Last Monday the Cardinals announced that President of Baseball Operations John Mozeliak had his contract extended through 2023 as well as General Manager Mike Girsch and Manager Mike Shildt through 2022. We learned a few things about the Cardinals’ offseason plans from it being unlikely that the team will be a big spender this weekend to the effort to create opportunities.
I suppose that how enthused you are about that idea depends on what you think about the 2019 team. The Cardinals won 91 games and, if not for the May swoon, we could easily be talking about a team that won 97 or more games and the NL Central handily. That would have set up a very different offseason narrative.
Sure, the Cardinals came up empty in the NLCS against the Nationals to be swept out of the playoffs for the first time in a decade, but anything can happen in the playoffs. Just ask the 106-win Dodgers, who the Nationals eliminated in the NLDS after falling behind 2-1, or the 107-win Astros, who the Nationals defeated in the World Series after falling behind 3-2.
Mozeliak recognizes that the team needs to be better, but the answer for how the team improves is “collectively producing more.” Is that possible? I think so. Here’s three ways I think the 2020 Cardinals are positioned to be better than the 2019 Cardinals were.
Big money players doing their job
The two most obvious candidates for offensive improvement are Paul Goldschmidt and Matt Carpenter.
Goldschmidt, 32, was the team’s leading qualified hitter last season, but I don’t think anyone foresaw a batting line of .260/.346/.476, 34 home runs, and a 116 wRC+ in mind when they traded for him last winter. I noted some decline indicators when the organization acquired him, but even I didn’t expect this bad of a season from him.
Carpenter, 33, will return as the regular at third base next season after hitting .226/.334/.393, 15 home runs, and 95 wRC+ as he dealt with some injuries over the summer while Tommy Edman burst onto the scene.
Both Goldschmidt and Carpenter are going to be entering 2020 coming off the worst seasons of their career. And while both are on the wrong side of the aging curve at this point, it’s important to note that decline is a trend over a span of time and that doesn’t mean these guys can’t put up a better season than they did last year. And the Cardinals need them to.
Goldschmidt got a 5 year, $130 million deal in the spring and then Carpenter got a 2 year, $39 million deal with an option that will likely vest into a third year in April. Like it or not, the Cardinals have hitched their wagon to these two for now, and they need them to be the top-10 hitters—or something close to it—that they both were in 2018. If they aren’t, it really doesn’t matter what else you do.
Open outfield competition
With Marcell Ozuna exiting via free agency, the outfield is the easiest place for the Cardinals to have the biggest opportunity for improvement. Ozuna hit .243/.330/.474 with 29 home runs and a 110 wRC+ last season which is fairly replaceable on the whole.
The two remaining outfielders under contract are Dexter Fowler and Jose Martinez. Fowler, 33, hit .238/.346/.409 with 19 HR and a 103 wRC+. He was not great defensively, but did put together arguably his second best defensive season. Martinez, 31, hit .269/.340/.410 with 10 home runs and a 101 wRC+. The worst season of his career, but probably also the one with the most inconsistent playing time.
There is also Harrison Bader, who pretty much demonstrated my belief that he’s a fourth outfielder who will put together some stretches that make you think he could be more. Bader, 25, hit .205/.314/.355 with 12 home runs in 128 games last season around a mid-season demotion to figure out his swing. Bader walks at a high rate, which might indicate an ability to become something a little bit more, but is also susceptible to breaking balls, which indicate the opposite.
Mozeliak indicated that their plan is to open up the outfield competition to let their young players compete and, as someone who has argued for years that this is what they need to do, I could not be more excited because the Cardinals have a few outfield prospects who have earned a shot at the next level.
Tyler O’Neill, 24, is at the tops of the list for an opportunity. He has destroyed Triple-A pitching and has nothing left to prove there, but only playing time will determine whether he’ll be able to step up and adapt and become that potent bat at the next level. He’s had one month where he was playing every day and he played a big role in sparking the offense. From June 29th to July 31st, O’Neill hit .286/.330/.451 with 4 home runs. The Cardinals went 16-9 in that stretch while O’Neill established himself in the four spot of the lineup. Until he got hurt, and then buried upon return.
Lane Thomas, 24, didn’t really get the playing time he earned last season. He hit .316/.409/.684 with 4 home runs and a 181 wRC+ in 44 plate appearances across 34 games. An injury ended his 2019 season early, but Mozeliak named Thomas as a player he expects to have make an impact in 2020. Thomas hit 27 home runs in 2018 between the Double-A and Triple-A levels, only Carpenter and O’Neill hit more in the organization.
Randy Arozarena, 24, also didn’t get the look he should have last season. Arozarena hit .309/.422/.515 with 3 home runs in 28 games in Double-A before hitting .358/.435/.593 with 12 home runs in 64 games in Triple-A before hitting .300/.391/.500 with a home run in 23 plate appearances in 19 games with the big league club.
He, like Thomas, seemed to make something happen every time they were given an opportunity. It’s just that the opportunities were few. If the Cardinals are serious about letting these guys compete for outfield spots, I’m all for that. If they’d take it to the next logical level and open up all three spots for the best options, that’d be even better. Though I think you can still pencil Fowler into the lineup regardless at this point.
And I didn’t even mention Dylan Carlson, the Cardinals’ top prospect and likely consensus top-100 prospect once lists are updated this winter who debuted at Triple-A in 2019 and should be ready for an MLB debut next season.
Martinez back in the Rotation
The Cardinals have Michael Wacha and Adam Wainwright who became free agents at the end of the season, so ostensibly the Cardinals have two rotation spots to fill this winter. However, Mozeliak also indicated in Monday’s press conference that they were going to engage with Wainwright on a contract to bring him back and that Carlos Martinez would be preparing to return to the rotation.
Wainwright, 38, would rejoin the rotation as the expected fifth man once again. Last season he had a 4.19 ERA and took the ball 31 times. The team won 19 games behind him, second on the team behind Dakota Hudson’s 22. When the team brought him back last winter, I said that a healthy Wainwright could still give you a mid-3s ERA in 90% of his starts and if you drop his three worst starts from 2019, he had a 3.45 ERA over those other 28 starts. He still gives you team a chance to win more often than not, and when you reach the end of the season, wins are what matters.
Martinez, 28, had a delayed start to the 2019 season and shifted to the bullpen where he put together a solid season taking over for Jordan Hicks as the closer. He’ll be looking to take Wacha’s place in the rotation, which shouldn’t be too hard. From 2015 until 2018, Martinez had a 3.22 ERA, which ranked him 12th among pitchers who threw at least 500 innings in that stretch. The last time we saw him as a healthy starter, he had a 1.62 ERA leaving his 8th start of the 2018 season.
The Cardinals rotation in 2019 was the 5th best rotation in baseball, and even if you’re not as big a believer in Martinez’s potential as I am, replacing Wacha with Martinez is still a solid upgrade. And if you are a believer, Flaherty, Hudson, and Martinez could give the Cardinals one of the best young pitching trios in baseball.
Jon Doble has been writing about the St. Louis Cardinals for Redbird Dugout since 2010. You can find him on Twitter at @GroundRuleDoble. Thank you for reading.