One of the items which should be at the top of the Cardinals to-do list this winter is sign free agent Bryce Harper. (USA Today Sports)
By Rob Rains
Even before this season began, it seemed like 2018 would be a transition year for the Cardinals – primarily because of the influx of young pitchers they wanted to acclimate into the major leagues, which is almost never an easy or seamless process.
That was exactly what happened, and the team’s transition picked up more steam in the middle of the year when Mike Shildt took over as manager.
The next steps of the transition need to take place this winter – finding out how to close the gap on the Cubs and Brewers, who played on Monday to decide the NL Central title while the Cardinals’ players cleaned out their lockers and left for the winter.
There is no doubt the front office, led by John Mozeliak and Michael Girsch, already have a long lists of ideas about how to make the Cardinals better in 2019 and beyond. Here are 10 items which should be somewhere near the top of their to-do list:
1. Figure out how to get rid of Dexter Fowler and Brett Cecil.
One of the worst decisions a team can make is letting moves which didn’t work out, for whatever reason, linger simply because of the money that is owed to the players. It’s time the Cardinals admit signing Fowler and Cecil, which didn’t seem horrible at the time, turned out that way. Mozeliak found a taker for Mike Leake and much of his salary, but it will be tougher in both of these cases to do that. They should try, but releasing the players and eating what is left on the contracts is probably what needs to happen.
Part of the problem with bringing both players back next year is that they will then have to be used, and likely will struggle again, and will take away playing time and a roster spot from somebody who might actually help the team win.
2. Go all in on signing Bryce Harper.
As long as money is no object, the Cardinals should spend whatever it takes to sign Bryce Harper. If they were willing to take on the $250 million or so left on Giancarlo Stanton’s contract last winter, and trade off some of their top prospects to get him, there is no reason not to pursue Harper, who would be the big left-handed bat in the middle of the lineup the Cardinals need. It will be a long and expensive contract, and the Cardinals likely would have to out-bid several clubs, but with Scott Boras as Harper’s agent, it seems almost certain money will be the deciding factor in where he signs.
Harper will turn 26 later this month, which makes that 10-year proposal more palatable. With all of the young players on this roster, the Cardinals also can fit the salary into their payroll. He is a better fit for this team than Manny Machado. One more reason to do it – it keeps him from playing right field for the Cubs for the next 10 years.
3. Don’t stop there – go get another big bat, probably through a trade.
While adding Harper would be a major upgrade, Mozeliak and company should not stop there. The Cubs have Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant and Javier Baez in the middle of their lineup. The Brewers have Christian Yelich, Jesus Aguilar and Mike Moustakas. The Cardinals, even with Harper, have him and Marcell Ozuna.
Two of the top players in the NL will be free agents after the 2019 season and there is considerable doubt about whether their current teams will be able to re-sign them – Nolan Arenado and Paul Goldschmidt. The Cardinals need to pursue first Arenado and if that doesn’t go anywhere, Goldschmidt. Either would look wonderful batting between Harper and Ozuna, and the Cardinals should be able to put together an attractive package of young players that either the Rockies or Diamondbacks would be foolish not to consider.
4. Decide if Carlos Martinez will be a starter, the closer or trade bait.
None of these moves, or others as well, happen in a vacuum. One move can work in concert with others, and that could be the case with Martinez. If the Cardinals really want to go after Arenado or Goldschmidt, it might be necessary to include Martinez in the deal. Doing so, however, would mean the Cardinals would have to figure out who will follow Jack Flaherty and Miles Mikolas in the rotation. They have plenty of options. If they decide to keep Martinez and put him back in the rotation, it could free up another young starter as a trade option.
At the moment, the Cardinals don’t seem to have as many in-house options better than Martinez as a closer. But would he accept that role on a full-time basis? That’s a question that needs to be asked, and answered, before any move could be made. There is another closing option which could be available, somebody who knows all about the job – free agent Trevor Rosenthal, working his way back from Tommy John surgery.
5. Bring Adam Wainwright back.
Wainwright wants to pitch again in 2019 and there is no reason, financial or otherwise, why it shouldn’t be for the Cardinals. He needs to be a lifetime Cardinal, just like Yadier Molina, and proved in September he should have one more season in his right arm. No matter what role Wainwright would fill on the mound, he probably would be more valuable just being in the dugout and the clubhouse on the days when he doesn’t pitch, serving as a mentor for all of the young pitchers.
Bringing Wainwright back should be the easiest, and first, item the Cardinals complete on their to-do list this winter.
6. Find a dominant left-handed reliever, who is especially effective against left-handed hitters.
This was on last year’s to-do list and it didn’t happen, despite the fact the Cardinals tried several relievers in this role. It’s critical to the success of the bullpen, and to the success of the team. It even got to the point in September that the Cardinals thought their best reliever against left-handed batters actually was Bud Norris.
Here is one out of the box, off-the-wall possibility to consider – Rick Ankiel. If he is as serious as he claimed earlier this summer about trying to make a comeback, the Cardinals should let him try. What, he’s going to be worse than Cecil?
7. Free Carson Kelly.
There are two separate, but connected, points to make when it comes to Kelly’s status going into 2019. First, Molina was unbelievable this season and to his credit has worked harder than ever at his advancing age to stay physically and mentally ready to play every day. The work he did guiding the team’s young pitcher through the season was remarkable. Saying that, however, Kelly is 24. There is no reason for him to go back to Triple A. It’s time to find out if he can play in the major leagues, especially defensively.
Kelly has been viewed as the Cardinals’ catcher of the future for at least three years, but the catcher of the present, Molina, is not ready to give up the job. Having Kelly sit on the bench and play once every three weeks or so doesn’t really make much sense. He needs to at least split the position 60-40 next year and if that won’t happen in it’s probably time for the Cardinals to trade him.
8. Make the best trade possible for Jose Martinez.
Yes, Martinez had a great offensive season, which is why there should be a good market for a controllable 30-year-old player who can hit .300 with close to 20 homers and drive in 80 or more runs. The problem as the Cardinals found out is that his best position is hitter. He would probably be willing to accept a lesser role to stick around, but his value makes him perhaps one of the team’s best trade chips – especially if they could sign Harper.
9. Come up with a way to cut down on the team’s error total.
The Cardinals led the majors with 133 errors this season, their most in 20 years, and that doesn’t include multiple “non plays” where an error wasn’t charged but was a play which should have been made and resulted in an out. This problem can perhaps be addressed with the other moves the team makes this winter, but one way or the other, defense has to become a higher priority when it comes to dividing up playing time next season.
10. Decide if there will be changes to the coaching staff.
The Cardinals dropped the interim tag on Shildt’s title in August, but did not address the status of the three coaches added to his staff in mid-season: Pop Warner, Mark Budaska and George Greer. Warner was being groomed to take over for Mark DeJohn as the organization’s minor league field coordinator after next season, but a chance to stay as the bench coach in the major leagues might alter those plans. Budaska is well respected in the organization as well, while Greer, who is 72, likely will have to decide if he wants to go through the rigors of an entire major-league season as Budaska’s assistant.
It also will be up to Jose Oquendo to decide if he wants to return as third base coach. If that answer is no, it could free up a major-league spot for Memphis manager Stubby Clapp, who also is reportedly high on Toronto’s list of managerial candidates.
Follow Rob Rains on Twitter @RobRains