The St. Louis Cardinals 2018 season has been a rollercoaster
Do they roll the dice?
That’s the question facing the St. Louis Cardinals brass as the baseball’s winter meetings kick off Sunday in Las Vegas.
How appropriate, considering the Cards front office is gambling with the future of the proudest National League franchise.
It’s a future fraught with unknown risks and rewards: What moves can the Redbirds make next week and the rest of this winter to become relevant in the NL playoff picture next summer?
It’s clear that something — and something major — must be done, following a third straight season without October baseball at Busch Stadium.
A generation of Cardinals fans view playoff baseball as their birthright, a notion that has gone unrealized since 2015.
In that context, Cardinals President of Baseball Operations John Mozeliak and General Manager Michael Girsch must focus on restocking a roster to put the team back among the league’s elite.
The last three years, the Cardinals crew has been no better than ineffectual, sometimes inept, and mostly an also-ran as the Chicago Cubs and Milwaukee Brewers have passed the Birds in the NL Central standings.
The greatest need: Another major bat in the middle of the lineup, an element that’s been missing since the free-agent departure of Albert Pujols in 2011 and the death of Oscar Taveras in 2014.
The Cardinals have gone in many directions to fill those voids — Jason Heyward, Dexter Fowler, Marcell Ozuna, Stephen Piscotty, Randal Grichuk, among others — but those players all fell short, left for elsewhere, were traded or failed to be “The Guy.”
Who can the Cards get to be The Guy? That question grew more complicated when third baseman Josh Donaldson signed with the Atlanta Braves last week.
All the remaining options come with questions, some of them more vexing than others.
Paul Goldschmidt can be the guy
The most likely? Much of the online chatter has focused on a trade for Arizona first baseman Paul Goldschmidt, an acquisition that would greatly strengthen the middle of the batting order and send Matt Carpenter back to third base.
Goldschmidt would come at a high cost — likely three or four of the Cardinals’ brightest pitching prospects, including Dakota Hudson, and the Cardinals will have to decide whether they have enough depth in that department to swing a deal.
The greater concern: Goldschmidt can be a free agent after next season, making him a one-year rental unless the Cardinals and their so-called Best Fans In Baseball can convince him to sign a long-term deal to stay in The Lou.
It’s happened before — after arriving in St. Louis, Mark McGwire, Jim Edmonds, Scott Rolen and Matt Holliday all opted to stay put rather than pursue free agency.
But that hasn’t happened in recent years, with Heyward sending a signal by opting for Cubs blue a couple years ago, all the while implying he wasn’t sure about the Cardinals’ direction under Mike Matheny.
And there’s another complication: Ozuna’s deal also is up after next year, along with the contract of rotation topper Miles Mikolas. If Goldschmidt were acquired and then all three left via free agency next winter, the Cardinals would be facing a roster rebuild for the first time this century.
Bryce Harper can be the guy
Of course, another option is Washington Nationals free agent Bryce Harper, one of two premier players on the open market this winter. But there are murmurs the lights of St. Louis are not bright enough for him, and his name has been linked to the Cubs, Los Angeles Dodgers and Philadelphia Phillies.
If Harper somehow were convinced to come to St. Louis, it would come at a huge cost. How huge? Media reports last month indicated Harper rejected a $300 million offer to stay with the Nationals.
A similar price tag is likely hanging from the bat of Los Angeles Dodgers free agent shortstop Manny Machado. His skill set is unquestioned, but there are doubts about his character and whether he’d be a fit in the Cardinals clubhouse.
Should that matter in an era that’s become increasingly frustrating for the Cardinals and their fans?
I’d like to think so, but Mozeliak and Girsch may think they have no other choice.
Nolan Arenado can be the guy
But there are other possibilities, including Colorado third baseman Nolan Arenado, a four-time All-Star and perennial Gold Glover. A trade for him would immediately bolster the Redbirds’ so-so infield defense.
As a younger, even more accomplished player than Goldschmidt, though, Arenado would cost the Cardinals a handful of their best pitching prospects. And he, too, could leave as a free agent after the 2019 season.
Michael Brantley and Mike Moustakas can be the guys
Another option is Cleveland outfielder Michael Brantley, but the Cardinals are better stocked there than they are on the infield, where they’d like Jedd Gyorko to be a backup at third, first and second base.
With Harrison Bader patrolling center, Ozuna in left and the likely return of Fowler to right, possibly in a time share with Tyler O’Neill and Jose Martinez, the Cardinals would be better to focus on an infield upgrade.
One other possibility: Former Kansas City third baseman Mike Moustakas, who hit .251 but had 28 homers splitting time with the Royals and Brewers last year. He doesn’t have the gaudy resume of the others on this list, and seems like an older, on-the-downside-of-his-career version of Gyorko.
The bottom line
Bottom line: The chance is there for the Cardinals to strengthen themselves, but at a cost that can’t be known right now.
If they sit on their hands, they remain mired in mediocrity. If they make a bold move, they run the risk of gutting their pool of pitching prospects or ballooning their payroll.
Do they roll the dice? I don’t see how they can avoid it.