The off-season might not have played out the way I would have liked, but, after an offseason of angst, let’s celebrate the fact that it’s finally time to stop the speculation and start playing the games.
While we were all hoping the Redbirds would make a bold move to improve the team, the acquisition was something of a surprise. Several big league pundits drew lines between St. Louis and top free agent Bryce Harper, who seemed to tick off several of the boxes on the wish list of Cardinals President of Baseball Operations John Mozeliak.
First, we heard repeatedly that the Birds coveted a left-handed bat. Check. Second, St. Louis wanted to improve the offense without sacrificing it’s prized core of young pitching including Jack Flaherty, Jordan Hicks and Dakota Hudson. A free agent checks that box while a trade for a high profile player might not. Finally, the local team is notorious for not wanting to commit a multi-year contract to a player who is past his prime. Harper, at 26, would have given the Cardinals plenty of youth.
Instead of signing Harper, the Cardinals traded for Paul Goldschmidt, a move that seemed like trying to jam a square peg into a round hole. St. Louis already had an established slugging first baseman in Matt Carpenter. While Goldschmidt was somehow pried out of the clutches of the Arizona Diamondbacks for a package that didn’t include any of the pitchers the team didn’t want to part with, he’s 31 years old and he was in the last year of his contract, bringing nightmares of the Jason Heyward trade gone wrong back to the surface of Cardinals consciousness.
Fortunately, Goldschmidt signed an incredibly team-friendly contract before he even set foot in Busch Stadium wearing his new Cardinals red uniform. St. Louis had to commit to him until he’s 37. But for an average of $26 million a year when Harper got $330 million over 13 seasons and Manny Machado got $300 million for 10 campaigns, it was a deal the Birds couldn’t afford to pass up.
Carpenter had to move back to third base, his weakest defensive position, to make room for his new teammate. But The Cardinals didn’t have a choice but to find a way to fit a top 10 MLB hitter at scratch and dent section prices. Goldschmidt is a quiet leader who ought to be good for 30 homers, 90 or more runs batted in and a batting average of .290 or better. Is that enough to put St. Louis over the top in the National League Central? I was still clamoring for a second slugger over the offseason to replace struggling right fielder Dexter Fowler and provide insurance for the balky shoulder of left fielder Marcell Ozuna. It would have been a nice addition because both Fowler and Ozuna come into 2019 with major question marks. But St. Louis is gambling that power hitter Tyler O’Neill is ready for the big leagues in case one of the two falters.
What they did about the pitching
The Cardinals had to make a desperation move in the second half of the season last year, jettisoning underperforming veterans from the relief corps in favor of unproven young pitchers. I expected the Birds to be a player for an established closer like Craig Kimbrel, who is still a free agent, by the way. Instead, the team only made one move, and it was for lanky left-handed middle reliever Andrew Miller. The southpaw isn’t your typical one-out lefty. He’s a guy who can pitch to multiple hitters, even multiple innings, per appearance.
Miller, who was slowed by injuries last season, could be a big piece if he’s healthy. But the Cardinals made a risky decision when the team released its only other healthy major league lefty, Chasen Shreve, on the eve of the season. Another pitcher who was injured for much of 2018, Dominic Leone, will get another shot with St. Louis this season along with holdovers John Brebbia, Mike Mayers and second-year major leaguer Jordan Hicks, who will sink or swim in the closer role. Out of the bullpen is Dakota Hudson who worked well as a set-up man last year. He’ll be the fifth starter thanks to a concerning injury to Carlos Martinez’s shoulder.
Adam Wainwright was brought back on a one-year contract to try for the third year in a row to get healthy and perform at his previously elite level. The Cardinals were able to hold onto Miles Mikolas, the recycling bin find of last off-season who electrified St. Louis fans with an incredible comeback season after a few years in Japan.
The big question is, while the Cardinals have a ton of depth, do they have the performers in key spots they need to count on to be successful?
What they did about the bench
Another area where things didn’t work out quite as expected, the Cardinals seemed intent on trading Jose Martinez, a good hitter with no effective defensive position, to an American League team where he can be a designated hitter. It never happened, despite some early rumors. That’s created a jam on the pine where St. Louis has five spots, including the one reserved for a second string catcher.
Martinez and late spring pick-up Matt Wieters, formerly the backstop for the Washington Nationals, will fill the first two spots and O’Neill won the third by leading the Cardinals in home runs over the spring. The last two spots were won by that lefty the team wanted so badly, former Texas Rangers utility man Drew Robinson and the surprise of last spring, Yairo Munoz. But versatile veteran infielder Jedd Gyorko remains with the club on the injured list. Where will he fit in when he’s recovered from a strained calf? I have a feeling his days in St. Louis are numbered.
What does it all mean
The Cardinals could have shored up their 2019 chances by adding another bat and another veteran pitcher. But the team chose instead to count on younger, unestablished players. Beyond the usual factor that teams which stay the healthiest have the best chance to win, the Cardinals will hinge on whether players of the future can contribute now. Flaherty, Hudson and Hicks need to be successful for St. Louis to return to the post season for the first time in four years. Shortstop Paul DeJong had a setback season in 2018 because of a hand injury when he was hit by a pitch. Can he get back up to speed and be a middle of the order hitter? Can center fielder Harrison Bader make it through his first full season as a big league starter with an acceptable offensive output?
We’re about to find out.