It speaks multitudes about the Cardinals' devotion to building a playoff-worthy roster in 2021 that most of the buzz surrounding the team has been about whether they'll re-sign two veterans who are a combined 77 years of age.
We speak, of course, of stalwart catcher Yadier Molina and his frequent battery-mate, Adam Wainwright. The two franchise legends are free agents, and there's seemingly been little movement toward bringing them back to St. Louis for the upcoming season. There's still time of course, and by most accounts the Cardinals remain the favorites to sign both. That, though, shouldn't be the priority. Rather, the priority should be repairing what projects as one of the NL's worst offenses.
Consider how the Cardinals have ranked among NL teams over the last two seasons in some key offensive measures:
|Year||Runs/game, NL rank||OPS||Avg. exit velocity|
That's a bad offense that appears to be getting worse. Speaking of getting worse, right now Matt Carpenter is in line for everyday duty at third base, and Dexter Fowler will likely be the primary in right field at age 35 (he's got an OPS+ of 86 over the last three seasons). Paul Goldschmidt was productive in 2020, but his batted-ball indicators raise serious concerns as he moves deeper into his thirties. Brad Miller was one of the team's best hitters last season, and he's a free agent. Kolten Wong is a reliable on-base threat from the left side, and the Cardinals declined his perfectly affordable option for 2021. He's likewise a free agent. Tyler O'Neill has gotten worse every season. These are all worrisome trends for a team that was already bad at putting runs on the board.
To be sure, all is not entirely grim, as Dylan Carlson seems like a candidate to take the next step toward stardom in 2021. This on balance, though, does not look like a lineup capable of being dragged into the postseason by even an excellent pitching staff. If there's a universal DH in the upcoming season -- in defiance of all available common sense, the issue has not yet been resolved -- then the Cardinals will be stretched even thinner in the lineup.
To the extent that ownership is willing to improve the roster (read: not to any meaningful extent, it would seem), they're running out of time. Given the specific needs, DJ LeMahieu or George Springer would've been a fit in St. Louis. However, each is now spoken for. A trade for Francisco Lindor would've moved the needle in a big way, but the Mets took that option off the board. Michael Brantley also made a great deal of sense, but he's back in Houston.
Despite the dawdling in St. Louis, significant upgrades remain. A reunion with Marcell Ozuna would make a great deal of sense. As long as the Cardinals perceive a need at catcher, J.T. Realmuto would fill the position and give them a middle-of-the-order bat. That long rumored trade for Nolan Arenado would help the Cardinals a great deal. Signing Justin Turner would be a better option than committing to Carpenter at the position. If an infield shuffle is in play, then a trade for Trevor Story or a signing of Didi Gregorius would help matters.
The problem is that the self-imposed budget limitations and general affection for the status quo mean the Cardinals probably won't do any of that, and they certainly won't do any of that if they pay the freight on Molina and Wainwright. Circling back to that tandem, neither of them addresses the most glaring roster weakness, which, to repeat, is the offense. That's obvious with regard to the moundsman Wainwright, and Molina is 38 and trapped in what's almost certainly an inexorable pattern of decline at the plate. The Cardinals shouldn't be prioritizing them in the face of greater needs.
Yes, Wainwright was outstanding in 2020, but the rotation should be a strength even without him. Right now, Jack Flaherty, Kwang Hyun Kim, Carlos Martinez, Miles Mikolas, and Austin Gomber project as the starting five. Should injury or ineffectiveness strike, Daniel Ponce de Leon, Jake Woodford, and Johan Oviedo can provide depth. Also, top pitching prospect Matthew Liberatore may be ready for the highest level at some point in 2021.
Behind the plate, the Cardinals would ideally spring for Realmuto. Failing that, they should see what they have in Andrew Knizner, who turns 26 in a matter of days. Molina is probably bound for the Hall of Fame one day, but his bat these days just isn't enough to give the flawed St. Louis lineup what it's starved for. The money that would go to Molina and Wainwright should be put toward targeted additions elsewhere.
If there's any consolation for Cardinals rooters, it's that disinvestment up and down the division has done a number on the remainder of the NL Central. As things stand now, a win total in the low 80s (assuming a full 162-game regular season) might take the flag. Maybe the Cardinals see that pathetic competitive landscape and determine they're better off waiting until next offseason, when they have significant salary coming off the books. That's not an approach rich on competitive integrity, but it's at least a thought process. One hopes, though, that team brass will decide to do their jobs and put the best possible team on the field in 2021.
It says here that Wainwright and Molina can help the Cardinals in 2021, but they can do so meaningfully only in the presence of upgrades elsewhere. Right now, ownership seems to lack the commitment necessary to get all of that done, and any reasonable triage of the 2021 Cardinals will tell you that those other upgrades are more urgent than a reunion with two of the greatest ever to wear the birds on the bat.