Cheap Seats

Goal for the St. Louis Cardinals this off-season: Get really good at something

The St. Louis Cardinals, more than any other thing, need an identity in 2018.

What do I mean by that? I mean that they need a hallmark part of their team that they are admired for. An aspect of their club that they can lean on when all else fails, a thing they can rely on for consistency.

In 2017, the Redbirds aren’t particularly good with their gloves and they’re horrible with their baserunning. They don’t have a lot of speed, although they have more than they utilize, but they’re not an imposing team of sluggers either. Really, the Cardinals have three lead-off hitters and a handful of sixth or seventh-place type hitters. So they find themselves using one of those lead-off men or a guy who was supposed to be a utility infielder to bat cleanup and a rookie with a dreadful walk rate in the third spot in the order. Pitching was supposed to be a strength, but the newly-crowned team ace, Carlos Martinez, has had as many or more head-scratcher starts as he has had brilliant ones, former Ace Adam Wainwright has struggled to break the average highway speed limit on the radar gun, Mike Leake was mercifully dumped on the unsuspecting Seattle Mariners and top prospect Alex Reyes blew out his arm in spring training. Don’t get me started on the bullpen.

Next year, the Cardinals need to be among the best at — something. I don’t necessarily care what it is. But they need to find a direction. It’s almost impossible to build a perfect team from top to bottom. But a world where this exceedingly mediocre club is a couple games out of a playoff spot, it’s obvious you don’t have to be flawless from top to bottom. You just have to be good at something.

In 1981, people thought new manager — and then general manager, too — Whitey Herzog lost his mind when he decided he was going to get rid of offensive stalwarts like Ted Simmons and Garry Templeton in favor of pop-gun hitters who couldn’t hit the ball out of the park if the wind was blowing out at 40 mph but, man, could they play defense and run, run, run on the bases. It was an untested theory. But Whitey had a plan and made it work for the better part of a glorious decade.

This edition of the Birds can’t rally around anything, really.

The offense will score 10 runs three or four games in a row when a player or two get hot. But then it will go a couple of weeks when it scores one or two runs a game. For a brief time, the starting rotation looked pretty good. But then it sank back to reality when Wainwright couldn’t continue to fool batters with smoke and mirrors, Leake turned back into the crummy pitcher he was last season and the team dipped too often into that lousy bullpen, wearing out the one guy who has been a reliable reliever, Matt Bowman.

If I was in charge, I’d like to see the Cardinals add not one but two fearsome sluggers into the middle of the order to make offensive consistency the thing this team hangs its hat on. Why? Because it’s probably the easiest fix and the most bang for the buck based on the current roster and the guys working their way through the farm system. With what resources are left over, I’d work on the bullpen.

Then you can let the young kids like Luke Weaver and Jack Flaherty round out the starting rotation. They’re talented but raw. Still, they don’t have to be perfect if the offense is putting up six runs a game. Maybe I would give him a chance to start at some point of the season. But my plan for Reyes would be to start him off in a setup man role in the bullpen with hopes that he graduates to working as the closer.

No, I don’t think the Cardinals ought to bail on the idea of Reyes as a starter forever. But I do think they need to be supremely careful with his reconstructed elbow. Even if they threw caution to the wind, a guy who didn’t throw a pitch in a game in 2017 can’t be expected to log 200 innings pitching every fifth day in 2018.

This team, as I have griped about time and time again, doesn’t have any franchise type players. Guys that can put a club on their back for a week or two at a time like Albert Pujols, Jack Clark, Orlando Cepeda and other sluggers from the past did to lead St. Louis to the World Series. It’s supporting cast, however, could be exceptional. A team can afford to spend on superstars when three of its key pitchers are making the major league minimum salary. And Bowman, should he recover, wouldn’t be making much more than that. Harrison Bader has shown he’s ready to contribute in the outfield for a rookie salary, and Paul DeJong is providing steady defense and 21-homer pop at shortstop.

The savings from the expiration of the contracts of Jhonny Peralta, Jonathan Broxton, Mike Leake (for the most part), Lance Lynn, Seung Hwan Oh and the leftover money owed to Matt Holliday for his buyout, Brayan Pena for his cameo appearance in a St. Louis uniform and, who knows what else I am forgetting, will flow back into the Cardinals coffers after this season. Plus the Birds know that they’ll save $19.5 million a year on Wainwright after 2018. Including raises on the books for Yadier Molina, Martinez and other guys including Jedd Gyorko, the Cardinals ought to have about $50 million a year in payroll space to play with.

With that kind of cash, the Redbirds could make a trade for Giancarlo Stanton, absorbing all of the $280 million left on the deal (if he doesn’t opt out) and they could sign a guy like Mike Moustakas as a free agent. Imagine Matt Carpenter and Dexter Fowler setting the table at the top of the batting order, one of the most feared sluggers in baseball, Stanton, batting third and Moustakas, another fellow capable of hitting 40 plus homers, batting cleanup to make sure that nobody gets any wise ideas about pitching around our new slugging right fielder. Guys counted on this year to be pillars of the offense, Yadi, Gyorko, Kolten Wong, DeJong and whomever is left in the inevitable outfield shuffle will man the bottom of the order where their contributions will suddenly be well above average compared to expectations for their roles.

A rotation of Martinez, Wacha, Wainwright, Weaver and Flaherty or Reyes would only have to hold the opposition to three or four runs for six innings to give this team a chance to win every single night.

And, one last word, for those who are afraid of Stanton’s contract: Trust me, the Cardinals aren’t going to do any better trying to find that sort of production. That contract was ridiculously huge when it was inked. But inflation isn’t going away. It’s going to look like sofa cushion change when Bryce Harper breaks the $400 million mark after he hits the market. Besides, the Cardinals can afford it. They have the money coming off the books and the resources to have a top third payroll.