ST. LOUIS- The wait is over. After 99 days, Major League Baseball’s owners and players have come to an agreement that ends the lockout and saves a 162-game schedule. We’re about to get a second dose of the Hot Stove League, with signings and trades free to begin, potentially as soon as Thursday night.
Here’s a look at what questions still lie ahead as we count down to a new opening day.
The Cardinals’ front office has done some of its work already in the 2021-22 offseason, hiring a new manager in Oliver Marmol, and signing free agent starter Steven Matz. But there’s lots left to do.
Marmol the Manager
The new man in charge on the field is former bench coach Oliver Marmol, who will be the youngest manager in Major League Baseball. He’s been getting ready for this opportunity for years, in no small part because of the support of the man who he succeeded. The relative speed with which the Cardinals hired Marmol after firing Mike Shildt is evidence the club thinks he’s more than ready for the challenge. Still, he takes the job at an uncertain time, with a truncated spring training and doubleheaders to make up for lost time. How will he handle the other trappings of the job, like communicating with the media, and being where the buck stops in the clubhouse? He’s fortunate in that, as our news partners at the Post Dispatch have reported, John Mozeliak believes the everyday lineup is already set, meaning that barring any surprises, Marmol is a known commodity for the core of this team.
Managing Waino and Yadi
With 2022 set to be Yadier Molina’s final season and potentially the Last Dance for Adam Wainwright, their every move will be watched closely. They can break the all-time record for a pitcher-catcher tandem if they stay healthy and work together in twenty games. How will Marmol manage Molina’s famous workload, working in understudies Andrew Knizner and Ivan Herrera? As the season rolls on, there will be more of a focus on “is this the last time we see this or that” which has the potential for distraction.
Is the rotation set?
The team has Jack Flaherty, Adam Wainwright, Miles Mikolas, Dakota Hudson and Matz under contract. Flaherty and Mikolas spent significant time on the injured list in 2021. Hudson made an impact late in the year after recovering from Tommy John surgery. Wainwright has been remarkable the past two seasons but he turns 41 in August. If 2021 taught the team anything, it’s that you can never have enough starting pitching, especially since only Wainwright and Matz assumed a pre-pandemic workload in 2021. While the high end of the free agent pool is running low, do they bring back JA Happ as insurance? Does Matthew Liberatore keep working in Memphis or does he break camp with the big club as a spot starter out of the bullpen?
Which Alex Reyes do we see in 2022?
Alex Reyes was arguably the team’s best starter in spring training in 2021, until the club decided he would work out of the bullpen to start the season. He was dynamite as the team’s closer in the first half of 2021 but had a frustrating second half of homers and walks that ultimately saw him unseated by Giovanny Gallegos in the back end of the bullpen. The team has said he’ll get a chance to stretch out as a starter heading into 2022. It’s not every day that you have a player who could be one of your best pitchers or someone who you don’t want to expose in high leverage situations. Where the answer lies could shape the rotation or the bullpen. The team is expected to bring in at least one more free agent reliever to help replace Luis Garcia, who signed with San Diego.
2021 started with a handful of late inning options for the Cardinals, and at least publicly, the team didn’t really name Reyes as the “Closer” until well into the season. Will someone be pointed to as “the guy” out of spring? Gallegos stepped into the role and converted career highs in saves (14), appearances (73) and innings (80). Will whoever the team brings in to help in the bullpen have back-end expereience?
The public chatter from the front office is that Paul DeJong, despite having been replaced as the starter by Edmundo Sosa after struggling at the plate in 2021, is deserving of a chance to regain his place. Once the market reopens, we’ll have a chance to see for sure if the Cardinals are at all interested in the historic free agent class of shortstops that still has Trevor Story and Carlos Correa out there. If either of them were interested in a short term with a higher annual average value, St. Louis could be in position to pounce. Otherwise, does shortstop turn into a rotating cast that could include Tommy Edman?
Barring something unforeseen, the organization’s top prospect will see the majors sometime in 2022. The converted third baseman has made the adjustment to second, and could find himself if not displacing the reigning National League Gold Glove winner at the position, then sharing it. Prospects in the Mozeliak era have traditionally not come up to the big leagues to sit, and the fact that Gorman hits from the left side is a big plus. What we don’t know yet is the playing equation that would generate acceptable use.
Gorman’s case to make the big club right from the start is obviously boosted by the arrival of a universal designated hitter. The team has hinted that it would use a DH as a way to give an existing position player the day off in the field as opposed to giving the bulk of the at-bats to a single player, so it would appear you can cross off the idea of the team adding someone like Nelson Cruz or potentially, at least for now, Albert Pujols. Kyle Schwarber will continue to be a name that floats around in many fans’ minds until he signs somewhere, and for the Cardinals, would also potentially solve another question at the top of the order, which is…..
Who Hits Leadoff?
Marmol has said he sees potential for flexibility when it comes to lineups based on matchups as opposed to immovable lists of nine players. That would suggest that Tommy Edman, who turned into a doubles machine in 2021 but struggled in long stretches at the leadoff spot, won’t necessarily see the lion’s share of leadoff at-bats in 2022. Dylan Carlson has also shown he can handle the job at times. With Tyler O’Neill’s mixture of speed and power, there’s a case to be made for him in certain situations too.
The spring has generally been when the Cardinals have completed deals on contract extensions, most often to carry players through their arbitration years. It will be interesting to see if the result of the new collective bargaining agreement will encourage or discourage the practice. Candidates could include pitcher Jack Flaherty, outfielders Tyler O’Neill and Dylan Carlson, and infielder Tommy Edman.