Hey, did you hear? Albert Pujols bolted St. Louis for the Los Angeles Angels, six weeks after winning the 2011 World Series. Monumental back breaker isn’t it? On the contrary, the departure of Pujols brings an increased flexibility for general manager John Mozeliak. Pujols not clogging up the payroll for the next 10 years also keeps the Cardinals minor league system fluid and will allow Mozeliak the ability to offer younger players contracts that can eat into arbitration and free agent years. If you continue to read my work going forward, you’ll see I have a propensity to be attracted to younger productive players, than I am to aging productive players. A balance of the two is what wins championships. The Cardinals are poised to utilize their assets over the next few seasons to maintain a playoff caliber team.
First, let’s preface this by saying that I’m not expecting the Cardinals are going to repeat as World Series Champions. Will they have a chance to? Absolutely. But to expect them to pull off back to back championships is asking too much. Parity in baseball is here to stay. I do feel comfortable suggesting that the Cardinals can continue to reach the postseason for the foreseeable future.
The Cardinals are now building around Matt Holliday (signed through 2016), Chris Carpenter (2013), Adam Wainwright (2013), Jaime Garcia (2015), and to a much lesser extent Rafael Furcal (2013). In addition they have Jason Motte under club control through 2014, David Freese through 2015, plus Jon Jay & Allen Craig through 2016.
This is a pretty nice base to set your club around. At least two full seasons with Carpenter, Wainwright (assuming he comes back in similar form) and Garcia together gives the Cardinals three strong arms at the top of the rotation. While Motte isn’t exactly young, he should not hit his downside before he becomes eligible to be a free agent. Pitching wins championships and this seems to be a strong area for the Cardinals.
Down on the farm, MLB.com tabs 7 of the Cardinals’ top 10 prospects as pitchers. Among them is right-hander Shelby Miller who is #5 among all prospects in MLB according to these rankings. Miller projects to be in the majors for the 2013 season. Miller finished the 2011 season dominating AA ball. The next pitcher in the class is right-hander Carlos Martinez who ranks #25 overall. Martinez could also break into the bigs in 2013. If their progression continues and these timetables are met, we’ll be seeing the last of Kyle Lohse and Jake Westbrook at the end of the 2012 season.
In the pen, the Cardinals have two prospects who could see action this season in St. Louis. One is Jordan Swagerty and the other is Joe Kelly. The bio on Kelly notes he has the potential to be a closer in the future, though he has predominately started in the minors.
With Berkman probably set to fill the role of first baseman for only one season, the Cardinals will either look to free agency or trade to fill that seat in 2013. There are very few if any big bats available in 2013 to fill the role. In the minors, the Cardinals have Matt Adams who blistered AA pitching to the tune of 32 homers and 101 RBI in 463 AB in 2011. It will be interesting to see if Adams continues to progress at the next level. It is conceivable that he’ll receive a late season call-up in 2012.
Third base is pretty set with Freese, but #3 on the Cardinals’ prospect list is Double A third baseman, Zack Cox. Cox, does not possess a power bat, so it is not certain whether he will stay at the hot corner. Whether he is going to unseat Freese down the road is an uncertainty, but it is good to have someone ready in the wings to use either player as a trade chip in the future.
Speaking of trades, it looks like the Cardinals will need to go that route to fill in some of the other blanks that will creep up over the next few seasons. They are weak up the middle as it stands heading into 2012. I am not a believer in Furcal, especially at his price and it looks like there will be plenty of juggling at second base unless Mozeliak pulls off a trade before the season starts. There is no one soon to be ready in the system to take over either at short or second. In the free agent market for 2013, I like Howie Kendrick as a potential signing for second base. For 2014, the Cardinals will be ready to move on from Furcal. No doubt whatever they get after Furcal will be an upgrade.
The biggest area for the Cardinals to think of now for the future is the catcher’s position. Yadier Molina becomes a free agent at the end of this season. He is going to be looking for a long term contract (probably the last one he would receive) and the Cardinals will be hard pressed to let him go. Again, the money they saved by not signing Pujols will allow them to overreach on Molina, something they may need to do to entice him to stay. The free agent catcher class for 2013 does not have anyone as talented as Molina. Molina turns 30 in July, so inking him to a 3 or 4 year deal is conceivable assuming he wants to stay in St. Louis. If he stays he adds much needed stability behind the plate.
With a wealth of pitching in the minors and a talented front end of the rotation already set, the Cardinals could use some of the young pitching talent in the minors (not Miller, but maybe Martinez) to acquire a bat or two over the coming years to fill in some of the spots noted above. If they continue to get production out of players like Freese and Craig they can sign them to extended deals which would encroach on their arbitration and free agent seasons. Essentially, between what they will begin with in 2012 and the young players working their way through the system, the Cardinals have a very good core to work around. The fact that they have the ability to spend on the free agent market when needed adds to their desire to build through the minor league system and the international market. If they can maintain a balance, the team will be in the postseason hunt for years to come.
Tags: Adam Wainwright Albert Pujols Allen Craig Carlos Martinez Chris Carpenter David Freese Howie Kendrick Jaime Garcia Jake Westbrook Jason Motte Joe Kelly John Jay John Mozeliak Jordan Swagerty Kyle Lohse Matt Adams Matt Holliday Rafael Furcal Shelby Miller Zack Cox