|By Rob Rains
The Cardinals’ word of choice to describe all of the challenges they faced during their just-completed season was “daunting.” That might also be the best word to describe the long list of player decisions facing John Mozeliak and the team this off-season.
Beginning with free agent to be Yadier Molina, there are at least 17 players whose status on a 2021 Cardinals roster is at least somewhat questionable as Mozeliak, the president of baseball operations, manager Mike Shildt and the rest of the team’s staff begin to make evaluations and plans for the moves they want to make before the next season begins.
Those decisions will be based in part on what happened on the field during the shortened 2020 season, but another consideration will almost certainly be the financial implications. The Cardinals, like most teams, have already let numerous people go throughout their organization in an effort to cut costs because of the loss of revenue, mostly from ticket sales, this season.
An unknown is how much the team will want to lower its player payroll in 2021 from the $168 million that was projected for this season before the pandemic hit, and what decisions will have to be made to meet that budget. According to the Cot’s Baseball Contracts website, the Cardinals have eight players signed to guaranteed contracts for 2021 worth slightly more than $100 million.
Four players are eligible for free agency, one has a pending option for 2021, six are eligible for arbitration and the performance of six other players this year raises questions about their future.
Here is a player by player look at the decisions which will have to be made by the Cardinals in the next few months:
Yadier Molina – Shildt has made his opinion public; he wants Molina back. He doesn’t control the budget, however, and Molina’s age, 38, perhaps will be more important to this decision than the money involved. Will Molina insist on a two-year deal or will he be willing to sign for one year and an option? The Cardinals have made some mistakes in recent years by signing players to long-term deals, and the Molina situation presents a sticky dilemma of how to balance his request and his legacy with what the Cardinals no doubt prefer, a one-year deal. Would another team overpay to sign Molina? Would he really leave if he doesn’t get what he wants from the Cardinals? Right now, those questions cannot be answered. Whether he is back with the Cardinals or not ultimately will be a decision that has to come from the top, owner Bill DeWitt Jr.
Adam Wainwright – History from the last couple of years shows that Wainwright, now 39, will take a one-year deal and the money should not be a concern. The team wants Wainwright back, and if he wants to continue his career, which appears to be the case after a very good 2020 season, then he should be back in 2021. Especially with Dakota Hudson lost for the year and questions about some of the other projected members of the rotation, Wainwright offers the team a nice security blanket. If Molina returns, there would appear almost no chance that Wainwright would leave.
Brad Miller – This might he a hard call, even if Miller was set to make only $2 million in 2020 before the pandemic. He had a few good games, but almost all of his offensive production came in the five games when he hit his seven home runs. In his other 44 games, Miller hit .177 and drove in 12 runs. He was the cleanup hitter in 29 games, 19 more than any other player, and hit .196. What he could offer for 2021, however, is the ability to play either third base or second if one of those positions should happen to be open because of decisions made on other players. Perhaps an indication of his future was the fact he had only one at-bat, as a pinch-hitter, in the three playoff games in San Diego.
Matt Wieters – The veteran knew what he signed up for as Molina’s backup – that his playing time would be very limited. That could happen again if Molina returns, or perhaps if Molina does leave Wieters would want to re-sign because of the possibility that he would be able to play more. His future, likely along with prospect Andrew Knizner, will be impacted by what happens with Molina.
Kolten Wong – On the surface this would not seem to be a tough decision. Wong proved to be an effective leadoff hitter this season and likely will win his second Gold Glove. But if the team faces tough financial decisions, and needs to free up money to bring Molina back, this is a spot where they could find some relief. Wong’s option is for $12.5 million for 2021, the last year of his contract before he can become a free agent. Even if he is not quite up to Wong’s gold standard on defense, Tommy Edman is more than capable of playing second base, probably for less than $1 million in 2021. It would seem unlikely the team would just decline Wong’s option and let him leave as a free agent, however. Picking up the option, then trying to trade him as part of a package to bring in a middle of the order bat, would seem to make more sense if his contract proves to be an issue.
John Gant – Gant is listed first on this group of players because he is the only one of the six who is headed to his second year of arbitration. That generally brings with it a fairly healthy raise. Gant was set to make $1.3 million in 2020. Right-handed relief is an area of depth for the Cardinals, and perhaps this could be another player they would let go, not because they don’t want him back, but simply because of the finances involved.
Harrison Bader – This might be one of the tougher calls among the players in this group. Bader showed a few glimpses of offensive improvement in 2020, but there were far too many games, again, when he struggled to get on base. An elite defender, Bader happens to find himself on a team looking to improve offensively and center field is a spot where they might look to do that, either by making that Dylan Carlson’s long-term landing spot or by bringing in a player from outside the organization.
Jack Flaherty – Despite what even Flaherty admitted was not a good season for him in 2020, he isn’t going anywhere. What will be interesting to watch is if the team uses his arbitration status to initiate discussions on a long-term contract, getting some financial certainty by buying out his three arbitration years and at least one year of free agency. Flaherty knows what he is worth, however, and doesn’t appear to have any problem taking his contract one year at a time right now. That might be the best approach for the team for one more year as well, knowing it has financial relief coming after the 2021 season when some of the current player contracts expire.
Jordan Hicks – After opting to sit out this season because of coronavirus concerns, Hicks should be in line to return to his spot at the back of the bullpen in 2021. The extra year of rest should have him fully recovered from Tommy John surgery, and having him back will only add to the team’s depth and talent in the bullpen. Like all players eligible for arbitration for the first time he will get a raise, but this should be a rather tame and simple contract negotiation.
Alex Reyes – The biggest thing Reyes needed to do this season was stay healthy, and he did that. He also pitched very well out of the bullpen, and was used more and more often in key late-game situations toward the end of the season and in the playoffs. There are some who think his future still could be as a starter, but he also looked like a weapon as a late-inning reliever. Either way he projects to be a key part of the team’s pitching staff in 2021.
John Brebbia – This could be another tough call. Brebbia was a very effective reliever in 2019 but then missed the 2020 season after having Tommy John surgery. His return would add another quality arm to the bullpen, but will this be another player, like Gant, where they elect to save some money because of the other right-handed relievers on the roster who are not yet eligible for arbitration such as Giovanny Gallegos, Ryan Helsley and Kodi Whitley?
Carlos Martinez – It would seem to be a foregone conclusion that it’s time for the Cardinals to move on from Martinez, but the challenge for Mozeliak will be finding a trading partner. The return for a pitcher who was 0-3 in five starts with a 9.90 ERA this year certainly will not match what it would have been a couple of years ago. There is one year left on Martinez’s contract, for $11.5 million, plus options for 2022 and 2023, and if might be necessary for the Cardinals to agree to eat some of the costs to try to get a little more in return.
Matt Carpenter – The extension the Cardinals worked out with Carpenter a couple of years also has their hands tied for at least one more year, with Carpenter due to make $18.5 million in 2021 with an vesting option for 2022. He hit .186 this season and almost certainly can’t be projected as a starter in 2021, even if the National League keeps the designated hitter. The new contract also gave Carpenter a no-trade clause, so it is likely he will be on the team in 2021, even if he is relegated to part-time or pinch-hitting duties.
Dexter Fowler – The other contract which has one more year to go is for Fowler, who is due to earn $16.5 million in 2021 in the final year of his five-year deal. Fowler did play better this season than he has the last couple of years, and with all of the questions about the Cardinals’ outfield, he probably isn’t going anywhere this winter either. Like Carpenter, he has no-trade protection in his contract.
Tyler O’Neill – One of the young outfielders the Cardinals said they really wanted to give an opportunity to in 2020 was O’Neill, and he did have 157 plate appearances, the most of anybody from that group. He tied for the team lead with seven homers, but also hit .173. Did the Cardinals see enough to find out what they can realistically expect from him in the future? The answer might be found in the fact he did not get a single at-bat in the three playoff games in San Diego, after going 4-of-35 the last two weeks of the regular season.
Lane Thomas – The Cardinals also said going into the season they wanted to use 2020 to see what they had in Thomas, and it doesn’t appear that he played enough to really give them an adequate answer. One of the players who tested positive for COVID-19, he missed a good chunk of the season and finished with only 36 at-bats. He also had a couple of defensive lapses when he was in the lineup, which probably also cost him more playing time. Even though his opportunities were very limited, it also seems unlikely the team can count on Thomas as anything more than being their fourth or fifth outfielder next season.
Andrew Knizner – The 2020 season basically became a lost year for Knizner, as it did for most of the organization’s top prospects. He played in only eight games, including just four starts, and spent the rest of his time alternating from the satellite camp in Springfield and serving on the taxi squad. He was on the roster for the series in San Diego but didn’t play. The future for Knizner, who will be 26 next year, would appear to be tied to what happens with Molina. If Molina returns, Knizner or Wieters will be the backup, and the other would seem destined to be playing somewhere else in 2021.
Follow Rob Rains on Twitter @RobRains and read his Cardinals coverage @STLSportsPage.com
Photo by AP courtesy of KSDK Sports