This baseball offseason, Cardinals fans have had to hurry up and wait, just to wait and see, just to see how the land lies, just to . . .
You get it. Heck, you’re living it. You want action. You want answers. You want a new Cardinal or two to boost the offense.
But for the antsy fans, it can be overwhelming to consume yourselves with the “when,” as in — when will the Cardinals make a move in free agency? Just hope that there is a “when,” because otherwise, it’s hard to think the Cards will win.
This is the slowest offseason and oddest offseason — a unique offseason — because of the financial ramifications of games without tickets sold, as well as similar questions heading into 2021. Also because of the uncertainty regarding the designated hitter.
If the Cardinals had to make the uncomfortable move of letting Kolten Wong go because of finances, you can understand that they’re being meticulous with contractual matters, even with players they’d love to have back. As in, a pair of players who some day will wear red jackets.
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But even if the Cards do work out a deal with Adam Wainwright (possibly the most-important Cardinal last season) and Yadier Molina, those deals won’t boost the offense from what it was a year ago (though give the confident Wainwright a chance to hit and he’d sure try to prove otherwise).
Molina’s role to the team defensively, and also from a leadership and mentorship standpoint, is worth every cent you pay to have this future Hall of Famer. And with the bat, his ability to avoid striking out and hit in high-pressure moments is quite valuable. But he’s a No. 6-through-8 hitter. The stat OPS+ fairly captures a hitter’s offensive prowess, with 100 being the league average (last year, Paul Goldschmidt was at 146 and National League Most Valuable Player Freddie Freeman was at 186). Well, Molina’s OPS+ the past two years have been 87 and 81.
So, yes, bring him back if you can work out a fair deal (the length of the deal might be the tricky part), but as I’ve said on these pages all winter, and others have said on these pages all winter, the Cardinals might not even be able to win a watered-down Central Division with their current offense. Yes, the watered-down division — and the financial flexibility after 2021 — makes this winter one to spend prudently. But you still have to spend on something.
I’m Tyler O’Neill’d out. Admittedly, he’s one of the nicest guys in the organization. But he’s a slugger that doesn’t slug. He had 450 plate appearances over three seasons and his OPS+ during that duration was 91. His strikeout rate last season was 27.4%, and if it had qualified, would have been 11th-worst in the National League. And that was his best strikeout rate in the past three years.
So if you have Dylan Carlson locked into one outfield spot, and Dexter Fowler, because of his contract and experience, locked into another, you then have to ask about that third spot.
Harrison Bader hit juuuuust well enough to earn him some at-bats against lefties next season, but what about that third outfielder to hit against righties? I’ll keep saying it — I think Joc Pederson is the play here. Go get him. Yes, the Dodger had a down 2020. Terrible regular season (84 OPS+, .190 batting average). Still, went on to win the World Series — and had a .991 OPS in the playoffs. As for his previous season, the regular-length 2019 campaign, the lefty-hitting Joc hit 36 homers off righthanded pitching. And he did so in just 401 at-bats.
He made $7.7 million last season. If they can get him in that range for a one-year deal, that investment sounds sound.
Yes, Lane Thomas deserves some at-bats for St. Louis. He had consecutive lost seasons due to injury and COVID. But he’s not a home run thumper.
The Cards need home runs. They had the fewest in baseball last season. In a stltoday.com video, we asked — who will lead the Cardinals in homers in 2021? Will it be Goldschmidt? Paul DeJong? Possibly the youngster Carlson?
Really, the question should be — how many home runs will the Cardinals’ leader hit? Considering that ZiPS on fangraphs.com projects that each Paul will hit 23 homers, and Carlson has yet to play a full season, the slugging situation is quite dire. Pederson could surely help, even if he only faces righties.
Like all the other NL teams, the Cardinals have to wait to hear about the DH ruling. And like many other executives in baseball, they’re waiting for bigger free agents to set the market at certain positions. And so, their fans wait, as well.
But they’ve got to do something at some point. Yes, there’s optimism that some of the guys who hit poorly in 2020 will bounce back next season (Tommy Edman or DeJong or, dare it even be suggested, Matt Carpenter). Even so, realistically what are their ceilings?
The Cardinals have a rare opportunity to pounce on this division, as other teams are retooling or rebuilding or re-whatever the Pirates are doing. And the Cardinals pitching is young and strong and deep. Bringing back Wainwright, who has been pitched last year like he was young, would fortify the rotation.
Relying on the pitching means the Cardinals don’t necessarily need to be the 2020 Dodgers offensively. But they can’t be the 2020 Cardinals, either.