The St. Louis Cardinals were eliminated from the postseason by their Route 66 rival Chicago Cubs on Tuesday evening. After the Cardinals took game one via the shutout, the Cubs came back to win three straight thanks in part to a home run parade put on by unlikely heroes Kyle Schwarber, Dexter Fowler, and Jorge Soler.
With most of the Cardinals core locked-up on term contracts or young, team-controlled assets, this off-season really only faces one big question: Jason Heyward. Let's break down the biggest obstacles that will face Cardinals GM John Mozeliak.
Where they stand: 2016 Cardinals Payroll obligations
With a fanbase accustomed to winning, the Cardinals will look to repeat their NL Central-best efforts in 2016 while also lengthening their stay in the postseason. According to Cot's Contracts, the Cardinals have just over $90 million in payroll obligations going into next season. Roughly $37 million of that is committed to the big four starting pitchers while other large obligations are largely due to Matt Holiday, Yadier Molina, and Jhonny Peralta.
With most of the core locked up and some really good prospective talent, the Cardinals have a few options moving forward. Their rotation will likely stay intact so Mozeliak will have to turn his attention mostly to the outfield and bullpen.
Pending Free Agents
Jason Heyward, Mark Reynolds, Carlos Villanueva, Matt Belisle, and Randy Choate are the notable players that will all become free agents this off-season. Choate will be going into his age 41 season if he chooses to continue playing. As one of the quintessential LOOGYs in baseball, it's still unclear whether his services will be retained by the Cardinals. He pitched in only 27.1 innings and didn't have especially great results. With Kevin Siegrist under team control until at least 2020, Mozeliak's need for a left-handed reliever will likely be on the back-burner.
Mozeliak may have to choose between keeping Villanueva or Belisle. Neither will be cost-prohibitive necessarily, however, both pitchers could look elsewhere. Villanueva may elect free agency to find a team in need of starting rotation help much the same way he did with the Blue Jays after the 2012 season. Belisle on the other hand has shown a knack for keeping the ball in the yard.
With the popularity of relievers who don't allow home runs on the rise -- thanks in part to the Royals's three-headed monster -- Belisle's 3.4 percent HR/FB rate will definitely look appealing to some front offices. Mozeliak might be wise to cut-bait if more cost-effective options present themselves as Belisle's abilities could be due for regression.
That just leaves Reynolds -- who Mozeliak will likely choose not to re-sign with a healthy Matt Adams and Brandon Moss in the mix -- and Heyward. To many, Heyward is the prize of the 2016 free agent class and Mozeliak will have his hand forced somewhat by offering him a $15.8 million qualifying offer. Acquired from the Atlanta Braves for Shelby Miller, the trade has worked out handsomely for both sides.
In 154 games, Heyward was worth six wins above replacement. Known as a defensive expert, he actually contributed very well with his bat this season posting a .346 wOBA (his best since 2012) which ranks in the top 20 among outfielders. It might be difficult for the Cardinals to retain his services, but it also might be more-than worthwhile.
Other payroll factors: Arbitration
On top of the pending free agents, the Cardinals have Brandon Moss and Peter Bourjos going into their final arbitration years. Futhermore, Steve Cishek, Tony Cruz, Trevor Rosenthal, Matt Adams, and Seth Maness are all eligible for arbitration. With Stephen Piscotty and Randal Grichuk under control and able to play outfield, that may preclude Bourjos from receiving any long-term offer in his last arbitration year. Similarly, arbitrators don't typically favor glove-first players when making their decision, so retaining Bourjos will by no means break the bank.
The Cardinals won't have too difficult of a time retaining all their arbitration-eligible talent, so there is no doubt that Mozeliak's attention will be spent mostly on Heyward. Piscotty may seem like a serviceable replacement, but Heyward's defensive acumen is almost irreplaceable. With such a wealth of controlled talent, Mozeliak still may elect to take the compensatory draft pick if the Heyward bidding becomes too pricey.
Moving forward, the majority of the Cardinals's ready-now, top prospects are pitchers. With Jaime Garcia and Adam Wainwright coming back presumably in full-force in 2016, Mozeliak could look to move a collection of prospects for some additional high-level talent if the decision on Heyward is made. It's a long time until the Winter Meetings, and Mozeliak has some crucial decisions to make in the meantime.
Where do the Cardinals go from here?
The fact is, there's a reason the Cardinals have been so good for the past few seasons. In part, it's because Mozeliak's ability to put a talented team together. However, it might be Mozeliak's ability to manage his assets that has kept this team relevant for so long.
The Cardinals are on a streak of three division titles and maintaining on-field assets while keeping the farm system well-stocked and not committing too much money to free agency has been Mozeliak's modus operandi. Frankly, everything you want a general manager to do. However, the NL Central is going to get a lot trickier with the Chicago Cubs looking like they are ready to contend for the next decade. Mozeliak may have to out-Mozeliak himself.