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It’s a Critical Off-Season for the Cardinals

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The Cardinals have a pivotal few months ahead

MLB: OCT 09 NLDS - Cardinals at Braves Photo by David J. Griffin/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Yesterday, my colleague stlcardsfan4 accurately pointed out that we have a long off-season ahead of us as a prelude to his article about the Dustin Hermanson trade in December 2000. That’s frequently true in most seasons, and it’s especially true this season. Teams across baseball are bracing to cut costs. The Cardinals became one of the harbingers of that fact when they declined the very affordable option on Kolten Wong for 2021. There’s so much yet to be determined about baseball for 2021 that it leaves all of us fumbling around in the dark. Will the designated hitter be adopted league-wide? Will the league expand the playoffs? Will there be fans in the seats in 2021? If so, when? What will spring training look like? How many minor league teams will get the axe, and how will player development look in 2021 and beyond? All of these questions have to be answered as COVID-19 cases are surging all over the country. Complicating matters, the collective bargaining agreement (CBA) expires at the end of the 2021 season. Relations between players and owners are as contentious as they’ve been since the infamous strike of 1994. Cost-cutting measures across the league, including the contraction of minor league baseball, are only likely to exacerbate the situation. It makes for a critical off-season for the Cardinals.

Even if this off-season was normal, the Cardinals would have faced a lot of pivotal questions entering 2021.

  • Can they re-sign their two franchise icons, Adam Wainwright and Yadier Molina?
  • How can they improve the offense? In particular, it’s time to make decisions about how much they can- or are willing to- rely on Tyler O’Neill and Lane Thomas. That’s also true to a lesser degree for Harrison Bader and Justin Williams, although Bader seems reasonably locked in as some sort of Kiermaier Lite with some variance.
  • The pitching staff was highly productive in 2020, though a lot of that was through the aid of one of the league’s premier defenses. Can they improve their defense independent performance?
  • Speaking of the pitching staff, projected starters Carlos Martinez and Miles Mikolas enter 2021 with injury and performance concerns, while Dakota Hudson will miss 2021 altogether. This is in addition to the murky future of Wainwright.
  • There’s a lot of malaise around the organization. Their .517 winning percentage was the third worst for the franchise in the 21st century (my apologies for Pirates and Royals fans for complaining about this), and it’s questionable whether or not they would have made the playoffs without the expanded format. Had they missed, it would’ve been the fourth time in five seasons.
  • The farm system is stuck in purgatory between 12th and 17th in Baseball America’s organizational talent rankings. They were 13th in August, 17th in August 2019, 13th in spring 2018, 12th in 2017, 14th in 2016, and 15th in 2015. They can supplement the MLB squad, but it’s not in a position to provide a major jolt to the franchise to shake off the blahs. Dylan Carlson is a wonderful start for 2021, but the rest of the best and biggest pieces (Nolan Gorman, Matthew Liberatore, Ivan Herrera) won’t help until later.
  • Hanging over all of this is the continued breakout performances from players once they exit the organization, amplified by Randy Arozarena channeling his inner-Barry Bonds on the game’s biggest stage. Even the most generous assessment would tell you that the Cardinals have made some glaring mistakes in valuing the talent they have on hand.

Now, because of the lost revenue from 2020’s empty stadiums and the spectre of more of the same in 2021, the Cardinals are cutting payroll. They have to address all of those questions with less money.

One obvious way to efficiently improve is with an enhanced braintrust. In recent years, teams like the Rays, Dodgers, Twins, Reds, Brewers, and Giants (as of 2020) have squeezed every ounce of value out of their rosters. Under the radar minor league performers, or players disposed of by other teams, have landed in those locations and unlocked a new level of performance. While the Cardinals have done a very good job of maximizing defensive and pitching value, the offensive side of the roster has been a wasteland of players hoping for breakouts that never arrive and imports falling shy of expectations. If the franchise isn’t going to spend, they have to recover the value through these means.

The Cardinals were trying to fix this even before the pandemic. It’s also why Jeff Albert’s role extends beyond hitting instruction at the Major League level down to how the team develops their hitters, and why Russ Steinhorn was hired. They’re well aware of their need for improvement in these areas. Unfortunately, the awkward 2020 season didn’t give us any proof of how effective those efforts might have been.

Additionally, lost revenue has already led to a round of layoffs (lots of teams are doing this; the Cubs, for example, cut even more than the Cardinals). It’s unclear whether or not those layoffs affected the team’s 2019 enhancements to performance and baseball development, but it would be less than ideal if cuts reached those departments before we have a real chance to evaluate their effectiveness. That said, Mark Saxon’s recent article at The Athletic implies that they’re full speed ahead with those enhancements.

The Cardinals often think of themselves as having a core, and transitioning between cores to stay competitive. The most recent core featured Paul Goldschmidt, Molina, Wainwright, Jack Flaherty, Paul DeJong, Dexter Fowler, Matt Carpenter, Carlos Martinez, Miles Mikolas, and Kolten Wong. Marcell Ozuna’s two years served as an audition to be core member for longer, but the organization let him walk. Carpenter and Fowler are aging out of that core, Wong is (likely) gone, Molina and Wainwright are free agents, and Mikolas and Martinez have massive question marks. The core has been depleted, and the next core beyond Carlson and Flaherty- Gorman, Liberatore, Herrera, etc.- isn’t going to become the core for a few years.

All of this leaves the Cardinals in a transition year, even with some good pieces in place. Once all of the questions surrounding 2021 become certain, it’s time for the franchise to start replenishing. It’s not an easy job and I don’t envy their position.