The Cardinals have huge decisions to make if they want to get younger and bolster the rotation for 2020
The 2019 Cardinals were eliminated by the Nationals in four games in the NLCS
Yes, they added Paul Goldschmidt via trade to a roster that remained in contention until the final hours of the 2018 season, and yes manager Mike Shildt -- an upgrade over his predecessor in every perceptible regard -- would helm the team for his first full campaign. The rival Cubs, though, had the more talented roster and the stronger recent history. That St. Louis managed to fend off the Cubs and the reigning division champion Brewers for the NL Central title makes the 2019 season a success. The loss to the Nats obviously renders the year something less than perfect from the Cardinals' standpoint, but proud reflection is certainly in order.
Done? Good. Now that proud reflection is out of the way, let's turn our steely, alluring eyes to the 2020 season. If there's a concern moving forward, it's age in the lineup. The Cardinals this season had the third-oldest crop of position players in the National League, and if they want to continue threading the needle of contention while maintaining the talent pipeline -- something they've been able to pull off for several years running -- then they may need to get younger at a couple of spots. Consider the following notable regulars:
- Catcher/warrior-poet Yadier Molina is 37. While his workload to some extent and his skills at the plate have defied the usual aging curve, at some point he's going to stop defying the usual aging curve.
- Paul Goldschmidt will be going into his age-32 campaign, and he showed signs of decline this season.
- While Dexter Fowler improved greatly over his disastrous 2019, he was still a below-average player in 2019. He turns 34 in March.
- Matt Carpenter's age-33 campaign was the worst of his career. While Shildt did an admirable job of ramping Carpenter's playing time down as the season deepened yet still keeping him engaged and contributing, Carpenter's $39 million extension that kicks in next season may make it difficult to relegate him to part-time status.
Obviously, Molina and Goldschmidt are going to regulars in 2020, health permitting, almost wholly independent of how they produce. But the front office needs to prepare for the possibility that Fowler and Carpenter may decline past the point of usefulness. As well, Marcell Ozuna is headed for free agency, and it's not certain he'll return, or even whether the Cardinals would be advised to bring him back.
On the Carpenter front, the obvious solution is the one that's already somewhat in place -- give most of the third base reps to Tommy Edman. Edman is a standout defender at multiple positions, and he put up quality numbers at the plate in his rookie season (120 in 92 games). Edman's quality-of-contact metrics suggest he was a bit lucky to produce like he did, but those same metrics still suggest he's a useful hitter, especially in light of the value he provides on the bases and in the field.
As for the outfield, the Cardinals have some decisions to make. Harrison Bader remains a defensive force who contributes to the cause even when not hitting. Tyler O'Neill remains an intriguing mix of power and speed, and in the interest of his development he needs consistent playing time (to be fair, that he hasn't yet gotten it has partly been a function of health). The most intriguing option is making a path toward regular duty for top prospect Dylan Carlson. The switch-hitter turns 21 later this month, and he's coming off a stellar 2019 in which he batted .292/.372/.542 with 26 home runs and 20 stolen bases in 126 games at the Double- and Triple-A levels. Those outputs of course came against a much older peer group, which is always a positive sign. He can hold his own in center for now, but he's probably best suited to corner outfield spot. Mostly, though, it's about Carlson's offensive potential. The Cardinals on offense stayed above the waterline in 2019 mostly by being at least average-ish at every position. Thanks to Goldschmidt's down year, they lacked that superstar bat in the middle of the lineup. Carlson can be that, albeit probably not right away. Let him try to be that in 2020.
Basically, the Cardinals can address their aging concerns in part by making Edman a full-season regular, putting Carlson into the outfield mix this coming spring, committing to seeing what they've got in O'Neill (or trading him), and installing Andrew Knizner as Molina's backup -- a backup ideally used more often than most Molina backups are.
On the pitching front, the rotation is in solid shape with young ace Jack Flaherty, ground-ball enthusiast Dakota Hudson should continue being effective when paired with a good defense, and Miles Mikolas returns to eat innings. Beyond that trio, though, decisions must be made. Michael Wacha is a free agent, and he almost certainly won't return. A more difficult call is franchise icon Adam Wainwright. Wainwright is a free agent, and he's 38. He has, however, proved himself capable of getting outs despite basement-level fastball velocity, and that's thanks largely to his excellent curveball command. Bringing him back on a one-year deal -- something he proved willing to do for the season just completed -- makes some sense, assuming he's not bent on retirement.
There remains a need, though. Returning Carlos Martinez to the rotation is a possibility, but that's really the only compelling in-house option (banking on anything from Alex Reyes at this stage is imprudent). As well, lifting Martinez from the bullpen would create a high-leverage need there, and the Cardinals' front office has proved remarkably inept when it comes to targeting and signing free agent relievers in recent years. That said, it does appear that Martinez will be given a spring chance to reclaim his spot in the rotation, and by all accounts that's what he wants to happen.
Regardless of how the internal considerations play out -- and even if Martinez is set to return to a starting role -- the Cardinals should be seeking out a rotation splash on the market. Gerrit Cole is of course the prize, and St. Louis would do well to be heavily in the mix for him. Beyond him, there are also worthy names like Stephen Strasburg (assuming he uses his opt-out), Madison Bumgarner, Hyun-Jin Ryu, Zack Wheeler (the Cardinals had some level of interest in him leading up to the July 31 trade deadline), Jake Odorizzi, Cole Hamels and Dallas Keuchel. Even if it's not a splash like Cole, the Cardinals need reliable depth behind Flaherty.
Depending on how the winters of the Cubs and Brewers play out (and perhaps the Reds), the Cardinals may or may not enter 2020 as the division favorites. No matter what the opposition does, however, the Cardinals should focus on injecting some youth into the lineup and fortifying the rotation on the free agent market.
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