By Rob Rains
As the Cardinals’ hierarchy begins its analysis of the 2019 season – which featured more good than bad, even though it ended with a thud – they will no doubt conclude it was a step in the right direction.
They won the NL Central for the first time in four years. They found an ace in Jack Flaherty to build a pitching staff around. They know Paul Goldschmidt will be an anchor in the middle of the lineup. They enjoyed the breakout season of Tommy Edman plus positive results from some of their other young players.
Still, as being swept out of the NL Championship Series by the Nationals showed, there remains work to be done for the Cardinals to reach the next level. That immediately becomes the focus for the front office personnel.
Of all the questions facing the Cardinals as the off-season begins, the biggest, and most pressing, has to be to figure out what to do with the outfield for next season.
Nine players started at least one game in the three outfield spots this season, and everyone in that group has questions about their future. That group also doesn’t include the Cardinals’ top prospect, Dylan Carlson, who showed between his time at Double A and Triple A this year that he deserves strong consideration for a spot on next year’s roster.
Identifying which three outfielders to project as starters for next season – perhaps including someone who isn’t currently among the mix – will not be an easy task, but seems likely to have the biggest impact on what to expect from the Cardinals in 2020.
These are the current candidates for the five outfield spots on next year’s roster, which of course does not include anybody who might be acquired in a trade or signed as a free agent, and a look at the questions facing each of them:
Marcell Ozuna – The pending free agent will turn 29 in November and despite his public statements that he would like to sign a long-term deal to remain with the Cardinals, there has been no indication from the front office that the feeling is mutual. It would probably make sense for the Cardinals to extend a qualifying offer (just under $18 million) and they would be OK with Ozuna either accepting that offer and returning on a one-year deal or rejecting it, which would give the organization an extra pick in the amateur draft if he signs elsewhere.
Two of the factors which seem to work against signing Ozuna to a long-term contract are how badly the Cardinals have been burned by those deals in recent years, and the abundance of young prospects who are ready to play at the major-league level. Still, it’s not an easy decision to see 29 homers and 89 RBIs disappear from the middle of an already offensive-challenged lineup.
Harrison Bader – First, start with the positive. Bader is one of the best defensive center fielders in the game, deserving to be in the Gold Glove discussions. That aspect of his game, however, is offset by the fact that he had an extremely disappointing offensive season this year. If you subtract about a two-week stretch when he did well after coming back from a stint at Memphis, Bader hit .194 and struck out in basically one-third of his at-bats.
The Cardinals did not want to talk about putting Bader into a trade for a pitcher at the mid-season deadline, but now they have to decide if he will ever be more than a fourth outfielder, kept on the roster basically for defense, or if there is reason to believe he can improve on his .236 career average.
Dexter Fowler – There are 33 million reasons why Fowler likely will be part of the Cardinals outfield plans for next year, the number of dollars remaining on his no-trade contract for 2020 and 2021. What role he will play will most likely be determined by what other moves the team does or doesn’t make this winter, but getting just two hits in 33 at-bats in the postseason should not guarantee him a starting spot despite the size of the contract.
The Cardinals try to trumpet how much better Fowler did after moving back into the leadoff spot, but the truth is he hit .211 as the leadoff hitter this season, with almost as many walks (34) as he had hits (41). From Aug. 23 to the end of the postseason run, he hit .172. The lack of production from the top spot was a problem all season with no more glaring example than in the NLCS when Fowler was 0-of-11 and Edman was 0-of-4.
Fowler will turn 34 next March, which doesn’t exactly create any expectations that his projected performance next season will be any different than how he played this year.
Dylan Carlson – The top prospect in the organization, Carlson will turn 21 later this month. The switch-hitter enjoyed an outstanding season, showing he is ready for the majors despite his young age. He has played all three outfield spots, getting more time in center field this year at Double A Springfield, but probably projects better as a corner outfielder. He hit a combined 26 homers with 28 doubles and 20 stolen bases between Springfield and Memphis this year, rising to the ranks of the top position player prospects in the game.
Carlson will come to spring training with a chance to win a spot in the starting outfield, with the only question seemingly whether that will happen at the beginning of next season or a month or two later.
Tyler O’Neill – The recently completed season was basically a lost year for O’Neill, who started just 18 games and had only 75 at-bats in the second half of the season. Sixteen of those starts came between July 13 and 31, when he hit four homers and had a .303 average. He started only two more games the rest of the season, one of which came after the 19-inning game in Arizona.
If there was a reason the Cardinals got down on O’Neill, it was never reported. If his lack of playing time was just a result of riding other players, that can be addressed next season. If Ozuna leaves, and O’Neill returns, he should get a chance to see how he can perform given a consistent opportunity.
Lane Thomas – It didn’t seem so at the time, but the broken wrist Thomas suffered when he was hit by a pitch in Milwaukee in mid-September might have had a lot to do with the team’s offensive performance in the playoffs. With Bader and Fowler both struggling, and the reluctance to play Randy Arozarena, Thomas might have been an alternative had he been healthy.
The 24-year-old Thomas, who might be only a tick behind Bader defensively, also excelled offensively when given a chance. He started only four games for the Cardinals but was 7-of-15 with a triple, a home run and six RBIs in those games. Overall he hit 14 homers between Triple A and the Cardinals, a year after he led the minor-league organization in home runs and RBIs. His success in limited playing time this year showed Thomas belongs in the group that deserves more of an opportunity next season, but how to provide that probably will be a challenge for manager Mike Shildt.
Randy Arozarena – Had he played more in September, the Cardinals likely would have been more willing to insert Arozarena in the lineup in place of Bader or Fowler in the playoffs, but he started only once in the last three weeks of the regular season, the day after the 19-inning game in Arizona. The lack of playing time with the Cardinals, however, is not a reflection on how he played at Triple A, when he hit .358 with a .435 on-base percentage.
Like Carlson and Thomas, the 24-year-old Arozarena has experience in all three outfield positions and his above-average speed probably profiles best for center field. He doesn’t have the power potential of Carlson, Thomas or O’Neill, but would be the best leadoff candidate out of that group.
Jose Martinez – He was the only one of the outfielders to play well in the NLCS, and the Cardinals turned to him basically out of desperation to start the final two games of the series. He has proven his ability to be a productive hitter coming off the bench, and as a spot starter, which is probably the best plan for him again next season.
Tommy Edman – After having been almost exclusively an infielder coming up through the minors, Edman was thrust into the outfield this season as a way to get his bat in the lineup. There is no doubt he can play there, but is center or right the best fit for his abilities? He played well enough as a rookie to merit a starting spot in 2020, but whether that will be somewhere in the infield or in the outfield, or another hybrid role, is the question.
Adolis Garcia – How crowded is the Cardinals’ outfield? There is no better example than the fact Garcia hit 32 homers and drove in 96 runs for Memphis this season, is on the 40-man roster, and did not receive a call up to the majors in September. Where the 27-year-old fits into next year’s plans likely will be determine by the moves or non-moves the Cardinals make with others in the outfield group this winter.
Here are some of the other questions the Cardinals will need to try to answer before showing up in February in Jupiter:
Do they need an upgrade at third base?
Matt Carpenter and Edman split the majority of time at the position this season, and one of the questions the Cardinals need to answer, but probably can’t, is what to expect from Carpenter next season. He is signed for two more years, and Edman certainly proved he can play the position, but this might be the best position available if the team wants to bring in somebody from the outside as a free agent or via a trade who could be another impact middle-of-the-order bat.
Should they add a starting pitcher?
The answer to this question might be determined by their plans for some of their current pitchers. Flaherty, Dakota Hudson and Miles Mikolas will fill three of the spots in the rotation. If Adam Wainwright wants to pitch another season, he likely will join the group, leaving one opening – which could go to either Carlos Martinez, Alex Reyes, Daniel Ponce de Leon or perhaps Ryan Helsley if the Cardinals want to see what he can do as a starter after shining in a middle relief role.
What role does Carlos Martinez fill?
Martinez has made it obvious he prefers to start, but the Cardinals might still believe his best fit is as the closer, especially until Jordan Hicks returns from Tommy John surgery. That could be shortly after the All-Star break, but it might not be a bad plan for the two to share that role for the second half of the season as Hicks builds his arm back up, especially if the Cardinals continue to have doubts about Martinez having the strength necessary to become a reliable starter.
Is it time to find out if Andrew Knizner is ready to be Yadier Molina’s successor?
Matt Wieters was the best backup catcher the Cardinals have had in the Molina era, but whether he wants to come back is questionable, especially if he can find a team which might offer more playing time. Knizner, like Carson Kelly before him, has nothing left to prove at Triple A but if the Cardinals make a commitment to keep him as the backup in 2020, it needs to be with an understanding with Molina that he is finally going to have to take more days off. Otherwise, Knizner will suffer the same fate that Kelly did as Molina’s backup, seeing his skills take a step back because of a lack of playing time.
What happened to Paul DeJong in the second half of the season?
DeJong was the Cardinals’ All-Star representative, and while he continued to hit home runs the rest of the season, his average fell off to .202 over the final 2 ½ months. It might simply have been a question of fatigue, ae he didn’t have a day off from July 15 to Sept. 25, due in part to the Cardinals failure to develop a backup shortstop. If that was the reason behind his dropoff, that could be alleviated by having Edman play more shortstop next season, especially early in the year.
Is it too early to sign Jack Flaherty to a long-term contract?
This answer is easy, no, it’s not too soon, unless Flaherty’s demands are unrealistic. He has one year to go before he reaches arbitration and is not eligible for free agency until 2024, so signing either a four or five-year deal would give him some security and also not affect his future earning power. The Cardinals gave Mikolas a four-year, $68 million extension after one good year, so something slightly above that number would seem to be reasonable for both Flaherty and the Cardinals.
Where is the best spot for Tommy Edman to play?
Edman played well everywhere he played in 2019, but seemed the most comfortable and the most successful at third base. His success in the different spots gives the Cardinals some flexibility and options as they plan for next year, knowing they likely can plug him in almost anywhere. It could be that at least for another season the best way the team can use Edman is the same as this year, moving him around the diamond, especially if he can add starts at shortstop to the list.
Will the team have money to spend this winter?
Unless they are able to move a salary or two, the answer probably is not much. The 2019 Cardinals opening day roster had a $162 million payroll, and the Cardinals currently have 11 players under contract for next season at a cost of $147 million. The five biggest salaries – Goldschmidt at $26 million, Molina at $20 million, Carpenter at $18.5 million, Mikolas at $17 million and Fowler at $16.5 million, make up $98 million of that total. The four players off this year’s roster who can become free agents are Ozuna, Wainwright, Wieters and Michael Wacha, while pitchers Dominic Leone, John Gant and Reyes are eligible for salary arbitration.
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Photo by AP courtesy of KSDK Sports