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The 2021 Off-Season --- issues and weaknesses to address (Part III – Summary)

In the first two parts of the series HERE and HERE, I described some potential off-season strategies to improve various aspects of pitching and offense. In this part, we’ll summarize that back into how it fits both in the roster scheme and the payroll budget scheme.

Let’s summarize the areas of perceived need:

  • 1. Need 1 or 2 LH bats to offset the LHB vs. RHP platoon disadvantage,
  • 2. Need a high OBP player to primarily fill the lead off spot (could be part of #1, in a perfect world)
  • 3. Deepen the starter/piggy-back/bulk depth
  • 4. Replenish LH starting and relieving depth
  • 5. Fill out the match-up portion of the bullpen

One part of developing off-season strategies comes in assessing the NL Central and what the competition is doing. Pittsburgh and Chicago will not be good next year. Depending on their chosen route, Cincy looks like a .500 team coming back. Milwaukie has the big three (Burnes, Woodruff, Peralta) with Houser and Ashby emerging in their rotation that will keep them competitive (given health), but a weak offense unlikely to see a repeat of Adames break-out performance. I don’t think Cardinal management typically plays ‘Keep-Up-With-the-Jones’, but it does help inform the strategy. It helps to know if your division has a 100 win juggernaut to overcome (it does not). The state of the NL Central suggests to me that the Cardinals could lean a bit harder in an improvement strategy, to take advantage of a somewhat soft division for the next several years. This means maybe they go a little longer on the payroll (closer to $160m than $140m), but at the same time probably don’t need the home-run $300 million whopper contract to get to where they need to go. So, that tells me that the payroll range of $142m to $155m suggested by JP HILL is probably a good range and is enough to achieve intended results.

On the roster side of things, as we follow the 40-man roster, it sits at 45 now and will be 40 after the free agents leave and the 60 day IL players return to it, following the World Series. Looks like about 8 players are on the bubble, some of whom may be pruned or non-tendered (Dean, Williams, Rondon, Zeuch, Waddell, Quezada, J Fernandez). Pay attention to this activity early in the off-season. It will be a tell on how aggressive the Cardinals intend to be. The more guys they prune, the more aggressive they will be in trades and FA markets.

But other prospects will need to be added to the 40-man to protect them from the Rule V draft (Plummer, Donovan, Perez and Warner are my bets). Net-net you end up with 36 spots filled. Editors note: STLCARDSFAN4 had 35 spots filled, but I believe he wrote his article before the Cardinal’s added LJay Newsome or returned Hicks from the 60-day IL. Plus, you have looming roster decisions when Liberatore and Gorman get elevated, as they don’t occupy a40 man spot and will need to once they are promoted during the season. But we shouldn’t get to far ahead of ourselves in early November. Although, I do wonder … if the next CBA makes permanent a 26 or 27-man active roster, might the full roster go to 42? That would help this puzzle, not only for Cardinals but for all teams.

Back to the main question … how do you fill these needs with 4 roster spots? There are 4 ways I can see … 1) you don’t fill a need or two and hope an internal option arises, 2) you leave a prospect or two exposed Perez?, Plummer?) to the Rule 5 draft so you have another 40-man spot or two, 3) you trade from redundancy on your roster to fill needs (DeJong? An outfielder? Edman?), 4) leverage the late spring FA market to fill out the last of your needs, at a time when you can use the DFA process to re-expose certain prospects at a time when everyone else has a roster crunch, too.

It seems reasonable (maybe even obvious) that the Cardinals best opportunity for solving one of these needs internally is the LH bat(s). Youngsters Donovan, Plummer and Burleson, not to mention Gorman, all swing from the LH side and offer the potential to offset an existing Cardinal weakness. This obvious strategy is coupled with the knowledge that young players tend to exhibit extreme variability in their performance in the early stages. One would think the Birds might want to add a least one veteran LH bat with less variability, but a quality LH bat would play a lot and limit opportunities to expose the young guys. Such is the conundrum of a player-development oriented strategy (and perhaps a source of philosophical differences, but I digress.…).

I don’t necessarily see a high OBP guy among the internal options, and that might be a place where the Cardinals invest some $$ or trade assets. In prior years, I’d worry the Cards are too constrained to acquire a high OBP guy. Where would you play him? OF is locked up, corners are locked up, catcher is too. You are left with 2B or SS. Laws of supply and demand would put the price tag of a high OBP middle infielder outside the Cardinals comfort zone. But this year, if the DH comes into play, offers the opportunity to just go get a bat. If he is strong defensively, great, but not crucial. It would not shock me to see Cardinals management wait this one out to let the CBA firm up a bit before landing a player.

The near-term pitching pipeline seems pretty barren, and where I’d expect the strategy to concentrate on both the trade and FA markets for LH pitching and another starter (or bulk guy if they go deep into an alternative opener strategy). I suspect Happ and MacFarland might be possible re-ups here. Although I'd prefer the Cardinals target and acquire the guys they want, I suspect they will wait to see if / when the markets bends their way. Personally, I think this results in them being controlled and reacting to external forces instead of taking control to arrive at desired outcomes, but this is a business after all and costs must be considered.

For me, I really wonder about a LH hitter who is high OBP and obtainable. Who might that be? That is another research project, although I tend to avoid naming other team’s players as targets for acquisition. For me, there is too much uncertainty to gauge who is really available, plus added uncertainty about how the Cardinal’s AND the other teams value that player AND how they value the potential tradeable assets. Makes it super hard to be able to gauge any real sense of possibility. I just watch the actual transactions (not the rumored ones) and see if they check any of the boxes listed above.

Overall, it seems like there are needs that can be covered, given the market options out there, the available budget and open roster spaces (for the most part).