Cardinals face pressing offseason questions

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(KTVI)- With the offseason officially here for the St. Louis Cardinals, the organization’s braintrust must now decide how to move forward heading into 2016.  The team overcame key injuries to the pitching staff and the daily lineup for significant stretches and won 100 games in 2015.  But will the players who made it happen be back in April?

Here’s a look at some of the key questions:

  • Heyward’s future: Jason Heyward and the Cardinals made it a point to not talk about a contract extension after he was brought over in the trade that sent Shelby Miller and Tyrell Jenkins to Atlanta for Heyward and reliever Jordan Walden. The hope was to let Heyward fall in love with St. Louis like many before him, let him test the open market, and then re-sign him in the free agent market. Heyward reaffirmed his status as an elite outfielder defensively in 2015 and also carried the load offensively in July and August when Randal Grichuk and Matt Holliday went down with injuries. He told reporters  after Tuesday’s game that St. Louis was an ideal situation. The question the Cardinals need to answer is if the numbers and years Heyward will command is ideal for the franchise. Randal Grichuk and Stephen Piscotty have done enough to show they deserve regular spots in the lineup. Piscotty may find his 2016 home at first base. Jon Jay is under contract.
  • Back Of The Bullpen: Walden was supposed to be the 8th inning solultion out of the bullpen before going down in April to a right biceps injury that shelved him for the season. Kevin Siegrist rebounded after a rough 2014 to lead the National League with 81 appearances in filling that role, but some could argue he looked overused down the stretch and come playoff time. If Walden were healthy, then the team likely doesn’t trade for both Jonathan Broxton and Steve Cishek in deadline deals. Now Walden still faces rehab and possibly surgery, which means the back end of the bullpen could have a different look next spring. Broxton won’t be back, and  Randy Choate likely won’t either.
  • The Rotation: Adam Wainwright returns to his role as a starter following his bullpen turn after rehab from the Achilles tear. All-Stars Carlos Martinez and Michael Wacha  will both have to see how their arms recover after reaching new heights in innings pitched in 2015. Martinez (14-7) emerged as a breakout presence but went down with shoulder discomfort that cost him a postseason role. Wacha won 17 games but after September 1 did not look like the same pitcher from the first half.  John Lackey is a free agent after pitching on a team-friendly contract in 2015. He figures to get offers in years and dollars the Cardinals won’t feel the need to match, following in the footsteps of Jeff Suppan, Kyle Lohse and others.  Lance Lynn shouldered his share of the slack as the defacto staff ace when Wainwright went down, but statistically regressed compared to his 2014 numbers and did not get a start in the NLDS.  And then there’s Jaime Garcia.  The lefty played a critical role in keeping the pitching staff churning despite Wainwright’s injury, overcoming his own health history to put up a 10-6 record. But a stomach bug bit Garcia at the worst time, dooming his Game 2 NLDS start vs the Cubs. Do the Cards decline his $11.5 million team option with a $500K buyout for 2016? They could invest it short-term in Lackey (and Heyward), and look for Marco Gonzalez, Tyler Lyons or Tim Cooney to emerge as cost-controlled end of the rotation  candidates. Going in on the David Price sweepstakes could mean trading Lance Lynn and letting Lackey go.
  • The Infield: Jhonny Peralta has surprised many with his steady play at shortstop that earned an All-Star appearance this year, but his bat faltered in the second half of the season once Holliday went down to injury. Observers have said he could be a candidate for a position switch in the latter years of his Cards contract that expires in 2017. Is 2016 the season he moves to third base? Does that mean Matt Carpenter makes another position switch to shortstop? Or does he move back to second base, making Kolten Wong a trade piece? The question there boils down to how much Wong’s skills at the plate weigh against his work in the field. He’s a top six second baseman offensively, but has difficulty sometimes making the routine play in the field. Ben Zobrist could be a fit at 2B via free agency, although the Royals may try to keep him off the market after trading for him at the deadline. He’ll be highly sought after because of his swiss army knife ability to play almost every position on the diamond. If Piscotty is your first baseman, then Matt Adams probably ends up as a trade piece because he doesn’t play multiple positions.

The baseball world expected Chicago’s emergence, just not until 2016 and 2017. But now that they’ve arrived ahead of schedule, and have the money to be an attractive option for free agents, brace for a new phase of the I-55 rivalry. It should be fascinating to see the degree to which the Cardinals make moves for their own benefit, on top of blocking the burgeoning momentum in the Windy City. There’s no lack of confidence after a 100-win regular season for the Birds on The Bat.  As Adam Wainwright himself said Tuesday’ night, “we’re not going anywhere.”

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