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2017 MLB Offseason Preview: St. Louis Cardinals

The Cardinals are likely to shake things up after missing the postseason for two straight years.

MLB: Milwaukee Brewers at St. Louis Cardinals Photo by Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

St. Louis Cardinals (83-79), 3rd in NL Central

Free agents: Zach Duke, Juan Nicasio, Lance Lynn, Seung-Hwan Oh, Alberto Rosario

After failing to reach the playoffs in two straight seasons for the first time since 2007-08, the Cardinals are at a crossroads this offseason. They actually looked pretty good after the All-Star break, posting a 40-34 while seeing guys like Tommy Pham, Jose Martinez, and Paul DeJong develop into valuable contributors. But with frustration mounting following two up-and-down campaigns, it seems as if the roster could be in for a shakeup this offseason.

St. Louis already added four new coaches to Mike Matheny’s staff and gave Mike Shildt his third promotion in the past year (he’s ascended from Triple-A manager to quality control coach to third base coach to bench coach), so it wouldn’t be surprising to see the front office take a similarly aggressive attitude toward adding new talent.

The most prominent rumor surrounding the Cardinals during the early part of the offseason has been the suggestion that they’re a major player in the Giancarlo Stanton sweepstakes. With the Cardinals having roughly $135 million committed towards their 2018 payroll right now, they’d be in a better position than clubs like the Giants and Red Sox to take on Stanton’s $25 million salary for 2018 and the $295 million remaining on the 13-year, $325 million contract that the 28-year-old outfielder signed prior to the 2015 season. And while their farm system might not be as prestigious as those of the Red Sox and Phillies, the Cardinals’ system is deep enough that they could make a serious bid for Stanton even if the Marlins insist on receiving talented prospects in exchange for the All-Star outfielder.

If he stays healthy, Stanton could take a Cardinals offense that already showed promise over the second half of 2017 and lift it to a whole new level. Stanton, who led the majors with 59 homers and 132 RBI while posting a 1.007 OPS in 2017, would be the most fearsome power hitter that’s played in St. Louis at least since Albert Pujols, but realistically probably since Mark McGwire was in his prime. With all of that said, there have been numerous suggestions that Stanton would be apprehensive about waiving his full no-trade clause in order to be dealt to St. Louis.

If the Cardinals don’t emerge victorious in the Stanton sweepstakes, it’d possible that they could still look to add an impactful hitter by pursuing a free agent like Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, or J.D. Martinez. But with so many in-house position players having already made unexpected cases for everyday playing time in 2018—most notably Jose Martinez, who could earn the starting job at first base and force Matt Carpenter back to third base after posting a .309/.379/.518 slash line with 14 homers as a rookie—the Cardinals may be better off sticking with the hitters they’ve got and directing their efforts toward boosting their pitching staff, which is in much more desperate need of a makeover.

With Lance Lynn a free agent and Adam Wainwright having undergone elbow surgery after a season in which he posted a 5.11 ERA and 1.50 WHIP, Carlos Martinez and Michael Wacha are the only established veteran starters the Cardinals can really count on heading into 2018. Rookie Luke Weaver was very encouraging down the stretch, and it’s possible that Alex Reyes may be able to step right back into the rotation after missing all of 2017 due to Tommy John surgery, but even if they progress as hoped, the Cardinals’ rotation will be extremely young and inexperienced if left unaltered this offseason.

Considering the number of intriguing starting pitching prospects the Cardinals possess, it’s difficult to envision them pursuing a premium free agent like Jake Arrieta or Yu Darvish who will command a long-term deal. But guys like C.C. Sabathia, Jeremy Hellickson, Chris Tillman, Wade Miley, and Jhoulys Chacin could be low-risk, high-reward options to consider as St. Louis looks to stabilize its rotation this offseason.

Similarly, the Cardinals will need to reshape their bullpen this winter after they endured a worst-case scenario in 2017, with Seung-Hwan Oh pitching himself out of the closer’s role at midseason, Trevor Rosenthal tearing his UCL in August after excelling as Oh’s replacement, and big-money free-agent addition Brett Cecil flopping frequently in high-pressure situations and against left-handed hitters.

Cecil is likely the only member of that trio who will return next season, as Oh is a free agent and Rosenthal was released earlier this month. The Cardinals got good work out of several unheralded young relievers in 2017, including Matt Bowman, John Brebbia, Tyler Lyons, Sam Tuivailala, and Ryan Sherriff, but they’ll surely want more veteran experience in the bullpen as they try to compete for a division title next season.

The Cardinals plan to make a run at free agent closer Greg Holland, per USA TODAY’s Bob Nightingale, though that could be a risky move as the 31-year-old looks to earn a big payday, having declined his $15 million player option (and presumably, soon, the $17.4 million qualifying offer the Rockies tendered him last week). Holland led the NL with 41 saves last season and posted a solid 3.61 ERA and 1.15 WHIP, but he struggled to a 6.38 ERA while allowing five homers in 24 innings after the All-Star break.

Wade Davis, who excelled for the rival Cubs in 2017, is also a free agent and could be another potential fit. However, the 32-year-old was thought to be a Tommy John candidate after dealing with forearm trouble in 2016, and he could be a risky investment after laboring through a couple of 40-plus-pitch appearances in the postseason this year.

If they’re not dead set on acquiring an experienced closer, an ideal pitcher for the Cardinals to pursue could be 37-year-old Pat Neshek, who excelled during a one-season stint with the Cardinals in 2014 and was dominant for the Phillies and Rockies in 2017. Neshek could likely be had on a one or two-year deal and could provide St. Louis with a reliable veteran presence in the late innings. Other veteran middle relievers on the free-agent market who could fit well in the Cardinals’ bullpen include Brandon Morrow, Yusmeiro Petit, Luke Gregerson, Bryan Shaw, Joe Smith, Tommy Hunter, and Anthony Swarzak.

As the Cardinals look to upgrade via the trade market this offseason, they’re likely to take advantage of their surpluses of young pitchers and outfielders to make deals. While St. Louis’ rotation is rather uncertain heading into 2018, meaning that they should probably have as many potential starters in the organization as possible, they’ve got more starting pitching prospects than they could ever reasonably use at the big-league level. Of their top 30 prospects as ranked by MLB Pipeline, 13 are pitchers, with Reyes, Jack Flaherty, and Dakota Hudson being the biggest names. The 24-year-old Weaver—who graduated from the prospect rankings earlier this year—also could be a potential trade chip, though he’s penciled into the Cardinals’ 2018 rotation as things stand now.

St. Louis also has 11 outfielders who could realistically compete for big-league playing time next season, and that’s not even factoring in the five outfielders who finished 2017 at a level below Double-A but are on the Cardinals’ top 30 prospects list. It seems as if every outfielder in the organization besides Dexter Fowler could be available via trade this offseason if the price is right, though guys like Randal Grichuk and Stephen Piscotty are probably the most likely to be moved, seeing as they no longer seem to fit into the organization’s long-term plans. Particularly if the Cardinals make a push to acquire Stanton (or either of his fellow Marlins outfielders, Christian Yelich or Marcell Ozuna), it’d make sense for them to cull their excess outfield depth a bit.

Out of the Cardinals’ free agents, Duke and Nicasio seem like the only decent bets to return. The Cardinals showed their faith in the 34-year-old Duke by keeping him on the 40-man roster last offseason, even though he had undergone Tommy John surgery in October and was thought to be likely to miss the entire 2017 season. Duke rewarded their patience by returning in late July and pitching in 27 games down the stretch. The Cardinals already have decent left-handed relief depth, with Lyons, Cecil, and Sherriff likely to be their top three lefties heading into next season. But Duke said in October that he would “certainly love to come back” to the Cardinals, per’s Jenifer Langosch, and since he doesn’t have a great chance of getting a major-league deal from another club, it seems possible that he could rejoin the Cardinals as a non-roster invitee and try to win a bullpen spot next spring.

Nicasio, 31, was impressive over nine appearances after being acquired by the Cardinals on September 6, posting a 1.64 ERA with a 1.00 WHIP and four saves. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s Derrick Goold reported during the season’s final weekend that Nicasio “would welcome a chance to re-sign” with the Cardinals, though he’ll receive plenty of interest from other clubs now that he’s hit the free-agent market. 2017 was Nicasio’s first season as a full-time reliever, and it’d be a rather odd move for the Cardinals to bring him back with the intention of plugging him in as the closer. But if they’re willing to pay him $5 million or so to pitch in the mid-to-late innings, complimenting guys like Cecil, Lyons, and Tuivailala, he’d be a solid addition.

Even though the Cardinals extended him a $17.4 million qualifying offer—thus giving themselves the opportunity to receive compensation if he signs elsewhere—it seems to be all but a foregone conclusion that Lynn will pitch for another club in 2017. Lynn told the Post-Dispatch’s Rick Hummel in August that there had been “zero communication whatsoever” in regards to a possible extension. After the Cards dealt veteran starter Mike Leake to the Mariners in late August, the loss of Lynn—who had a 3.43 ERA and 1.23 WHIP over 186.1 innings in 2017—will force St. Louis to fill two rather significant rotation holes this offseason.

The Cardinals are also likely to move on from the 35-year-old Oh, who was dominant as a rookie in 2016 but struggled mightily this past season. Oh, who posted a 1.84 WHIP against left-handed hitters in 2017, may latch on with a club where he can be a de facto righty specialist, but interest in him probably won’t be great considering his age, lack of elite velocity, and lack of a strong major-league track record.

Rosario, a glove-first catcher who has 12 years of minor-league experience and has served as a valuable mentor for the Triple-A pitching staff in recent seasons, was outrighted off the 40-man roster in early November. He returned to the Cardinals after being outrighted following the 2016 season and could do so again this winter.