Few teams in all of baseball head into the winter meetings with fewer roster holes than the Cardinals. That's a pretty remarkable feat for a team that missed the playoffs in 2018, with no significant moves this offseason so far.
Homegrown talent formed the foundation for an 88-win season that just missed being postseason-worthy.
Matt Carpenter shook off an early-season slump to smash a barrage of summer home runs; Harrison Bader emerged as an ultra-athletic solution to the team's center-field situation, prompting the Cards to ship Tommy Pham out in a midseason trade; Paul DeJong and Kolten Wong combined to deliver better than seven wins above replacement across St. Louis's double-play combination; and Yadier Molina chipped in a late-career power spike, swatting 20 long balls at age 35. On the pitching front, Jack Flaherty emerged as one of the most dynamic young right-handers in the game, while Michael Wacha shook off injuries to flash some of the vintage form that made him a postseason hero back in 2013.
All of the above came up through the Cardinals' vaunted farm system. If anything, the Cards may have been the victims of their own scouting and development success last season: They traded away Pham and first baseman Luke Voit at discount prices before the deadline, only to watch both destroy opposing pitchers with their new teams.
Because St. Louis has done such a great job of developing its own talent (with a string of success dating back at least to Albert Pujols's rookie season), the team has often been reluctant to pay top dollar for the biggest names on the free-agent market. Given that the Cards look nearly set both in their lineup and rotation nearly five months ahead of Opening Day, it's hard to see them shooting the moon for free agents this time too -- the team's reported kicking-the-tires interest in Bryce Harper notwithstanding.
- 2018 Result: 88-74, third place in NL Central
- Key free agents: Matt Adams, Tyson Ross, Bud Norris
- Needs: Relief pitching, corner infield
The shopping attempts reportedly started early. After failing to land former AL MVP Josh Donaldson last offseason in a trade, St. Louis bid for him in free agency before losing out to the Braves' one-year, $23 million offer. With Donaldson gone, they've . The Cards value versatility more than most teams, so any signing of a starting corner infielder could allow them to move jack-of-many-trades Matt Carpenter and Jedd Gyorko around the infield depending on matchups.
General manager John Mozeliak has become known as a perennial Hot Stove bridesmaid, falling short in bids for free agents like David Price, Jason Heyward, and now Donaldson. Though fans can rightly grow cynical about their team coming up short again and again in negotiations, an optimist could note that Mozeliak being a frequent runner-up means he won't overspend for talent as often as many of his peers, thus avoiding ugly salary albatrosses down the road. Albatrosses like Heyward, for instance. On the rare occasions when the Cards have actually won a round of free-agent bidding, that hasn't always worked either -- witness Dexter Fowler batting a horrific .180/.278/.298 in year two of a five-year, $82.5 million contract.
Viewed in that light, trades become a more attractive way to land talent. The Diamondbacks are shopping All-Star first baseman Paul Goldschmidt, and the Cardinals could be interested, according to St. Louis Post-Dispatch writer Derrick Goold. While Goldschmidt could cost a lot in prospect capital and would also add another right-handed bat to a team overloaded with them, he's also perennially one of the best hitters in the league, and would be a significantly more impactful addition than Moustakas and his ilk.
Still, the team's biggest need is relief help. Cards relievers finished 26th last season in park-adjusted ERA, raking 25th in strikeout rate, with the third-highest walk rate in the majors.
Brett Cecil was supposed to be the shutdown lefty at the back of the pen when he signed a four-year deal with St. Louis two years ago, but he delivered a disastrous 6.89 ERA last season and now projects as a mop-up man. The closer position was likewise tumultuous, with veteran Bud Norris eventually claiming the job outright and doing a passable job of holding down the fort. He's a free agent this winter, and the Cards might prefer to spot flame-throwing young righty Jordan Hicks as a high-leverage setup man, opening the door for a closer signing. That's great timing for St. Louis, given that this is the most overstocked market we've seen for relief pitchers in years.
The talent gap between the Cards and division-leading Chicago and Milwaukee isn't all that wide, and could easily be filled by a handful of shrewd pickups this winter. But St. Louis will need to avoid any more Pham-and-Voit-like blunders and significantly upgrade their bullpen to get back in the playoff mix.