ST. LOUIS, MO- The St. Louis Cardinals ended a playoff drought this October by returning to the postseason for the first time since 2015 before the season ended in a four game sweep by the Washington Nationals in the National League Championship Series Tuesday night.
As the offseason gets underway, here's a look at some key questions that will need to be answered before Opening Day next spring.
Jack Flaherty, Dakota Hudson, Miles Mikolas seem like sure things as of this writing. If Adam Wainwright wants a deal like the one he signed last winter, it seems like a win-win. Is Carlos Martinez in this mix? He's still on a very team-friendly contract, but after years of issues with proper injury rehab, and the roller coaster journey of 2019 as the closer filling in for Jordan Hicks, has patience finally worn out? He has an elite arm and will still bring suitors if the team dangles him in trade. Do they add a significant starter from the outside via free agency (Jake Odorizzi, Dallas Keuchel?), or does someone internal (Daniel Poncedeleon, Austin Gomber, Jake Woodford) grab the opportunity and run with it?
Jordan Hicks would have to be way ahead of schedule in rehabbing his elbow to be ready to go as the closer next spring. If we assume Martinez isn't in the mix here either because he's been traded or the team would rather have him focus on being a starter again, who closes? Andrew Miller? Ryan Helsley? John Brebbia? Junior Fernandez? Giovanny Gallegos?
First order of business: In the immediate aftermath of the NLCS sweep, complete with defensive miscues and mistakes on the basepaths, it sure doesn't look like Marcell Ozuna will be back. He spoke during the season with hope of signing a new contract to stay in St. Louis, but right now the most likely path would appear to be the Cardinals making a qualifying offer to guarantee draft pick compensation in the event Ozuna bets on himself in what is otherwise a lackluster free agent class of outfielders.
Even if Ozuna returns, the Cardinals once again have an abundance of outfielders at the upper levels, and still don't appear to have the right pieces they need. Again. In 2018, it was in-season trades of Oscar Mercado and Tommy Pham which cleared 40-man roster space and gave Harrison Bader regular playing time. The result? Mercado made a difference in Cleveland and Pham rebounded in Tampa, while Bader, an elite defender in center field, struggled at the plate against off-speed pitching before and after a demotion to Memphis. Due to injury and ineffectiveness, Tyler O'Neill has not been able to take advantage of opportunities over the past two seasons to prove he's more than a "4A" player---nothing left to prove in AAA, but unable to stick in a regular role with St. Louis.
In 2020, Dylan Carlson, fresh off his 21st birthday in October, will at least be in the big league conversation after a standout season where he tore up AA pitching and earned a late promotion to Memphis. If he makes the club in the spring, it probably won't be in a role that has him sitting on the bench. Lane Thomas, coming off of wrist surgery that shelved him over the summer, will try to see if the heroics he put up in brief action in 2019 can translate into a roster spot. Randy Arozarena impressed enough to get on the playoff roster. Dexter Fowler rebounded from a disastrous 2018 and put up numbers more representative of his career statistics, while also solidifying the leadoff spot down the stretch, but struggled in the postseason. Fowler has two years and $29 million left on his contract, along with a no-trade clause. Issues on defense will keep Jose Martinez from being a consistent starting player on a National League club, but his bat is appealing on the bench or as a possible trade candidate.
Don't forget that for some of the biggest games of 2019, rookie Tommy Edman was in right field, a position he'd never played professionally before getting called up this summer.
Who's on third? Who's the super sub? Matt Carpenter slumped through most of 2019 after signing a two year contract extension which doesn't even begin until 2020. Edman played in parts of 55 games there and was the sparkplug who helped ignite the St. Louis offense after the All-Star break, while filling in at 2nd, in addition to his time in the outfield. Are either of them equipped to be the starter at third for a majority of next season, and are the Cardinals willing to firmly put Carpenter and the nearly $40 million left on his contract in the "Bench Mafia" if that's the way things shake out?
If the Cardinals look for someone else to come in and provide more consistent power at that spot--especially if Ozuna leaves and is not replaced by an established "power bat"--it will be costly, either in the way of trade chips or salary.