It is clear from the results of the season and the postseason that the Cardinals must improve. They were a solid team this season, but they were clearly a tier below teams like the Cubs, Dodgers, Yankees, Rays, A’s, and Padres. It is clear that some of the team’s struggles were due to the difficulties with COVID and a schedule filled with double-headers. However, that is not the whole story. It is impossible to look at the Cardinals lineup and not see mediocrity. There were very few players who were legitimately dangerous to opposing hitters. In fact, only Paul Goldschmidt (146 wRC+), Brad Miller (121 wRC+), and Harrison Bader (113 wRC+) were the only Cardinals regulars to finish the season with an above average wRC+. This is even more discouraging considering that Miller and Bader both got hot for a portion of the year, but did not consistently produce at the plate. This leaves Paul Goldschmidt as the only consistently dangerous hitter on this Cardinals team.
This needs to change next season. The Cardinals cannot rely on Goldschmidt to carry the offense over the course of a 162 game season. There is a chance that some players would have hit better this year if there was a full season. One example of this is Paul DeJong who has shown himself to at least be an average hitter, if not better. However, the rest of the lineup is uninspiring and does not have a recent history of strong success. Maybe Kolten Wong and Tommy Edman would have improved if they had played more games, but that is by no means a sure thing. Additionally, Yadier Molina, Dexter Fowler, and Matt Carpenter are all veterans who have shown the effects of age in recent years. Additionally, Tyler O’Neill and Harrison Bader have not proven to be consistent threats at the plate. This means that the Cardinals lineup is simply not a dangerous one.
If the Cardinals want to have a better season in 2021, then they will need to upgrade this team. However, in the last three seasons, the Cardinals payroll has hovered around $170 million. In 2020, the Cardinals payroll was just over $170 million. Additionally, the only major contract that is coming off the books in the offseason is Molina’s. Since it is likely that the Cardinals will want to remain near $170 million in payroll, this does not bode well for the Cardinals chances of significantly improving the lineup. It is difficult to imagine Molina playing anywhere else, and it is also difficult to imagine him getting paid anything near the $20 million per year that he was getting paid. Therefore, it is likely that the Cardinals will have a small amount of money with which to improve the team, unless the organization is willing to spend more money. This limited amount of money gives the Cardinals options, but it is not likely that any of these options will significantly improve the team.
This means that the Cardinals may look to use the trade market in order to find a improvement for the lineup. The team has plenty of young outfielders and young pitchers that could be packaged in exchange for a solid hitter that would make this team a little more dangerous. With Dylan Carlson having a starting spot locked up, and Dexter Fowler likely to remain a regular, the Cardinals have too many players (Harrison Bader, Tyler O’Neill, Justin Williams, Lane Thomas) for one or two remaining outfield spots. Additionally, the Cardinals have a bevy of promising young pitchers in their bullpen. A package of a young outfielder and a young pitcher might be the starting price for a trade that could improve the team. Additionally, if the team does not want to add much more salary, then the trade market could be ideal because they could look for a relatively young and impactful player that is not on a large contract, as opposed to getting into a bidding war in free agency.
Another option for the team, is to make marginal improvements while keeping essentially the same team for next year. Then, after next season, the Cardinals will be shedding lots of salary from Fowler, Carpenter, Andrew Miller, and potentially Kolten Wong. This would allow the team to be aggressive in improving the team through free agency.
The Cardinals will have a great opportunity to restructure the roster after the 2021 season if they choose to do so. However, they should begin that process this season by trading from positions of depth (outfield and pitching) in order to acquire someone that can help the lineup. Then, when major contracts expire following next season, the team can look to build a more consistently dangerous lineup that is not so reliant on strong pitching performances in order to win. However, regardless of what the team chooses to do, it is clear that this lineup is not strong enough to make a deep playoff run. Therefore, the front office needs to make some changes in order to make this a more complete team.