle again for a one year deal and, if all the stories last year were true, if he did he’d probably return to Atlanta. I can’t see the Cardinals signing someone like Donaldson (who is 34) long-term with Gorman coming up. You could make the argument that they should sign Rendon and then use Gorman as a trade piece, an argument that I would have some sympathy for, but that’s really not the Cardinal way, if you will. They’ve had numerous chances over the years to increase a strength or to free up an asset in this way and I can’t think of a time they have taken advantage of it. You’ll hear some talk about Mike Moustakas, and maybe if he’s resigned himself to always signing one-year deals that could happen, but they’ve also not been that aggressive toward him the last couple of years. Maybe the decline of Carpenter will change their mindset, though.
Let’s not give the pitching staff a free pass either. A fifth starter would have been valuable this year, as the trade deadline showed, and perhaps Carlos Martinez will take that. Even if you think he can bounce from 40 innings to 180 with no downside, you still have Adam Wainwright‘s spot. Waino might come back and he might put together a season like 2019, but that’s not the way you bet here. You want Waino to be gravy, not meat and potatoes. Jack Flaherty is the only sure thing in that rotation, as the numbers indicated Dakota Hudson might fall off some next year and Miles Mikolas was a bit hit or miss this season.
So a smart idea would be to go get a Gerrit Cole or, should he opt out, a Stephen Strasburg. (As a fan of Strasburg’s since he was drafted, I’d love to see him in Cardinal red.) However, you don’t even have to shop at that level. Zack Wheeler was a target at the trade deadline–he won’t cost as much as the headliners but could easily give this team some consistent good pitching. Dallas Keuchel will be back out there and have no pick attached this year–a three year deal might not be the worst thing, especially since the starting pitching prospects coming up aren’t as strong or as numerous as they used to be.
There are things that the club can do to improve this winter, but it’s going to require some tough choices. It might require planning for Carpenter to be a bench bat next year instead of giving him a month or two to see if things are better. It might require reducing Fowler’s time in the outfield. It might require making sure Wainwright is open to a bullpen role again. The team has put a lot of restrictions on itself with some longer contracts and I’m sure they are at the upper end of what they are comfortable with salary-wise, but even with the postseason drought broken, this is not a time to be comfortable. Missing the playoffs four years out of five is little better than missing it five years in a row.
This was not a traditional NLCS team–they caught some breaks and had some good fortune. They had fewer wins than the wild card, for instance. My hope is that the front office will see this team for what it was and what it is, not what it appeared to be. Whether they will or not remains to be seen.