St. Louis Cardinals

Did the Cardinals do enough in the offseason to get back to the playoffs?

Cardinals manager Mike Matheny talks with Marcell Ozuna, his new left fielder and cleanup hitter, during a game at Roger Dean Stadium in Jupiter, Florida.
Cardinals manager Mike Matheny talks with Marcell Ozuna, his new left fielder and cleanup hitter, during a game at Roger Dean Stadium in Jupiter, Florida. snagy@bnd.com

The St. Louis Cardinals promised an active offseason, and they have delivered.

Three starters and two highly-regarded minor league prospects were traded. One of those deals filled the team's need for a cleanup hitter; another brought in a depth of bullpen help.

Five players departed via free agency, while six others arrived. Fresh faces from the Cardinals' own farm system dot the roster. On Opening Day, at least five positions will be manned by players different than those who played them at this time last year.

There's no question the front office has done a lot. But anxious fans are still asking if they've done enough: Is this team really better than those that missed the playoffs the past two years?

"If you look at where we think our club is today, we feel like we're better off than where the season ended," said Cardinals president of baseball operations John Mozeliak. "We're very excited about the club we have assembled."

Construction of the 2018 Cardinals wavered little from past strategy. Mozeliak and general manager Mike Girsch bypassed the high-priced free agents in favor of their own home-grown talent.

Mozeliak admits that approach sometimes creates a thin competitive margin, especially as the primary divisional rivals — the Chicago Cubs and Milwaukee Brewers — have made their own roster improvements.

But he added his belief that "intelligent" free agent acquisitions have helped the Cardinals build the organizational depth to cover whatever contingencies may arise.

Still, success in 2018 will depend on a lot of "ifs."

"We're certainly hedging our bets on some players having better seasons than they did last year. We're hedging our bets that some of our players that had outstanding seasons last year can continue," he said. "But when you look at the group as a whole, take a step back and say, 'If you need help from Memphis, do you have it?' We feel pretty confident about that group, too."

The Cardinals finished 83-79 in 2017, third place in the National League Central Division, nine games behind the first-place Cubs, and four games behind the Colorado Rockies as the NL's second wild card team.

It was the first time that the Cardinals missed the playoffs in consecutive seasons since 2007-08.

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Starting pitcher Carlos Martinez looks to the heavens after finishing an inning during a spring training game in Jupiter, Florida. Steve Nagy snagy@bnd.com

The Rotation

Mozeliak pins the postseason shortfall on unforeseeable injuries to rookie starter Alex Reyes and closer Trevor Rosenthal, both of whom underwent Tommy John surgery, as well as the collapse of reliever Seung-hwan Oh. Rosenthal and Oh are now gone, and Reyes remains on track for a May 1 return.

Through that lens, there's not as much ground to make up with the Cubs and Brewers as may be perceived.

Rick Horton, the Fox Sports Midwest baseball analyst and former Cardinals' left-hander, thinks a healthy Reyes makes up most of the difference between last year's 83 wins and another season that ends in September.

He made his major league debut in 2016 with a 4-1 record and 1.57 ERA in 46 innings.

"The Cardinals finished where they did because Alex Reyes got hurt in January," Horton said. "The expectation for him to be the No. 2 or No. 3 starter would have made all the difference in the world. It's the difference between four or five wins, it's the difference between the playoffs."

Exactly how Reyes will be used as he continues to regain his endurance remains to be seen. The club may use him 90 to 100 innings in relief before putting him in the rotation. The pitcher says he plans to be a starter sooner than later.

"I haven't missed any steps. If May 1 is still the schedule, then I feel like I'm on track for that," Reyes said on March 8. "We're building up as a starter. If the organization has another plan, I'll go with it.

"Right now I feel like my first job is to be healthy when my name is called."

At least two other newcomers will join the rotation, at least until Reyes is ready to reclaim his spot.

Miles Mikolas comes to St. Louis via the Yomiuri Giants in the Japanese Nippon Professional League and hasn’t pitched in the major leagues since 2014, when he was a member of the Texas Rangers. The Cardinals inked him to a two-year, $15 million contract in December.

In three seasons with Yomiuri, Mikolas had a 31-13 record with a 2.18 ERA.

“Adding somebody like Miles Mikolas might be a little curious to some of you who don’t do what we do for a living,” Mozeliak said, “but we think what he brings to the table — especially when you look at the depth of starting pitching we have coming — signing him for two years makes a lot of sense.”

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Luke Weaver throws in the bullpen as bullpen coach Kyle Eversgerd, No. 56, and pitching coach Mike Maddux. Steve Nagy snagy@bnd.com

Luke Weaver, 23, made his major league debut in 2016 and took positive steps last season after a second-half promotion. He went 7-2 with 3.88 ERA, striking out 72 in 60 innings pitched. Through nine innings pitched at spring training, Weaver allowed just one earned run.

Manager Mike Matheny expects a strong year from Weaver as he continues to build confidence to challenge big-league hitters.

"Everything about him comes down to execution," Matheny said. "He was not getting some of the big league hitters to chase those pitches that are just barely off the dish, which he was getting in triple-A ... He has had to learn the leagues a little bit, and I think he's adjusting very well."

The rotation otherwise relies on Carlos Martinez, 26, the incumbent ace who was tabbed for his second straight Opening Day start. His ERA in 2017 (3.64) was slightly up from the previous two seasons, while his 12 wins were his fewest since 2014. But, he set career high with 205 innings pitched and 217 strikeouts.

Michael Wacha bounced back from a injury-interrupted 2016 to win 12 games with a 4.13 ERA last year, while Adam Wainwright enters the final year of his current contract.

Wainwright, who starts the season on the disabled list with a strained hamstring, opened spring training with an impromptu press conference to head off any questions about his baseball future.

"I'm hoping to pitch really, really great this year so that the question is not whether he needs to retire or not. It will be, 'How many years can we get him back?' That would be my goal," said Wainwright, 36. "But I don't want to think about that right now. What I want to think about is what I have to do today to get better."

While Wainwright is mending, Jack Flaherty will take his spot in the rotation. Already the club's second highest-rated prospect — behind only Reyes — somehow managed to raise his stock during the spring. Flaherty struck out 24 batters in 15.2 inning.

The Bullpen

Without accounting for the return of Reyes, 10 pitchers have made a case to claim one of eight bullpen roles.

Left-hander Tyler Lyons cinched his spot last season by going 4-1 with a 2.83 ERA. Dominic Leone, acquired from Toronto in exchange for outfielder Randal Grichuk, also is coming off a career year in which he went 3-0 with a 2.56 ERA.

With three years remaining on a four-year, $30.5 million contract, it's unlikely the team would dispatch Brett Cecil to triple-A. And Sam Tuivailala, who who has made annual appearances in St. Louis since 2014, went 3-3 with a 2.55 ERA last season and has yet to allow a run this spring. He's also out of options.

That left a tricky scrum for the final three spots.

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Jack Flaherty delivers a pitch during a spring training game in Jupiter, Florida. Steve Nagy snagy@bnd.com

A surprise roster addition is 21-year-old right hander Jordan Hicks, who blanked the Washington Nationals in a start Sunday to earn an 11th-hour promotion. He brings a 102 mph fastball and a "bulldog" profile to the Cardinals bullpen. Could he be the answer at closer?

The Cardinals also signed Bud Norris to a one-year, $3 million deal. It was his 13 saves before the All-Star break — the first 13 of his nine-year career — that captured their attention. He could be a contender for the closer's role as well, Matheny said.

"I don't know if he's here otherwise," Matheny said from the Cardinals' spring training complex in Jupiter, Florida. "(Closing) is absolutely part of the conversation."

Luke Gregerson is the current closer, at least according to the Cardinals' depth chart. He saves 31 games for Houston in 2015 but just one last season, and he has been limited this spring with a strained oblique. A pulled hamstring landed him on the disabled list to start the season.

John Brebbia (2.44 ERA in 51.2 innings last year) and Matt Bowman (5-11 with 3.70 ERA in 126.1 innings the past two seasons) round out the list of incumbents to the Cardinals bullpen. Brebbia has been bounced to make room for Hicks, though he'll surely be a factor as the season progresses.

Rookie Mike Mayers, by virtue of the two hits and zero runs he has allowed this spring, earned his way onto the Opening Day roster.

All likely will be used throughout the season, but Mozeliak says the team will settle on a single closer eventually.

The Cardinals’ bullpen led the National League with 17 blown saves last year, including six by Cecil and four by Oh, who has since signed with the Blue Jays.

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Relief pitcher Alex Reyes in the dugout during a spring training game in Jupiter, Florida. Steve Nagy snagy@bnd.com

"We tried to build flexibility into our bullpen this year, first and foremost. I do think that the Memphis-to-St. Louis corridor may be a little more active than we've seen in the past," he said. "Having said that, I do think managers in general like to have somebody they can count on in the ninth."

The Lineup

The Cardinals' offseason began in earnest, with an aggressive push to acquire a presence in the middle of the lineup. That search focused for a month on the Miami Marlins' slugger Giancarlo Stanton, who led the majors with 59 home runs. Wielding the no-trade protection built into his contract, however, Stanton vetoed a trade to the Cardinals and ultimately landed with the Yankees.

St. Louis instead got Stanton's Miami teammate, Marcell Ozuna, who fits their need almost as well. The 27-year-old Dominican earned his first Gold Glove in left field, as well as a Silver Slugger for his .312 average, 37 home runs and 124 RBIs.

A bat of his caliber was priority No. 1 for Mozeliak.

"Ozuna changes the look of our team dramatically," he said.

Other changes to the lineup were necessary to accommodate the arrival of Ozuna, who will play left field.

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Cardinals cleanup hitter Marcell Ozuna bats against the Washington Nationals during a spring training game at Roger Dean Stadium in Jupiter, Florida. Steve Nagy snagy@bnd.com

Tommy Pham will assume center field following a breakout 2017. The 30-year-old batted .306 with 23 home runs, 73 RBIs, a .411 on-base percentage and 95 runs scored. That was all in just 128 games. Counting his time at Memphis, Pham's 32 stolen bases left him just three home runs shy of being a 30-30 player.

That's his goal for what should be his first full season in the big leagues.

“Personally, I think I’m a 30-30 player. I probably would have got it if I was up all year,” he said.

Dexter Fowler, last offseason's big acquisition, will shift to right field. At .264, he hit close to his career average, but gave the Cardinals better power numbers than they anticipated with 18 home runs and a career-best .488 slugging percentage.

The Cardinals threw their full confidence behind shortstop Paul DeJong by giving him a new six-year, $26 million contract extension in the middle of spring training. It's the richest contract ever awarded a player with less than a full year in the majors.

DeJong got his chance in place of Aledmys Diaz, the Cardinals top rookie in 2016 who was demoted to Memphis mid-season and subsequently dealt to Toronto.

He belted 25 home runs in 417 at-bats, which tied Cal Ripken Jr. for the eighth most for a rookie shortstop, while also batting .285. He finished second in NL Rookie of the Year voting. Barring some unforeseen misfortune, DeJong will be 11th shortstop to start on Opening Day in the past 12 years.

Kolten Wong will begin his sixth season as the incumbent at second base. He finished last season with career bests in batting average (.285) and on-base percentage (.376), while committing a career low 10 errors.

Jedd Gyorko, brought in two seasons ago as a supposed super-sub, will man third base. His defensive-WAR was the third best in baseball at that position last year. He also hit a career-best .272 witih 20 home runs and 67 RBIs.

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Cardinals second baseman Kolten Wong turns a double play during a spring training game against the Washington Nationals at Roger Dean Stadium in Jupiter Florida. Wong missed out on his first Gold Glove Award despite leading National League second basemen in several defensive metrics. Steve Nagy snagy@bnd.com

First base belongs to Matt Carpenter with second-year backup Jose Martinez filling in against left-handed pitchers. The pair were an effective combo last season, giving the Cardinals a combined .267 average with 25 home runs and 92 RBIs at the position.

Martinez, a 29-year-old rookie a year ago, should see a greater share of the action if Carpenter can be used at third base to provide Gyorko some days off. Those plans may be scuttled, however, because of Carpenter's on-going shoulder and back issues.

"The way our infield is lining up we're going to have the ability to move some players around, so I think it's going to give the manager some opportunities to do more matchups," Mozeliak said. "I also think the way we're looking at the season is, if we can give the players a day or two here or there, on balance, that's going to be something we try to do."

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