St. Louis Cardinals, (83-79)
Additions: Luke Gregerson, Dominic Leone, Miles Mikolas, Yairo Munoz, Bud Norris, Francisco Pena, Marcell Ozuna
Subtractions: Sandy Alcantara, Aledmys Diaz, Zach Duke, Randal Grichuk, Lance Lynn, Juan Nicasio, Seung-Hwan Oh, Alberto Rosario, Trevor Rosenthal, Magneuris Sierra
Though they posted a winning record, the Cardinals failed to reach the postseason for a second consecutive season in 2017, leaving fans in a state of concern after watching the franchise make the playoffs five straight times from 2011-15. The Cards struggled to find a consistent lineup that worked and dealt with defensive and baserunning inconsistency last season, so it was essential that they cleaned things up and retooled a bit over the offseason.
The roster was oddly constructed; they ended the season with seven outfielders under long-term control on the major-league roster, along with another four who finished the season in the upper minors but are viewed as potential future starters. They also had a wealth of upper-minors pitching prospects — too many to ever fit all of them into a big-league rotation at any one time — from which to deal if they wanted to make a blockbuster trade. One thing seemed to be for sure: the front office was going to make significant changes in order to avoid a third straight season without a postseason appearance.
They began doing that in late October, making several high-profile coaching staff changes, hiring former Nationals pitching coach Mike Maddux, bringing highly-regarded infield coach Jose Oquendo out of retirement, and hiring Willie McGee — one of the most beloved players in franchise history — to assist with baserunning and outfield defense. The efforts at revamping the roster didn’t begin until November, when the Cardinals aggressively pursued then-Marlins slugger Giancarlo Stanton, who was certain to be dealt as the Marlins sought to cut costs. The Cardinals had a deal in place to acquire Stanton, and along with the Giants, they were thought to be one of the two finalists to acquire the reigning NL MVP’s services. Unfortunately for the Cardinals, though, those efforts didn’t pay off, as Stanton vetoed the trade to St. Louis (as well as one to San Francisco) in early December and was traded to the Yankees just a few days later.
Though they didn’t get Stanton, the Cardinals still shook things up, though maybe not as much as many expected. They were very aggressive during the Winter Meetings, taking advantage of their previous negotiations with the Marlins to strike a deal for star left fielder Marcell Ozuna — arguably the best alternative to Stanton they could’ve gotten — while giving up a relatively tame package of prospects. After dealing one of the seven outfielders who finished the season in the big leagues — 21-year-old Magneuris Sierra — for Ozuna, they continued trimming their outfield excess within the next 24 hours, dealing incumbent right fielder Stephen Piscotty to the Athletics. Besides the deal being one of baseball’s most captivating human-interest stories — Piscotty grew up in Pleasanton, California, so he’ll have the opportunity to be close to his mother, who suffers from ALS — the trade actually helped the Cardinals quite significantly from a baseball perspective. They acquired 23-year-old super-utility player Yairo Munoz, who has forced himself onto the Opening Day roster after a torrid spring, as well as second-base prospect Max Schrock, who posted a .321/.379/.422 slash line in Double-A last year and may begin to push Kolten Wong for playing time sooner than later.
They thinned that outfield group out a little bit more in late January when they sent Randal Grichuk to the Blue Jays in exchange for right-handed reliever Dominic Leone, who had a breakout season last year and could be a candidate to fill the Cardinals’ closer role this year, and hard-throwing prospect Conner Greene.
They also gave the pitching staff somewhat of a makeover, though that was a necessity after they let Lance Lynn, Zach Duke, Juan Nicasio, Seung-Hwan Oh, and Trevor Rosenthal walk in free agency. They signed 29-year-old starter Miles Mikolas — who posted a 5.32 ERA and 1.42 WHIP over 37 big-league games from 2012-14 before going to Japan and posting a 2.18 ERA and 0.99 WHIP over 62 starts from 2015-17 — to a two-year, $15.5 million contract. In addition to Leone in the bullpen, they also added 33-year-old Luke Gregerson — who has a 3.02 ERA and 66 saves over nine seasons but posted a career-worst 4.57 ERA last year — on a two-year, $11 million deal, as well as 33-year-old Bud Norris — who has spent most of his career as a starter but collected 19 saves for the Angels in 2017 — on a one-year, $3 million pact.
While the Cardinals’ lineup is undoubtedly better than it was at this time last year, they’ll be gambling on a starting rotation that features just one pitcher — Carlos Martinez — who has proven to be consistently reliable in recent years. Luke Weaver was fantastic for most of last season but wore down during the season’s final month, and there are questions about whether the 24-year-old can hold up over a full big-league campaign. Michael Wacha was solid last year but deals with a chronic shoulder issue that has caused him to spend time on the DL in every even year of his five-year major-league career. Though he was the rock of the Cardinals’ rotation for nearly a decade, Adam Wainwright is now 36 years old, coming off offseason elbow surgery, and posted a 5.11 ERA and 1.50 WHIP last season. And Mikolas obviously is an unknown, having spent the past three years overseas after failing to find success in his previous big-league stint. If all of those pitchers are at their best, the Cardinals’ rotation has a chance to be very good, but that’s a rather big “if.”
If one or more of those pitchers gets injured or struggles to the point that a replacement is needed, the gambling will continue; in that case, the Cardinals will hope that Alex Reyes bounces back from Tommy John surgery in a healthy and efficient manner or that a pitcher with little to no big-league experience from a group that includes Jack Flaherty, John Gant, Austin Gomber, and Dakota Hudson can come up and pitch effectively. As if there wasn’t enough uncertainty in the rotation, the Cardinals also don’t have a proven closer (not that that’s a unique predicament for a major-league club to have this spring). Gregerson and Norris will be candidates for ninth-inning opportunities, though the role could ultimately end up going to a younger pitcher like Leone or Sam Tuivailala.
Many of the Cardinals’ adjustments will simply come in the form of role changes for players who were on the roster last season. Tommy Pham will move to center field on a full-time basis after posting a 13.7 UZR/150 (fourth best among players with at least 200 innings in center last season), while Dexter Fowler shift to right field after posting -18 defensive runs (second-worst among big-league center fielders in 2017). Paul DeJong is set to serve as the full-time shortstop, which should help the Cardinals’ defense after they had to deal with the defensive limitations of Aledmys Diaz for parts of the last two seasons. Jose Martinez, a late bloomer who broke out with a .309/.379/.518 slash line and 14 homers as a rookie last year, is likely to get more consistent playing time at first base this year after working primarily as a pinch hitter and reserve outfielder until the last month of the 2017 season. And the simple fact that they’ll have a rather stable lineup should help solidify things. Unlike last year, when they had a two-deep outfield depth chart with everyone except Fowler fighting for playing time, the everyday outfield will now be comprised of Ozuna, Pham, and Fowler.
Ozuna, who hit .312/.376/.548 with 37 homers and 124 RBI while posting an NL-best 11 defensive runs saved in left field last year, will provide a major upgrade both offensively and defensively to the Cardinals. Other than adding him, though, St. Louis seems to be going with somewhat of a “less is more” approach as it attempts to compete with the Cubs and Brewers for an NL Central title this season, hoping that an infusion of power, better defense, more consistency on the basepaths, and a younger, more flexible pitching staff will help a roster that is similar to last year’s post a better record in 2018. Considering that they’ve posted winning records over the past two seasons while showing plenty of promise at various points, that’s not a bad strategy, though there will obviously be cause for concern if they aren’t able to earn a playoff spot this season.