ST. LOUIS- The offseason is officially underway for the St. Louis Cardinals, who were eliminated from the postseason Wednesday night by the Los Angeles Dodgers in the National League Wild Card game.
We’ve already taken a broad look at some of the offseason questions facing the club heading into 2022, but here, we’re going to look at where the team might focus its energy on the free-agent market.
Before we do, a few caveats. As of this writing, we have no idea what the new collective bargaining agreement will look like or how long into the offseason it will take to get negotiated. It could be a mad dash to get deals done.
We’ve heard for months about cash coming off the books with the likes of contracts for Andrew Miller, Carlos Martinez, and Matt Carpenter expiring or being bought out. But as you’ll see below, almost all of that cash ($47 million) could go to a single player in many cases. This ownership group has never been one to try to solve all its problems on the free-agent market, and there have been some notable busts (Brett Cecil), and what some believe were ill-thought-out extensions (Carpenter, Mikolas).
PITCHING: The team got a jumpstart on free agency by locking up Adam Wainwright for what could be his final season. KK Kim, Jon Lester, JA Happ, TJ McFarland and Luis Garcia are among the team’s own free agents who will all merit some form of discussion about a return. McFarland and Garcia could find themselves in demand after strong second-half performances out of the bullpen. McFarland assumed most of the responsibility Miller had taken on in recent years on the left side of the pen. Garcia could be somebody’s closer next year, including St. Louis. With Alex Reyes looking to stick in the rotation next year, a back end of the bullpen of Garcia, Genesis Cabrera and Giovanny Gallegos would allow for a lot of options.
You can never have too much pitching. We re-learn this every year. While the Cardinals would appear to have four starters already penciled in with Wainwright, Mikolas, Flaherty and Hudson before even getting to Reyes, Matthew Liberatore, Jake Woodford and Johan Oviedo, will the team want to go into the deep end of the pool to snag a Max Scherzer, or a Marcus Stroman in the $20-$40 million per year pool, or even the Robbie Ray, Jon Gray pool, in the $15 million range?
SHORTSTOP: Injury and inconsistent hitting from Paul DeJong helped Edmundo Sosa win over the starting shortstop position over the course of 2021, but most observers expect the Cardinals to explore the historic shortstop market available in free agency. Corey Seager, Trevor Story, Javier Baez, Carlos Correa and Marcus Semien (who spent most of 2021 at 2B) are the big names. Correa is the youngest at 27, Semien’s the oldest at 31. Each will likely command roughly $30 million annually. Seager and Story would seem like the most likely options if the Cardinals go outside for an upgrade.
DESIGNATED HITTER: A universal DH is not yet a done deal as we don’t know what the particulars of the new CBA will look like yet. Assuming it does come to pass, there will be stiff competition for the best bats, particularly among the National League clubs that will need to rebuild rosters with a DH in mind. We’ve seen Albert Pujols can still be dangerous against left-handed pitching. At 679 home runs, the 700 home run milestone may be slightly out of reach for a part-time player. The marketing allure of Pujols, Wainwright and Molina, all potentially riding off into the sunset together has the potential to put fans in the seats at Busch Stadium in ways we haven’t seen since pre-pandemic conditions. But that’s not necessarily a baseball decision.
Among two possibilities if the team decided to hand it over to a single player and let it ride, another ageless wonder, 41-year-old Nelson Cruz would be an attractive option. He’s hit 32 home runs split between Minnesota and Tampa Bay. Then there’s Atlanta’s Jorge Soler, who hit 27 regular-season homers for Kansas City and the Braves. Soler, who will be 30 next year, is also the most serviceable player of these three on defense in the outfield. Cruz and Soler could be in the $15 million ballpark.
BENCH: With Matt Carpenter’s likely departure, the Cardinals will need to find an improvement when it comes to pinch-hitting options off the bench, particularly from the left side. If St. Louis decides to play matchups when it comes to the DH, a name to remember that could be added to the mix is Atlanta OF Joc Pederson, who has a mutual option for 2022. Jonathan Villar, who hit .249 with 18 home runs with the Mets in 2021, is a switch-hitter utility option off the bench, particularly if the team moves on from Paul DeJong but doesn’t land one of the big-name shortstops.
The Cardinals finished fourth in MLB attendance with just over 2.1 million fans in 2021. That was without a lucrative amount of business that’s usually brought in with group ticket sales, something especially important for a franchise like this one that draws from a wide geographic area. With all the uncertainty about COVID-19 and the related restrictions, next season has a chance to restore some of that “normalcy” on the business side.
The ownership group and the front office will have to determine how much of that normalcy will return to bottom-line finances before deciding how to attack the free agent market.