When general manager John Mozeliak and manager Mike Matheny held their joint press conference after the Cardinals lost 4-1 in the NLCS to the Giants, the 2015 St. Louis roster was by and large set:
- Among the several positions, right field posed the only question. The answer would be a spring-training competition between Oscar Taveras, Randal Grichuk, and Stephen Piscotty.
- The rotation was set: Adam Wainwright, Lance Lynn, John Lackey, Michael Wacha, and Shelby Miller.
- In the bullpen, Carlos Martinez was tapped to fill the eighth-inning setup role left vacant by the departing free-agent Pat Neshek. Marco Gonzales would fill a lefthanded relief spot, just like he did in October.
- The plan, as announced in October, was to tender every arbitration-eligible Cardinal a major-league contract for 2015.
Then the 22-year-old Taveras was killed in a tragic car wreck on October 26.
The news not only rocked the Cardinals organization emotionally, but threw their 2014-15 offseason plan into disarray. The moves the Cardinals have made since Taveras died make clear that the organization anticipated he would be the starting right fielder in 2015 and beyond. With the phenomenon no longer in the fold, standing pat this Hot Stove was no longer an option for St. Louis in regards to right field. Mozeliak and his lieutenants had to change course, attempting to balance the twin goals of not hamstringing their chances of winning in the medium-to-long term and winning now with an aging core of Matt Holliday (entering his age-35 season), Yadier Molina (32), Wainwright (33), Jhonny Peralta (33), and, to a lesser extent, Jon Jay (30) and Matt Carpenter (29).
The efficiency of the Cardinals front office after Taveras's death this offseason has been something to behold.
The Cardinals zeroed in on Jason Heyward as their Taveras replacement. Entering his sixth major-league season, which he will play at age 25, Heyward is a talent with a résumé that, more than any other available right fielder in the game, embodies the Cardinals' twin goals to win now and later. St. Louis acquired a proven veteran entering the prime of his career. At $8.5 million, his 2015 salary is also a bargain. The question of whether the Cards can sign Heyward to a long-term deal will linger (perhaps until this time next year), but he represents one of the biggest upgrades from 2014 to 2015 at any position by any team in the National League. After the Heyward acquisition, the Cards are even better-positioned for a fifth consecutive postseason berth.
Of course, there was a cost: righthanders Shelby Miller and Tyrell Jenkins. In effect the Cardinals gave up four cost-controlled years of Miller and six or seven of Jenkins for one season of Heyward and two of reliever Jordan Walden. It appears that the Braves' initial focus was on Martinez but the Cards opted to keep the Dominican and shift him from setup man—the job they assigned him prior to Taveras's death—to the rotation, as Miller's replacement. Acquiring Walden in addition to Heyward gave them an immediate eighth-inning replacement for Martinez (and an arbitration-eligible one who is under club control for two seasons at a below-market cost). Time will tell whether the Cardinals' internal assessment of Miller versus Martinez was prescient and whether shipping out Jenkins as a part of the deal was wise.
Mozeliak further bolstered the starboard side of his relief corps by signing former Rockie Matt Belisle. As I discussed yesterday, the move bets that taking Belisle out of Colorado's hitter-friendly thin air and putting him on the mound in front of one of baseball's best defenses will make him as effective as his strikeouts, walks, hit batsmen, and homers allowed totals indicate he can be. Signing Belisle, a righthanded innings-eater, is a further indication that Martinez has a leg up in the spring-training fifth starter derby with Gonzales.
Mozeliak has also remade the bench, non-tendering four-year man Daniel Descalso, signing former Pacific Coast League batting champ Dean Anna, and trading for the versatile Ty Kelly.
The Cardinals front office did all of this before the Winter Meetings, which start on Monday in San Diego.
St. Louis may very well make another move or two. Mozeliak may restructure Lackey's 2015 contract. It also seems that Randy Choate might yet be dealt. A righthanded power bench bat that can spell Heyward in right and Matt Adams at first would also be nice. But with the roster already by and large remade, the Cardinals can be opportunistic (to use Mozeliak's word) at the Winter Meetings and for the remainder of the offseason.
Mozeliak deserves credit for swiftly refashioning the club's offseason plan after the death of Taveras and then quickly implementing it.