The Cardinals arguably have four important needs for next season. You may think more, you may think less. But here’s how I’ll define needs. In a world where the Cardinals had the resources to get anyone they want, and they wanted to field the best team possible, this is what they would try to improve. The Cardinals aren’t operating under that playing field, so I understand if you disagree with what I call needs.
The first is catcher, which is only going to be a need insofar as Yadier Molina remains unsigned. My assumption is he will, which is why I feel weird calling it a need, but it’s unquestionably a need right now. The second need is also a position that I assume will be filled by a future Cardinals Hall of Famer and that position is starting pitcher. The third need is an outfielder who can hit right-handed pitching and the fourth is an infielder who can hit left-handed pitching.
As I said, these are needs that I would fill had I access to appropriate resources and a commitment to field the best team possible. But the Cardinals, evidently, do not have many resources to work with, at least financially and at least not right now. And without those resources, their new goal is to field the best team they possibly can with a limited number of choices.
For instance, you could argue that catcher is still a need if Molina is signed. He is largely projected to be below average next season and I believe the Knizner/Molina duo was targeted for 1.8 WAR according to J.P. Hill’s article a couple days ago. And there’s a hell of a lot more downside in that number than upside given Molina’s age. But short of signing J.T. Realmuto, there’s not really a better way to improve the team. And there’s no indication enough money will be made available to sign Realmuto.
On the flipside, I’d actually argue that starting pitcher is still a need even if the Cardinals sign Adam Wainwright. The word uncertainty has been thrown around in past years for the Cardinals rotation, and honestly, I’d kill for the uncertainty those rotations had. Wainwnright, given his age, just adds to the uncertainty and they could really use at least one more guy who can be depended on. This is not an argument to not sign Wainwright, I think they could use two guys.
And then there’s the two position player needs. Tommy Edman is replacing Kolten Wong, which means there needs to be a replacement for Edman. Right now that guy is Edmundo Sosa, who I don’t think should be cut, but who should absolutely not be the first guy off the bench whenever an infielder sits or gets hurt. And the Cardinals have a few guys who can hit left-handed pitchers, led by Harrison Bader, but nobody can be relied upon to hit right-handed pitching at all.
Now, I would argue that, from everything we’ve been told, the Cardinals can at best solve one of these needs and at worst none of them. Their cutting of Kolten Wong is not a particularly good sign that they’re willing to spend money beyond Wainwright and Molina, and I’m just kind of hoping that they’re going to find room in the budget for at least one other player. What this means is that one need will take precedence over the other needs. You need to figure out which need is the most dire and choose that need over the others and hope internal options work out.
Given these constraints, the need to address is unquestionably the infielder who can hit left-handed pitching. There’s a massive, massive hole leftover from when Wong left. Yes, Edman is a fine internal replacement for Wong. You’re getting better bang for your buck. But we didn’t pick up Edman from another team. Edman was already here. He had 4 WAR in the past two years to Wong’s 5 WAR, which means you need to replace all of Edman’s value and then some to get a similar production from your infielders.
There are only two infielders on the 40 man roster, neither of which we can expect to even come close to Edman’s production. In fact, expecting more than replacement level is a big ask. Edmundo Sosa has no options and has to be on the MLB roster. I am willing to give him a shot. But he can’t be the first infielder off the bench. He has a projected 74 wRC+ and 0.0 WAR from Steamer in 273 PAs. Elehuris Montero is the other guy, and he does not appear close. He had a 52 wRC+ in AA in a mostly lost year in 2019 and then missed most of summer spring training with COVID. It seems a rather big leap to expect him to provide anything in 2021 at the major league level.
Let’s compare that with outfield and starting pitcher. You may not be a fan of either situation, but it’s hard to argue they don’t have quantity. There’s just a lot of arms to throw at the problem who could be the solution. Even the good version of Sosa will not be the solution. He’s known for his defense, not his offense. There’s no such thing as an all-defense, no bat 3B, which is where the ability to hit left-handed pitching need comes from - to sub in for Carpenter when a LHP is throwing.
Let’s compare that with the starting pitchers. There’s Jack Flaherty and Kwang-Hyun Kim. Carlos Martinez has too much upside compared to the rest of the group to not at least try out for the beginning. Miles Mikolas, I believe, is expected to be available by Opening Day. I assume we’ll sign Wainwright. Austin Gomber can start. They could hypothetically start either Alex Reyes or Daniel Poncedeleon although both seem destined for the bullpen. Johan Oviedo could be ready by the time one of the starting five falters - he held his own last year. Same applies to Angel Rondon, who is much less hard to imagine being ready now for the majors than Montero given he was pretty good in AA and definitely ready for AAA last year.
And you can go deeper into the depth if you want. Matthew Liberatore is not particularly likely to be ready next year, but he’s a top 100 prospect expected to start the year in AA so you can’t count him out either. Zack Thompson too, who was seen as a possibility to mirror Michael Wacha’s rise to the big leagues, lost his chance to do so with the minor leagues missing last year. Would I like another pitcher? I said as much above. But this is a lot of arms.
Then there’s outfield, which is more straightforward. 2020 was seen as a year to sift through the group and see what lasted. Well, the season didn’t last long enough to do that. Same plan can be enacted for 2021. Who could the Cardinals possibly get who will provide more potential upside than just trying Tyler O’Neill for one more year? Well, it’s someone who will cost a hell of a lot more than $500K. Bader is already proven (6.5 WAR in 1,050 PAs) and he has value that is hard to replace. And then there’s of course Dylan Carlson, who is a good enough prospect and made enough strides at the end of 2020 to think he’s a legitimately good option.
That’s a solid starting 3 plan, but if that was the only 3, I’d want another outfielder. Thankfully, they are not the only three outfielders. There’s also Dexter Fowler, who is on the roster for at least a couple months, so a replacement is not going to be replacing him. There’s Austin Dean, who shows real Jose Martinez breakout potential. There’s Justin Williams, who is still 25 and did have a 152 wRC+ in a short amount of games in AAA back in 2019. Might mean nothing, might mean something. There is also Lane Thomas, who’s speedy and has power.
Then there are the guys who... maybe show enough to be ready fairly quickly? Lars Nootbar rose quickly to AA and could be targeted for a midseason callup if the stars aligned for him and he performed well. Justin Toerner is the same story. Are they likely to be ready in 2021? I wouldn’t say so. But you just add the pure amount of bodies the Cardinals can throw at this potential problem and well, I think they can craft three decent starters out of this group, or better.
This isn’t a Matt Carpenter is bad now post. If Carpenter was expected to be better, I’d still argue this, especially given Carpenter’s age. There’s just zero depth behind the starting four infielders. I mean the best I got is maybe Irving Lopez can be a thing, but he’s left-handed so he doesn’t really solve the issue of platooning with Carpenter. He might actually be an underrated option to make the team actually with a great spring training. I think you can talk me into him easier than talking me into Sosa. Sosa might be acceptable at SS, but I just can’t see his bat playing anywhere else unfortunately.
Anyway, so four needs, can only address one - it needs to be an infielder.