All offseason, Diamond Digest writers will be taking a look at each team’s 2020 season and looking forward at what moves each team might have to make to set themselves up for improvement in 2021. Today, Mick Callahan takes a look at the Cardinals!
After finishing with the second-worst record since Walt Jocketty left, Cardinals fans fear the storm clouds that appear to be forming in the Busch Stadium front office. The more-brazen fans have already began calling for the firing of John Mozeliak (President of Baseball Operations) after what seems like a growing string of botched trades.
In 2020, Cardinals fans were subjected to a special kind of torture surrounding a plethora of former players. This all began exactly one year ago (from the posting of this article), on December 6th, when the Rays traded Tommy Pham to San Diego for what appeared to be a massive return on investment compared to the three prospects the Cardinals received for Pham. Phase two brought the continuation of our misery, watching a pair of pitchers from the Marcell Ozuna trade, Sandy Alcantara and Zac Gallen (shipped to Arizona in 2019 for top-prospect Jazz Chisholm), continue their progression towards high-end starter potential. Finally, as if we hadn’t seen enough, Ozuna (left in 2019 Free Agency) and Randy Arozarena (traded along with Jose Martinez for Matthew Liberatore) exploded late in the year to push the Braves and Rays deep into the playoffs, respectively. Meanwhile, the Ozuna trade has been rendered a complete loss, and the four prospects received in return for Pham, Martinez, and Arozarena have combined for 43.1 Major League Innings (Genesis Cabrera – 42.2 IP, Roel Ramirez – 0.2 IP).
The Cardinals need to make some changes heading into 2021. Let’s take a look at what they can do to make this offseason a success.
2020 Record: 30-28, 2nd in NL Central
Team MVP: Paul Goldschmidt
Team Cy Young: Kwang-Hyun Kim
Biggest Positive Surprise: Brad Miller
Biggest Negative Surprise: Jack Flaherty
To start with the good news, Goldschmidt spent 2020 looking like the player he was in Arizona, while Tommy Edman has established himself as a deserving big-leaguer. On the mound, Kwang-Hyun Kim already looks to have been worth the money the Cardinals spent to bring him in from Korea, while the bullpen managed to hold themselves together, despite missing late-inning anchors Jordan Hicks and John Brebbia. On the flip side, the offense desperately lacked power (27th in MLB in SLG, 30th in HR) without putting nearly enough runners on base (14th in OBP), there was no stability to the starting rotation, and, perhaps most-worrisome, Jack Flaherty wasn’t as good as 2019.
Compared to Flaherty’s breakout 2019, his walk rate went up (7.1% to 9.4%), his Statcast expected numbers all regressed significantly, he didn’t force as many chase swings (29.6% in 2019 dropped to 25.2), watched his HR/FB balloon from 13.8% to 23.1%, and threw 0.7% more of his pitches down the middle. None of this is reassuring, but it’s not all bad news. The good news is that Flaherty was able to limit the launch angle of his opponents significantly better than the last two seasons — 9.3 degrees in 2020, 15.5 in 2019, and 15.6 in 2018. This resulted in a significant increase in the rate of grounders and liners (second-highest line-drive rate), while cutting his flyball rate 9.3% and effectively no changes to his spin rate. If Flaherty could increase his spin rate on his fastball and breaking pitches, that increase in line drives may be able to turn into an even better improvement in his ground ball rate.
If we’re all being honest with ourselves, the season ended after a somewhat-expected knockout to San Diego — we told ourselves we could win that series, but it wasn’t going to happen. The team returned home as we all were forced to come to one simple conclusion: this team isn’t capable of getting to a World Series right now, and more than a couple pieces are not up-to-scratch for that journey.
2020-2021 Offseason Preview
Key Losses (“2020 Salary” displayed as full value of contract for 2020, not pro-rated for the shortened-season):
- C – Yadier Molina – 2019-20 fWAR: 1.7 – 2020 Salary: $20,000,000
- SP(R) – Adam Wainwright – 2019-20 fWAR: 3.2 – 2020 Salary: $6,111,111
- 2B – Kolten Wong – 2019-20 fWAR: 5.0 – 2020 Salary: $10,250,000
- C – Matt Wieters – 2019-20 fWAR: -0.3 – 2020 Salary: $2,000,000
- INF – Brad Miller – 2020 fWAR: 0.8 – 2020 Salary: $2,000,000
Areas of Greatest Need (Pos – 2021 Projected):
- Back-up Catcher – Free Agent
- Third Base – Matt Carpenter
- Outfield – Projected Starters: Harrison Bader (CF), Dylan Carlson (RF), Lane Thomas (LF) – Bench: Tyler O’Neill, Dexter Fowler
- Fifth Bench Hitter – Austin Dean (OF), John Nogowski (1B), Rangel Ravelo (1B/3B), Justin Williams (OF)
Ten months on from the Rays cashing in on their first investment of Redbird-raised talent, 2020 would bring it’s most-personal attack on Cardinals fans to date: the departure of two men who will be long-remembered as All-Time Cardinals — Molina and Wainwright. We knew for months that no deal would be reached to keep them around, and neither is ready to hang up their glove. To add insult to injury, Mozeliak and company also decided to pay the one-million-dollar buyout of Kolten Wong’s final year of a 5yr/$25.5M back-loaded contract, spurring a tornado of confusion and anger on social media. We’d come to terms with losing Yadi and Waino, but this was a blindside….why let go of one of the best defensive players at his position who we were paying well-below market value?
At the moment, all indications from the Front Office say that the team going forward will be reliant on numerous young players for this upcoming season: Andrew Knizner at Catcher, Tommy Edman replacing Wong, Carlson and Thomas will likely be given the chance to cement themselves in the starting Outfield, and Mozeliak is seemingly convinced Harrison Bader will finally play to his full potential for a full 162 games.
Offseason Wish List
- Back-up Catcher
- Re-sign Matt Wieters – 1 year, $2,000,000
- Sign Austin Romine – 1 year, $3,000,000
Time for a controversial take: this will likely be a quiet winter in St. Louis, and that is a good thing.
For starters, after signing someone to play behind Knizner for the short-term, there aren’t really any moves that make sense for the Redbirds this winter. Any other moves would likely sacrifice a key part of the franchise’s future, and that’s not something the front office is willing to do. You should thank them for that; if they bring in any of the positions the Redbirds need at the moment, there is at least one player whose future would be significantly damaged:
- Catcher: Andrew Knizner, Julio Rodriguez (MLB ETA: 2021), and Ivan Herrera (2022)
- Third Base: Nolan Gorman (possibly late 2021)
- Outfield: Harrison Bader, Dylan Carlson, Lane Thomas, Tyler O’Neill, and Justin Williams (2021)
Okay, what about upgrades? First, there’s not many humans who can be called an “upgrade” compared to Paul Goldschmidt. The front office has made clear Edman will be given the reigns at 2B, and there’s little interest in replacing DeJong — leaving all the field positions gridlocked. With Jordan Hicks scheduled to return to the bullpen in 2021, the ‘pen is a nest of late-inning options. Any attempt to bring in another starting pitcher, even for just this year, would inevitably continue the years-long process of blocking Austin Gomber, while also stifling the continued growth of Genesis Cabrera and Junior Fernandez. A long-term pitching option would simply exacerbate that, and even further impose itself onto the young arms starting in Springfield and Memphis this year, each of whom at least posses MLB-rotation potential.
Since we have so many prospects, why not package a couple of the and get a big time player to make this a contending team? There’s a three big reasons:
- This team is more than one big-time player from winning a World Series. Even adding Nolan Arenado and Trevor Bauer right now would not be enough to beat the Dodgers over seven games.
- The only prospects that carry enough value to trade are strictly off-limits to trades. The chief factor in this is that prospects are always more valuable to the team that already owns them – the risk of investment has already been assumed. Combining this with the sour taste of Arozarena, Alcantara, and the others, its easy to understand the resistance to trading young talent.
- Save the cash. Look, we all know the team isn’t what you’d call “broke,” nor do they seem to be showing any signs of financial struggle. Barring any major moves over the winter, the Opening Day Payroll will be below $125,000,000 – the lowest since 2014, which was a club record at the time when the Luxury Tax Threshold was just $138.5M. Save this money now to keep these future stars long-term, if they pan out.
It’s easy to understand why fans are angry. The team that would take the field if Opening Day was tomorrow, in an absolute best-case scenario, is possibly capable of winning 85-90 games. The chances of winning the NL Pennant grow smaller by the day, as the Dodgers, Braves, and Padres seem to keep getting better.
Despite any of this, the messaging from the Front Office has not changed since Mozeliak took over in 2007, which is construed by many as a perpetual “Win Now” attitude.
To this point, you probably believe I’m also angry at what’s happening. But I’m not. I’m actually really excited.
2021 Projected Roster
Bolded denotes change from 2020
1. Tommy Edman, 2B
2. Lane Thomas, LF
3. Paul Goldschmidt, 1B
4. Paul DeJong, SS
5. Dylan Carlson, RF
6. Matt Carpenter, 3B
7. Andrew Knizner, C
8. Harrison Bader, CF
<Free Agent>, C – John Nogalski, 1B – Edmundo Sosa, INF
Tyler O’Neill, OF(DH) – Dexter Fowler, OF
Starting Rotation and Bullpen
1. Jack Flaherty, R – 2. Kwang-Hyun Kim, L – 3. Miles Mikolas, R
4. Austin Gomber, L – 5. Genesis Cabrera, L
LR: Carlos Martinez, R – Junior Fernandez, R
MR: Alex Reyes, R – Tyler Webb, L – Kodi Whitley, R
7th Inn: John Gant, R
8th Inn: Giovanny Gallegos, R
Closer: Jordan Hicks, L
Austin Dean, OF – Rangel Ravelo, 1B/3B – Justin Williams, OF
Daniel Poncedeleon, R – Roel Ramirez, R (Reliever)
Let’s start looking ahead with this. Repeat after me: I, <state your name>, as a Cardinals fan in good standing, acknowledge I am remarkably spoiled. I have not seen a losing season in thirteen years. I have not seen a last place team in thirty years. It is okay if the team is not amazing every year. In Stan’s name, I ask forgiveness for our Cardinal Sins.
Okay, good, we got that out of the way.
Cardinals fans are one of the more-disliked groups in baseball social media; this is something I was unaware of until I moved away from St. Louis for a couple years. It’s not because the Cardinals have averaged over 90 wins per season over the last two decades. It’s because we, along with Yankees fans, are the masters of finding the shortcomings of those 90-win teams, and relentlessly fixate on them. We’ve become sore winners.
With that said, I propose Cardinals’ Nation come to a consensus: let’s ignore any “Win Now” messaging, and prepare ourselves for what will likely be a similar season to last in the win column, and that is okay. A decade from now, I believe it is entirely likely that 2021 will mark the beginning of a new era for the St. Louis Cardinals.
So what marks success this year? What progress is made by keeping a couple obvious weaknesses? We mark success individually, and prepare for the long-term. The Dodgers, Padres, and Braves are daunting at the moment, but every dynasty has factors that could lead to a collapse – aging, money, and mismanagement, to name the usual suspects.
2021 Cardinals “Good Season” Checklist:
- Andrew Knizner proved keeping him over Carson Kelly was the correct choice.
- Tommy Edman validated Mozeliak’s trust. If Edman can continue his success, the conversation surrounding Wong’s dismissal will quickly change.
- Harrison Bader displayed consistency over the full season. He’s demonstrated his capability of hitting MLB pitching, and must prove to the organization it’s here to stay after a solid 2020.
- Lane Thomas and Dylan Carlson established themselves in the lineup. While we’d all love to watch Carlson get Rookie of the Year, all we should ask is they do enough to make it clear they’re here to stay
- Jack Flaherty has cemented his position in the league’s top-20 pitchers.
- Austin Gomber and Genesis Cabrera repeated their 2020 seasons. Both young guns appeared to have made great strides through 2020, and can cement a place in the rotation for years to come.
- Jordan Hicks returned to form. While the roster above shows Gant/Gallegos/Hicks for the 7th/8th/9th innings, that is subject to change in any order. Regardless of their roles, Hicks’s sinker is once again flooding Pitching Ninja Twitter.
- Genesis Cabrera and/or Junior Fernandez forced themselves into the 2022 rotation. To begin this season, Cabrera will likely fill the fifth starter role, with Fernandez in the bullpen, however that’s subject to change with injury or if Cabrera struggles. This whole season, however, will be serving as a job interview to potentially replace Kwang-hyun Kim next season, as his contract expires after 2021, and there are a number of other prospects who could compete for that spot
Success in 2021 will be dictated by the development of the young players viewed by the organization as the future core of this team. And don’t forget that Dakota Hudson, who will miss 2021 thanks to Tommy John, will hopefully return to join a young and very exciting 2022 rotation.
We’re not quite finished saying goodbye the the Cardinals of the 2010’s, yet. The final echo of this span of Cardinals baseball will reverberate next fall when Matt Carpenter and Carlos Martinez will likely be paid their buyout fees of $2M and $500k, respectively, in conjunction with the expiration of Dexter Fowler’s deal.
The rising dawn over the Mississippi is shedding light on what John Mozeliak and his team does best: youth development. YouTube creator Outta Here Baseball in the video below wonderfully documents what he calls the Cardinals’ “devil magic” as he follows a string of players that were constantly overlooked over Mozeliak’s tenure with the team: Matt Adams, Allen Craig, Matt Carpenter, Paul DeJong, Daniel Descalso, Tommy Edman, Greg Garcia, and Skip Schumaker.
I see it another way: this is the only choice the Front Office at Busch Stadium have been given. The last top-15 draft pick for the team was in 2008 at 13th. The last top-10 pick was JD Drew, selected fifth-overall in 1998. The average position for the Cardinals’ first selection over the last decade is 28.9-overall (2017’s first selection was 94th, 24.1 is average of remaining nine years). The Cardinals can’t select high-end domestic talent because they don’t get to draft it. There’s no way of getting around the international spending caps to make up ground that way. So, Mozeliak goes back to his roots: scouting.
Despite the lack of early draft picks and the already-insane uncertainty of baseball’s drafts, the Cards have still managed to pack their farm system full of domestic talent through the draft, and there’s plenty of gifted international prospects to create a mouth-watering top-30 prospects as we enter the next season.
Let’s be clear about this, whether it is admitted by the team or not: we’re witnessing a rebuild of sorts at the moment. Barring anything unforeseen, the Cardinals may very well enter Opening Day 2022 with the youngest roster in the MLB. It’s entirely likely Mikolas and Goldschmidt will be the only two players in the organization who have completed their arbitration after this year, leaving John Gant (who will be 29) as the third most-veteran player on the team.
The reason this will not be called a “rebuild” is because it is bad publicity, and the team will still be competitive. But, what do you call it when a team acknowledges their core can no longer win a Championship, then begins a three-year period of selling veteran contracts and allowing more veterans to walk away in Free Agency to make way for a wave of prospects? It’s a rebuild, just a unique one.
The last twenty years have taught Cardinals fans little in the way of patience. Nearly 1800 wins, thirteen playoff appearances, four pennants, and two World Series have put scarlet blinders in the bleachers of Busch Stadium.
Doubts of Mozeliak’s decisions are nothing new. Choruses of people calling for his firing began within weeks of his hiring as GM after he parted ways with Jim Edmonds. Those noise would subside for the next four years as the team built to the ecstasy of 2011. Though that was short to last, as Albert Pujols packed for LA and Tony LaRussa retired, while the calls for Mozeliak’s head began again, only to be silenced by three-straight NLCS appearances.
It’s been some time, but the torches and pitchforks are returning as a three-year playoff drought was followed by back-to-back lackluster playoff performances, fans feel like the organization won’t do what it takes to win, and one of the team’s best players just left. I feel like we’ve read this book before.
Ultimately, the biggest problem surrounding the Cardinals is not on the field right now. The problem is a divide in communication between the Front Office and the fans. Part of that is because Mozeliak refuses to change his tone (likely his way of keeping a poker face), and another part is fans’ refusal to read between the lines and look at the bigger picture of Cardinals’ baseball. The next twenty years in St. Louis have the potential to be just as, if not more, successful than the last twenty. The path the team has evidently chosen likely features no glory in 2021, but it is the best way to a twelfth World Series title, and possibly more.