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The Cardinals will have some money to spend this offseason, but is there anyone worth paying?

Manny Machado takes batting practice before last All-Star Game with Orioles

Orioles All-Star Manny Machado takes batting practice before what is likely his last All-Star Game before being traded.
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Orioles All-Star Manny Machado takes batting practice before what is likely his last All-Star Game before being traded.

The St. Louis Cardinals have cleaned up their roster quite a bit over the past few weeks.

But if the team plans to be competitive in 2019, it’s going to have to add some more talent to the mix, not just continue to wield the ax that slices away rising contracts. But do the Redbirds, in fact, plan to be competitive next season, or will they opt to go for a full-blown rebuild instead?

There are certain pieces of this club that are unlikely to be shed. Dexter Fowler’s $82.5-million, five-year contract appears to be a total bust through season No. 2. The problem is, even if the Cardinals could find a team willing to take on the $43.5 remaining for the last three seasons of the deal — which they can’t — Fowler has a no-trade clause that’s going to prevent the team from sending him a place he doesn’t want to go. So they’ve got $14.5 million clogging up the payroll that they can’t get away from. Then there is the $7.5 million the Birds have to pay Brett Cecil each of the next two years (plus the $7.25 million the club owes him in 2020), and the $5 million the club is committed to pay Luke Gregerson next season.

About $27 million worth of dead contract money is an awful lot for the financially conservative Cardinals to swallow.

In the meantime, Jedd Gyorko’s contract is starting to get expensive. He’s made $9 million this year, but that figure will go up to $13 million in 2019. Michael Wacha, despite another big chunk of time on the disabled list, will get a raise through arbitration as will Marcell Ozuna. Kolten Wong has a $2 million raise on the books and Matt Carpenter is due an additional million bucks.

It paints a bleak financial picture for a team that needs so much improvement. But there is a lot of good news when it comes to the budget, too.

First, the obvious thing is that Adam Wainwright’s long-term contract is up, freeing $19.5 million a year for other purposes. It’s no small factor to finish off the largest contract the team has ever awarded to a pitcher. Then there is the $14 million wasted on Greg Holland coming off the books. The elimination of those two contracts alone could cover the cost of a premium player. Meanwhile, it wouldn’t surprise me to see the Cardinals trade away Wacha to save some money. Although I’m a fan, the team seems to have plenty of arms for the rotation with Carlos Martinez, Miles Mikolas, Jack Flaherty, Dakota Hudson, Luke Weaver, Austin Gomber, John Gant and others in competition for jobs. I’d like to see the club go out and get an experienced front of the rotation starter to lead and groom the younger fellows. But it doesn’t appear that Wacha is the man for that job, unfortunately. If injury-prone top prospect Alex Reyes can recover from his latest health setback, he seems a much more likely future ace than Wacha or Martinez.

While I think the chances are slim to none that the Birds can come up with the winning bid for free agent infielder Manny Machado, it would probably make sense to help finance that deal by trading Gyorko. By subtracting Wainwright, Holland, Wacha and Gyorko, the Cardinals could easily afford to spend all the money it would take to sign a premium player who could be transformational for this franchise. But it doesn’t matter how much money the team has if it can’t get the right player to take the deal.

Beyond Machado, who is that appealing to break the bank over? Bryce Harper? Hardly. First, the guy has had a tragically poor season on the eve of one of the most anticipated free agent bidding wars in the history of baseball. I don’t see a club spending $400 million on a guy who is hitting .234 and on a pace to strike out 150-plus times. The power is there with 28 home runs. But Harper is fourth among Washington Nationals Starters with a .501 slugging percentage. Besides, the Cardinals are flush with outfielders. I guess St. Louis could let go of Ozuna to make room for Harper in left field. But is it worth it to commit to a risky contract to replace your biggest middle of the order bat with a different slugger? It doesn’t seem like a smart way to improve a team that doesn’t need to replace Ozuna as much as it needs to find a complement for him. It also doesn’t help the defense.

The Cardinals have a dilemma in that they love their young pitching and don’t want to part with it for a big bat. But they don’t seem to have much of an opportunity to sign a franchise player on the open market. So, either they’re going to stand pat — again — which doesn’t seem to be an acceptable solution to ownership. Or else they’re going to have to try to catch lightning in a bottle by trying to sign a second or third-tier free agent like Josh Donaldson, whose market value has taken a beating by his constant injury problems and his advancing age.

I’m iffy about the prospect of signing Donaldson because it seems like a move similar to the risky gambles to sign Mike Leake, Holland and Fowler to ink another player with a history of health problems. But it’s unlikely a player of Donaldson’s age and reputation would get more than two years and, if he stayed healthy, he could improve the infield defense and be a nice complementary piece for Ozuna who, hopefully, can get healthier himself to produce more next year.

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