St. Louis Cardinals: Early Christmas presents expected

ST. LOUIS, MO - SEPTEMBER 30: A stadium vendor watches the game between the St. Louis Cardinals and the Milwaukee Brewers in the first inning at Busch Stadium on September 30, 2017 in St. Louis, Missouri. (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)
ST. LOUIS, MO - SEPTEMBER 30: A stadium vendor watches the game between the St. Louis Cardinals and the Milwaukee Brewers in the first inning at Busch Stadium on September 30, 2017 in St. Louis, Missouri. (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images) /

The St. Louis Cardinals have some very significant improvement needs this offseason.  This writer fully expects to see a chunk of moves, and probably the most important ones, occur not only before Christmas, but indeed, before the mid-December MLB Winter Meetings.

The reasons for this prediction aren’t all that complicated, when one thinks about it. That doesn’t mean I’ll be right, of course; heaven knows my past crystal-balling hasn’t always come up roses. But let’s explore why it seems fairly evident that the moves for the St. Louis Cardinals will come much sooner than later.

To break this down, we have to look at the needs of the team, both as articulated by the team itself and by sportswriters and analysts.

The most common priorities we’ve seen in the press appear to be (1) middle-of-the-order bat; (2) closer; and (3) possible starting pitching depth.

Middle-of-the-order bat

President of Baseball Operations John Mozeliak has indicated that he thinks that the offensive asset is likely to come via trade. A review of the market bears that out, but also suggests that the move is far more likely to come sooner than later.

The trade vehicle is critical because there are relatively few free agents who can satisfy what the Cards need.  Let’s first rule out what they don’t need.

The catcher slot is spoken for by both Yadier Molina and Carson Kelly. Barring a surprise, Paul DeJong will have the inside track to start at shortstop. And unless they are traded away, both Tommy Pham and Dexter Fowler will secure two of the three available outfield spots.

That leaves the corner infield spots, second base and one outfield opening, most likely at a corner, assuming either Pham or Fowler will patrol center field (with Pham to me much more likely given Fowler’s declining defensive ability).

At this point, we have to assume that the incumbents at those positions — Jedd Gyorko, Matt Carpenter, Kolten Wong, (partial) Jose Martinez, Randal Grichuk and Stephen Piscotty — are all fair game. To get, one must give, and to free up a mid-order spot the space has to come from somewhere.

But a review of the free agents at those positions shows fairly slim pickings. I’ll just hit the highlights quickly to make the point:

First base: Eric Hosmer is a possibility, but other than being about three years younger than Matt Carpenter, he adds little offensively and is mediocre on the field. Everyone else is in their 30s and not a notable improvement over what the Cards already have.

Third base: Mike Moustakas is dandy and 29 but his offense isn’t really better than Gyorko (Moose had a huge home run total this year but a very weak OBP) and Jedd’s defense was notably better this year. Todd Frazier is 32 and he’s been a slightly above-average hitter the last several years.

I’m not seeing anything of note at second base.

Outfield: Justin Upton could opt out of making another $88 million, but why would he unless someone springs for a rather substantial increase? Upton at his best is magnificent, and at his worst is very capable but not worth locking into more than a $22 million per year average into his mid 30s.

Andrew McCutchen is under club option, and the Pirates can buy him out for $1M. A team exercise followed by a trade is possible, but I’m not counting on it, at least not without Pirate Fan rebellion. Not only is Andrew Mr. Pittsburgh, but he rebounded well this year and a $14.75 million option is hardly a bank breaker.

The BIG fish is obviously J.D. Martinez, who at age 30 is due for a big payday. So this is the one true possibility in the free agent hitting market for the St. Louis Cardinals, and rest assured, they will not be the only team interested.

With the choices for that bat so utterly tiny on the free agent market, I think the St. Louis Cardinals will have to get their offers in for trade prospects in a fast and furious fashion. Otherwise, it may not be a matter of what the trade chips are, but whether the desired players are even available.

It’s one thing to have to make a “bad deal” for a needed asset; sometimes one simply has to give more than one would like because the choices are limited. But to be shutout as a result of the trade locker being empty would simply be unacceptable to Mo and Mike Girsch.

So look for the Cards to offer up a good stable of prospects, and possibly major leaguers, to get what they need, and to do so pronto so as to assure a constructive result.

We’ve covered so many of these hitters before, especially the Marlins trio of Giancarlo Stanton, Marcell Ozuna and Christian Yelich, that we needn’t repeat ourselves. But I do think they will move and move very fast on this front.


Mo has made no secret of saying that he is willing to go to the free agent market for this need.

Wade Davis and Greg Holland are the prime suspects in that market, with Addison Reed on their tail.  But there are plenty of others who could be a part of a more fluid closing committee and I’m not going to cover each by name.

Why is Mo more interested in free agency here than with a hitter? Easy: The many Cards pitching prospects could round into closer potential over time. Too many teams have been burned by multiyear overpays for relievers (can you say Brett Cecil), and there aren’t many relievers who have high predictability as closers year after year.

Think that’s an exaggeration? Even Holland, who was lights out in the 2017 first half, struggled mightily for a couple months before regaining his form near the season’s end. No, once you get past the top dozen or so closers, the inconsistency factor really escalates.

Therefor, a trade with multiple minor leaguers for a closer — especially when those prospects are needed to secure a bat — seems unlikely. To give up significant talent for someone who has the potential to be a bust is generally foolish.

Let’s say the team misses out on the top guns. Then you can add a Juan Nicasio (who’d like to be back), a Tony Watson or Luke Gregerson (who had his first off year after many, many years with strong ERAs and overall performances) or others for a one or two year deal. In fact, you can add more than one.

Without the single shutdown backend guy, the mix and match opportunities can be handled by an effective pitching coach. And as we know,the St. Louis Cardinals are currently shopping for one of those as well.

If the Cards do want the premium guys, they’ll have to act and act fast on the free agent side. My guess is they have a budget for what they would spend for the likes of Davis or Holland, and especially if they don’t have their big hitter snared early, they’ll be reluctant to top that budget in case they have to change gears and spend where they didn’t expect to have to do so.

Therefore, fast or bust on the closer is my guess.

Back end starters

Here’s the one place I think we could see some patience.

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The team may well believe they have a bunch of guys who can either start the season in the rotation (Carlos Martinez, Michael Wacha, Luke Weaver and they apparently think Adam Wainwright, which is off in my opinion) or compete for a spot ( Jack Flaherty, Tyler Lyons, Dakota Hudson) or start the year in the bullpen and move back to the rotation (Alex Reyes).

This being the case, there is no definite need to splurge on a starter in either trade or free agency. So this last category looks like more of a desire than a need, and that’s why it won’t be as much of a time push and the bat and closer.

I would think the Cards might wait out the starter market and see who remains unsigned as spring training nears. I won’t even review the players here, as there could be so many permutations in free agency between now and February.

But if I were to guess, I’d say two or three current free agents might get a look see in Jupiter and a possible mid-spring training sign to fortify the St. Louis Cardinals’ depth.

Well, there you have it. The energy will be early and strong for both a bat and a closer, with the former coming by trade (with the slugger J.D. Martinez as a free agent dark horse), and the surefire closer coming quickly via free agency or not at all.

Next: All roads lead to Florida

A whirlwind could put the Cards back in the chase for the 2018 pennant. Watch out, NL Central, here we come!