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How Much Should the Cardinals Rely on Youth in 2022?

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Houston Astros v St. Louis Cardinals Photo by Eric Espada/Getty Images

Everyone outside of the St. Louis Cardinals organization knows next to nothing about why Mike Shildt was fired. We know even less about the nature of these “philosophical differences” that John Mozeliak cited as the reason for the dismissal. While much is still unknown, Mozeliak did declare the importance of having a pathway for prospects to make their way to St. Louis. This has long been a goal of the franchise, and it appears that it will remain an emphasis going forward. It is unknown if Shildt disagreed with the front office on this, but this statement from Mozeliak could lead to some clues as to how this offseason will be handled.

The Cardinals have a large group of talented prospects that appear to be MLB-ready or close to it. On the hitting side, there is Juan Yepez, Nolan Gorman, Nick Plummer, and Alec Burleson (who struggled a bit in Triple-A). On the pitching side, Matthew Liberatore and Connor Thomas pitched well in the Memphis rotation and could be eyeing a role in St. Louis soon. Johan Oviedo and Zack Thompson need more time in Triple-A, but both have promise and are near the big leagues. In the bullpen, Austin Warner may be ready to take a step up, while Junior Fernandez split time between the majors and the minors. Jake Woodford also pitched well for St. Louis at the end of the season.

Gorman’s shift to second base and the potential opening of a DH next year, alleviates some of the jam on the position player side of things. Still, Gorman is unlikely to begin the year as the starting second baseman. This could change depending on the the result of the new collective bargaining agreement. If the service time issues are addressed and there is no longer incentive to manipulate service time, the Gorman could open 2022 in St. Louis. Assuming that he will not, however, means that Tommy Edman will likely be back at second.

With Gorman the future at second base, there is room to sign one of the big free agent shortstops. This seems unlikely to happen, though. When Gorman takes over second base, Tommy Edman could be moved back into a utility role. He could also be moved to shortstop in something of a timeshare with Edmundo Sosa and Paul DeJong, while still playing other positions. The team will likely be comfortable with this trio providing enough production at short to avoid a major signing. Brendan Donovan has also played a little shortstop in his minor league career, and he could likely fill in at the position if needed. He broke out in 2021, raking in High-A, Double-A, and Triple-A, and has plenty of positional versatility.

A major shortstop acquisition would certainly be welcome, but there is much more of a need for pitching next season. The Cardinals should trust their young bats enough to avoid splurging on a major signing at shortstop.

This is likely what they will do, too. After Mozeliak’s comment about ensuring that young players have a pathway to St. Louis, it is unlikely that the Cardinals will make another long-term commitment to a position player. Paul Goldschmidt is locked up through 2024, Arenado is with the team through 2027, the entire outfield is likely to remain in place for while, and Tommy Edman has yet to reach arbitration. Another major signing would make it nearly impossible for a prospect to work his way into a starting role, and this seems like something that the front office wants to avoid.

On the pitching side, though, there are plenty of options. Four of the five rotation spots are filled by Jack Flaherty, Adam Wainwright, Dakota Hudson, and Miles Mikolas. The bullpen is occupied by Giovanny Gallegos, Genesis Cabrera, Alex Reyes, and Jordan Hicks, and Kodi Whitley. Ryan Helsley will likely occupy a spot as well once he is healthy. That is five spots taken in the bullpen, six counting Helsley. This leaves one rotation spot and two or three bullpen spots available.

The Cardinals should try to bring back T.J. McFarland and Luis Garcia. Besides that, it is difficult to tell how they will strengthen the pitching staff. This offseason would be a good time to sign a solid starter. This would give the team another proven and capable starter to fill out the rotation, while also providing the team insurance in future years as Flaherty and Hudson are the only starters locked up past 2022.

A major signing in the rotation would still leave spots open for prospects to claim in 2023, if not earlier. Thus, the team would be able to improve heading into next season without compromising the organization’s stated goal of providing a pathway for young players.

There will still be chances for players like Connor Thomas, Matthew Liberatore, Johan Oviedo, Austin Warner, and Junior Fernandez to contribute in 2021 as injury replacements. As Cardinals fans saw in 2021, it important to have depth. The missed 2020 minor league season slowed the prospect pipeline a bit, but now that the pitchers in the system have another year of experience, they will likely be more ready to contribute next season. Many players spent much of the year in Triple-A and will start 2022 back at the same level. This should allow the Cardinals to have a stable of spot-starters and bullpen replacements in Triple-A. By not counting on these players to begin the year in the majors, the Cardinals will still have depth, will improve their team with free agents, and will still provide a pathway to the majors.

Despite the Cardinals having a down year in the minor leagues, there is a group of prospects heading to St. Louis soon. The Cardinals should not block them, nor do they appear willing to do so. That does not mean that the team cannot be improved in 2022. Relying on youth too much can leave the team shorthanded. Thus, the team should not have a complete dependence on its young players. It should instead focus on pitching in free agency, and use youth for depth.