The 10 most important questions Cardinals will need to answer this winter

By Rob Rains

The start of the offseason arrived much sooner than the Cardinals expected – again.

For the third consecutive year, the Cardinals earned a spot in the playoffs and were promptly eliminated in the first round. The two losses to the Phillies extended their current postseason losing streak to five consecutive games, with nine losses in 10 games since they last won a postseason series, the Division Series over the Braves in 2019.

Since the start of the 2019 season, the Cardinals have built a team that is a collective 64 games over.500 in the regular season, but only 4-11 in the playoffs. Part of the explanation is the abundance of games against the mediocre NL Central, a fact  which will change somewhat in 2023 because of a revised MLB schedule which calls for every major-league team to play every other team, reducing the number of in-division games.

The Cardinals should take this as a sign as they begin their planning for 2023 – if they want to win and play deeper into October, they have to be better than they have been. They might have been good enough to win two division titles in the last four years, and earn two wild-card spots, but not good enough to keep from wilting against tougher competition,

Part of that improvement could come internally. A lot of young players gained a valuable year of experience this season, and got at least a glimpse of what the playoff atmosphere is like, and that might make them better next year.

Some of the improvements probably will have to come from additions brough into the organization either through free agency or trades, similar to the help that Jose Quintana and Jordan Montgomery brought to the club the last two months of this season.

How the Cardinals plan to get better is the biggest question facing the team this winter. To come up with that cumulative answer, they will need to decide what to do about these 10 questions:

  1. Is Nolan Arenado staying?

There is a clause in his contract which would allow Arenado to opt out of his deal and become a free agent. There is five years left on the contract, worth $144 million, including $35 million each of the next two years. All indications to this point have been that Arenado wants to stay with the Cardinals, but he might use the leverage of the opt out to sweeten his deal, which now runs through 2027, to agree to stay – either asking for more money per year or for another year added to the deal.  Despite not hitting well in either of his two postseasons since he was acquired from the Rockies, Arenado is still the top third baseman in the NL and no doubt would be attractive to teams like the Mets, Yankees or Dodgers should he decide to try and hit the open market.

  1. Will Adam Wainwright be back?

Wainwright has been coy when asked this question, including after the Cardinals’ postseason elimination. It is believed he does want to pitch another year, and that if he was seriously considering retirement, he would have already made that decision so he could  have been included in the farewell tours of Albert Pujols and Yadier Molina. Wainwright did not pitch well in September, and didn’t pitch in either playoff game, but his leadership and role in mentoring the team’s young pitchers is just as important as his actual performance on the mound. If he wants to come back, the Cardinals need to make that happen.

  1. Should there be any changes made to the coaching staff?

When Oli Marmol took over the managing duties from Mike Shildt, he inherited the majority of the coaching staff. The only additions were Skip Schumaker, who took over Marmol’s former role as bench coach, and Turner Ward, hired as the assistant hitting coach. Now that he has a year’s experience as the manager, the question will be if Marmol wants to replace any of the holdover coaches with his own selections. The coach who always seems the most controversial on the staff, hitting coach Jeff Albert, will no doubt undergo some extra scrutiny because of the offense’s poor performance in September and against the Phillies, but he has survived questions about his job security before and but it remains to be seen if he can do it again.

  1. What will they do with Tyler O’Neill?

The Cardinals began this season with the expectation that their regular outfield would be O’Neill, Harrison Bader and Dylan Carlson – not only for 2022 but for years to come. Bader was traded, and O’Neill missed much of the year because of injuries, including a hamstring injury that kept him out of the playoffs. The 27-year-old O’Neill played in just 96 games in 2022 and hit 14 home runs, down from the 34 he hit in 138 games in 2021 – the only year he has played more than 96 games. The Cardinals need to find out what his trade value might be – as one of 11 players eligible for arbitration, O’Neill would be in line for a raise from his $3.4 million salary this year – with no guaranatee that he can stay healthy. The Cardinals found out they have a couple of other outfield options this year (Lars Nootbaar, Corey Dickerson, Juan Yepez, Alec Burleson, Brendan Donovan) with top prospect Jordan Walker appearing quickly on the horizon. It might be time to give O’Neill a fresh start somewhere else.

  1. Does Paul DeJong need a fresh start too?

The Cardinals were really hoping that when DeJong showed some signs of life after returning from Memphis that he would finally end his three years of struggles, but that hope turned out to be short-lived. Waiting any longer is not the answer, especially when Tommy Edman proved to be more than an adequate shortstop and Donovan and Nolan Gorman are available to play second. DeJong is owed $9 million for next year, plus he has two option years on his deal that can be bought out for a total of $3 million. The Cardinals likely would not recoup much of that cost in either money or talent in a trade, and probably would even have to eat much of it, but it’s worth it for what DeJong has meant to the club to let him move on and see if he can find success elsewhere.

  1. Are they set with Andrew Knizner and Ivan Herrera as the catchers?

If there is any spot in the Cardinals lineup where an offensive upgrade seems possible, it’s this one. With Molina and Knizner handling the bulk of the catching duties this year, the Cardinals catchers ranked 13th in the NL in average (.209), tied for 12th in home runs (nine) and tied for 13th in RBIs (48). The question will be if the front office wants to try to find that upgrade from outside the organization (Willson Contreras is a free agent) or give the combination of Knizner and Herrera a chance to see what they can do. Signing Contreras would bring in a much higher salary, and also cost the Cardinals a top pick in next year’s amateur draft, something they are always reluctant to do. What seems more probable is giving Knizner and Herrera a year to see what they can do without being in Molina’s shadow and maybe add a veteran backup as insurance in case they struggle.

  1. Is there another rookie infusion coming in 2023?

The Cardinals had three rookies in the starting lineup for their final game of the playoffs (Nootbaar, Donovan and Yepez) and six more on their 26-man roster, including Nolan Gorman, Andre Pallante and Zack Thompson. The crop of rookies who likely will arrive in 2023 could be smaller in number, but still offer a big impact. Walker, one of the best prospects in the game, likely is heading for a future in right field. Also on the list of players who could find their way to St. Louis next summer is outfielder Moises Gomez, who led all of the minor leagues with 39 homers this season. Herrera will still have rookie status, and one of the organization’s top pitching prospects, hard-throwing Gordon Graceffo, had a big season at Double A and should be in line for a major-league callup at some point in 2023, either as a starter or as a reliever.

  1. Should they bring in another starting pitcher candidate?

As it stands now, assuming Wainwright is back, the Cardinals will go to spring training with a projected rotation of Wainwright, Jack Flaherty, Miles Mikolas, Montgomery and Steven Matz. Quintana definitely pitched well enough to be a candidate to be re-signed, but his performance might get him a bigger and longer contract elsewhere – and the Cardinals would have to determine where he would fit if he returns. Besides their projected five starters, Dakota Hudson started 26 games in 2022, Pallante started 10 and Matthew Liberatore seven. Thompson also might be a starting candidate as well, but seems to fit nicely right now in the bullpen. Unless they were to deal somebody out of that group, it appears adding another starter is unlikely.

  1. Who are the Cardinals’ best trade chips, and what would they try to acquire?

Burleson is probably the player who would bring the most interest from other teams if the Cardinals decide he probably won’t be a regular for them in 2023. If a team believes that O’Neill can bounce back from his rough season, he could be of interest. It also might be time for Jake Woodford to move to an organization that would give him more of a regular chance to pitch, and if the Cardinals don’t believe Hudson will be in their rotation, he could perhaps be included in a deal too. The three areas it seems likely the Cardinals would look for help from outside the organization, either through trades or free agency, would be a backup catcher, a backup middle infielder and a left-handed reliever.

  1. Does Alex Reyes get another chance?

This was another lost season because of injury for Reyes, who has had to go through too many of them in his career. This time it was a shoulder injury which required surgery. Now 28, Reyes is arbitration-eligible again and can be a free agent after the 2023 season. If he can bounce back physically, Reyes could be another power option at the back of the bullpen, joining Ryan Helsley, Jordan Hicks and Giovanny Gallegos and make an already strong group even stronger. He deserves the chance to see if he is healthy.

Follow Rob Rains on Twitter @RobRains

Photo of Nolan Arenado by AP courtesy of KSDK Sports

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For the latest news and features in St. Louis Sports check out STLSportsPage.com. Rob Rains, Editor.