By Rob Rains
The trade for Nolan Arenado. Bringing back Adam Wainwright. Sending Dexter Fowler to the Angels. The hopefully impending return of Yadier Molina. It’s been a busy time for the Cardinals. Here are 10 takeaways about what all of these moves could mean for this season:
- The Cardinals are now the prohibitive favorite to win the NL Central.
Even without making any of these moves a case could have been made that the Cardinals still were the best team in the division heading into the season – not for what they did, but because of the fact that every other team in the division seemingly got worse this winter. While the Cardinals said goodbye to Kolten Wong, who ended up going to the Brewers, they had a replacement ready to take his place in Tommy Edman. Now, with Arenado, they clearly have the best team in the division and the challenge will be to prove it once the season begins.
- Paul Goldschmidt will benefit the most from Arenado’s arrival.
Assuming that Goldschmidt stays in his third spot in the batting order and Arenado slides into the cleanup spot, Goldschmidt should have a season much more like 2019 than his 2020 season. In 2019, with Marcell Ozuna hitting behind him most of the time, Goldschmidt hit 34 homers and drove in 97 runs. In 2020, the Cardinals had four players who combined to start 56 of their 58 games in the cleanup spot. Combined, Brad Miller, Matt Carpenter, Paul DeJong and Tyler O’Neill posted a .202 average with eight homers and 29 RBIs. Three of the homers came from Miller in back-to-back games. Because pitchers did not have to worry about who was batting behind Goldschmidt, his walk total increased from 11 percent in 2019 to 16 percent in 2020. That should not happen with Arenado hitting behind him.
- Matt Carpenter will be the player hurt the most from Arenado’s arrival.
Carpenter’s best hope for playing time and at-bats in 2021 would have been if the NL had decided to keep the designated hitter but as of now, it doesn’t look like that is going to happen. Carpenter will get a handful of games at third base, and maybe can spot Edman or Goldschmidt a few times. There also will be 10 games in AL parks where the Cardinals will be able to have a DH. For the most part, however, Carpenter will probably be used as a pinch-hitter. That is not all bad – as long as you ignore his salary. As a pinch-hitter in 2019 Carpenter was 4-of-17 with five RBIs and had an on-base percentage of .364. Combined, the Cardinals pinch hitters in 2020 were 1-of-29.
- Four spots are set in the rotation with plenty of candidates to fill the fifth spot.
Wainwright’s return solidifies the top four spots in the rotation as he rejoins Jack Flaherty, Kwang Hyun Kim and Miles Mikolas, returning after arm surgery forced him to sit out 2020. It leaves a group that includes Carlos Martinez, Alex Reyes, Daniel Ponce de Leon, John Gant and Johan Oviedo to battle it out in spring training to see who will end up with the fifth spot. Perhaps as important, however, is the fact the Cardinals now will have several pitchers positioned to fill what could amount to a piggyback role behind the starters. In a year when pitchers’ workloads are going to be closely monitored, having four or five pitchers who could work 3-4 innings in relief would help bridge that gap between the starter and the back end of the bullpen, which is one of the team’s strengths.
- The young outfielders really will get a chance to play.
John Mozeliak, in addition to preaching patience, said all winter that the Cardinals were going to be committed to giving their young outfielders a chance to play this season, believing the shortened 2020 campaign, especially for COVID-affected Lane Thomas, did not provide an accurate reading. The trade of Fowler to the Angels, barring any more unforeseen moves, should ensure that it will happen. Dylan Carlson should be the everyday right fielder, Harrison Bader will get the most time in center, with Thomas and Tyler O’Neill sharing the at-bats in left. Thomas also can easily slide into center on nights when Bader is not in the lineup. Having Arenado in the middle of the lineup allows the Cardinals a better opportunity to play all of them in a less-pressurized role and see what they can accomplish.
- Nolan Gorman and Jordan Walker should get some experience at other positions.
The need to have a young third baseman ready to fill that position starting in 2022 disappeared with the Arenado trade. The Cardinals will now have the opportunity to see what Gorman, one of their top prospects, can do at other positions. He should still get some work at third as he likely spends the bulk of this season in Double A, but the team also should encourage him to get some experience at second base and in left field. In reality, Gorman’s ascension to the majors is going to be based on how well he hits, and finding a spot where he can play will happen if Gorman hits well enough. In all likelihood the DH will become a reality in the NL starting in 2022, which will give him another path to big-league at-bats. Even though last year’s top pick, Jordan Walker, will be farther down in the system he also is a third baseman and should begin working at a few other positions, perhaps including shortstop.
- Andrew Knizner could struggle to find playing time and at-bats for the second consecutive year.
Knizner insists that 2020 was not a wasted year in his development even though he had only 17 plate appearances for the Cardinals and spent a chunk of time at the alternate site camp. If, as expected, Molina returns, how many at-bats can Knizner realistically anticipate this season? If Molina is back, he will want to play, and the Cardinals run the risk of having Knizner follow the path of Carson Kelly, who saw his skills take a hit as he sat behind Molina. Now 26, Knizner also could be in the uncomfortable position of being stuck behind Molina and ahead of Ivan Herrera, the 20-year-old catcher who is quickly climbing through the organization, expected to be the starter this year at Double A Springfield.
- There will be a lot less pressure on Dylan Carlson.
Carlson was going to be an everyday player anyway, rotating between all three outfield spots, but now he can settle into right field on a nightly basis. Even though he was the cleanup hitter in the playoffs last year, having Arenado there will free up Carlson to move to the top of the order, either in the leadoff or second spot. He should be productive in both, but he likes to hit leadoff – having done it in 52 games in 2019 at Springfield – and is a selective enough hitter to be able to succeed there. That would allow Tommy Edman to hit second in front of Goldschmidt and Arenado, a pretty advantageous spot.
- The next move should be to add a backup middle infielder.
The roster now appears to be fairly complete but adding a veteran to compete against Edmundo Sosa in the spring for the backup infielder role would seem to make sense. Two former Cardinals are still available as a free agent who could perhaps fill that role – Greg Garcia or Daniel Descalso. Garcia, 31, spent last year in San Diego while Descalso, 34, was with the Cubs but did not appear in a game in 2020.
- Looking beyond this season, the Cardinals will be in a perfect financial position going into next winter.
With Carpenter, Fowler, Andrew Miller and Martinez (who has options) in the last year of their contracts in 2021, the Cardinals could free up $58 million off their payroll after the season, more if it turns out to be the final year for Wainwright and/or Molina. They currently have only four players under contract for 2022 (not including options) – Arenado, Goldschmidt, Miles Mikolas and Paul DeJong. They should have a better read on what to expect from the young outfielders after this season, and a better understanding of how the country is recovering from the pandemic, and will have the financial flexibility to add players either as a free agent or through a trade if necessary. The biggest unknown for next winter will be the status of the Collective Bargaining Agreement between the playersd and owners which expires on Dec. 1.
Follow Rob Rains on Twitter @RobRains