Could the St. Louis Cardinals be heading for an offseason overhaul?
The club seems poised to travel that road after a disappointing 83-79 record and a second consecutive year of missing the postseason.
Upgrades to an offense that ran hot and cold are in order, and it appears there are few untouchables, with perhaps eight to 10 players finding new homes in 2018.
“We’re the St. Louis Cardinals, and when we’re not playing in October, something didn’t happen that we needed to happen,” Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said Sunday morning before a 6-1 defeat against the Milwaukee Brewers. “We all start by looking in the mirror. What could we have done differently?
“There will be a lot of reflection going on, more than anything else, at the beginning (of the offseason). Then it’s evaluating all the way across the board. Where did we come up short? How did we come up short? What do we need to do to get us back to where we need to be? And not just get us back there, but to stay there.”
The Cardinals lost nine of their first 12 games and were just 33-40 on June 24. They caught fire in August, when an eight-game winning streak put them at 61-56 and in a first-place tie in the NL Central. But they tread water from there, going 22-23 in their final 45 games.
St. Louis was swept in a three-game series against the division-champion Chicago Cubs on Sept. 15-17 at Wrigley Field, and stumbled further by dropping two of three games in Pittsburgh two weekends ago. That was followed by three losses in four games to the Cubs in the next-to-last home series of the season.
That dropped the curtain on a season full of twists and turns.
“Just overall inconsistencies,” said John Mozeliak, the Cardinals’ director of baseball operations. “(But) there were a lot of positives to take from this year because you saw a youth movement and you saw a lot of players come up and contribute that weren’t household names. I think we’re in a good spot to build on, but there’s obviously some things this offseason we’re going to have to work on.
“We’ll take a few days, allow the coaches to sort of weigh in on where we are and what they think we need to do. Ultimately, as the playoffs and World Series come and go, free agency will open and hopefully we can hit the ground running.”
Last winter, the Cardinals believed they addressed their 2016 shortcomings by handing lucrative free-agent deals to center fielder Dexter Fowler and left-handed reliever Brett Cecil.
Injuries limited the switch-hitting Fowler to 118 games, although he hit a career-high 18 home runs and posted a .400 on-base percentage in the second half. Cecil pitched in 73 games, but he logged a 3.88 ERA and allowed a .343 average to left-handed hitters.
Fowler is signed for four more years and has a no-trade clause. He probably is more suited for left field, and could end up there if the Cardinals make Tommy Pham, their most consistent player this season with a .303 average, 23 homers and 73 RBIs, their full-time center fielder.
Fowler batted third, fourth or fifth in 43 games, but he still considers himself a leadoff hitter. If first baseman Matt Carpenter is still around in 2018, Fowler would likely be forced to reinvent himself as a run producer for a lineup that desperately needs punch.
“I feel like I’m a leadoff hitter,” Fowler said. “But wherever the team needs me, I’ll be there.”
Even if Fowler makes the necessary adjustment to batting in a run-producing spot in the order, that wouldn’t provide the jolt the offense requires.
The Cardinals may determine they want Fowler in the leadoff spot. If that is the case, could Carpenter, who batted a career-low .241 despite 23 homers and a .384 on-base percentage, be traded to open up first base for a free agent like 27-year-old Eric Hosmer?
Hosmer’s bat, which produced a .318 average, 25 home runs and 94 RBIs for the Kansas City Royals, would be a lift, but St. Louis might also be in the market for a dominant presence in right field like Giancarlo Stanton or J.D. Martinez.
The 27-year-old Stanton, perhaps the best player in the National League, is signed through 2027, but is owed $285 million. He walloped an NL-high 59 homers for Miami and would cause more stir at Busch Stadium than Albert Pujols did from 2001-2011.
Martinez, 30, will be a free agent who also would give the Cardinals’ lineup instant credibility. He hammered 45 homers with Detroit and Arizona and could be one of Mozeliak’s principle targets if the Cardinals are unable to strike a deal for Stanton.
The Cardinals seem likely to use right fielders Randal Grichuk and perhaps Stephen Piscotty as trade bait to fill any possible need, particularly a deal for Stanton.
Carpenter can’t predict the offseason and is prepared for changes. But he believes the Cardinals have laid the foundation for success.
“You could argue and say that this year was the start of a rebuild, but we found a way to still win and compete and play competitively,” he said. “A lot of young guys came up here and contributed. We have enough of a mix here between veteran players that have been around and young guys that can contribute. I’m excited about what we can do.”
The Cardinals turned to many young players in 2017, with shortstop Paul DeJong offering the biggest boost with his 25 home runs from May 28 until the end of the season.
DeJong also solidified the infield defense after taking over for the demoted Aledmys Diaz.
“It was a whirlwind, really,” said DeJong, who batted .285. “It felt like a sprint at times. It also felt like a marathon. Really, it was a roller-coaster of emotions. But I think I got my foot in the door and really experienced the big leagues for a legit amount of time. I’m going to take all these experiences, learn from them and use them moving forward.
“Next year, I’m anticipating us playing meaningful baseball into October. We’ve got a lot of young guys who can contribute along with some veterans who have been there, done that. That combination, I think, will lead us to where we want to be.”
The 2018 rotation, assuming the team doesn’t re-sign Lance Lynn (11-8), could consist of Carlos Martinez (12-11), Michael Wacha (12-9), Luke Weaver (7-2), Adam Wainwright (12-5) and Alex Reyes (injured this season), with Jack Flaherty (0-2) and John Gant (0-1) in the competition.
The bullpen is certain to undergo a transformation. Juan Nicasio, acquired from the Philadelphia Phillies, is a free agent who wants to remain in St. Louis. He might be the closer next season since Trevor Rosenthal and Seung Hwan Oh probably will not return. Rosenthal is recovering from Tommy John surgery and could be released.
Veteran left-hander Zach Duke is a free agent who could draw interest from elsewhere. Matt Bowman, Sandy Alcantara, Tyler Lyons, John Brebbia, Sam Tuivailala and Ryan Sherriff could be in the 2018 mix. None, however, are signed beyond 2017.
“Clearly, when you look at our bullpen and our inconsistencies with it, it needs to be addressed,” Mozeliak said. “When you look at our everyday lineup, there’s places I think we can grow from. When you look at our rotations, at some point, some fatigue set in. It’s something we have to address.
“Overall, any time you finish a year and you’re not in the playoffs, there’s obviously some things to do. That’s what we’ll work on.”
Mozeliak said the biggest lesson learned this season was to avoid putting too much emphasis on spring training.
“We had a very good camp,” he said. “We left there with a lot of optimism. We thought a lot of things were going to go right, and they didn’t. With hindsight, you want to go back and be able to address where we could have gotten more right, and that’s what we’ll do.”
David Wilhelm: @DavidMWilhelm