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Offseason outlook: St. Louis Cardinals

In conjunction with this post, Anthony Franco will hold a Cardinals-centric chat on 10-20-22 at 2:30 pm CST. Click here to leave a question in advance or participate in the live chat.

The Cardinals are fresh off a fourth straight postseason appearance, but they’ve failed to advance to a Division Series in each of the last three years. They’ll presumably try to run things back with as much continuity as possible given their regular season success, but they’ll do so without two franchise icons who had long ago announced that 2022 would be their final seasons.

Guaranteed Contracts

  • Nolan Arenado, 3B: $144M through 2027 (Arenado can opt out this offseason; Rockies owe Cardinals $16M in 2023 regardless of Arenado’s decision, Colorado will owe an additional $5MM annually through 2025 if he declines to opt out)
  • Paul Goldschmidt, 1B: $52M through 2024
  • Steven Matz, LHP: $35.5M through 2025
  • Miles Mikolas, RHP: $17M through 2023
  • Paul DeJong, SS: $11M through 2023 (including buyout of 2024 club option)
  • Giovanny Gallegos, RHP: $11M through 2024 (including buyout of 2025 club option)
  • Drew VerHagen, RHP: $3M

Total 2023 commitments: $84.5M if Arenado doesn’t opt out, $54.5M if Arenado opts out (factoring in Rockies’ payments)
Total future commitments: $242.5M if Arenado doesn’t opt out, $113.5M if Arenado opts out

Arbitration-Eligible Players (service time in parenthesis, projections via Matt Swartz)

Total arbitration projections: $39.85M

Non-tender candidates: Stratton, Reyes, Hudson, Cabrera

Free Agents

The Cardinals outlasted the Brewers with an excellent second half, claiming an NL Central title after two straight Wild Card berths. St. Louis’ 93 wins weren’t enough to secure a first-round bye in the new playoff format, however, leaving the Cards to match up against the Phillies in a three-game Wild Card set. Philadelphia came back from a ninth-inning deficit in Game One and went on to sweep the series, starting the St. Louis offseason earlier than the organization had hoped.

The Cardinals have had a string of early playoff exits in recent years, but they’ve continuously been one of the game’s most successful regular season teams. They’ve earned four straight playoff berths and haven’t had a below-average record in 15 years. It’s a remarkable run of consistency, anchored by one of the longer-tenured front office regimes and a few iconic presences on the roster. The front office tandem of president of baseball operations John Mozeliak and general manager Mike Girsch will be back, with Girsch inking a multi-year extension last week and Mozeliak already under contract. Yet the Cards will have to turn the page from Yadier Molina and, after a surprising resurgent return season in St. Louis that saw him eclipse 700 career home runs, Albert Pujols.

Molina and Pujols announced before the 2022 season even began that it’d be their final runs. Adam Wainwright has made no such declaration, playing things much closer to the vest. The 41-year-old has been a fixture on the St. Louis roster for nearly two decades. He’s a free agent again, and while it’s impossible to envision him playing anywhere else, Wainwright has yet to declare whether he plans to continue pitching. If he wants to return, there’s no question the Cards would carve out a rotation spot yet again. He’s coming off another successful year, posting a 3.71 ERA over 191 2/3 innings. He and the Redbirds agreed to a $17.5M extension last offseason, and it’s easy to envision another one-year deal in that range.

Wainwright told reporters after the season we’d “know pretty soon” whether he was returning, teasing that he was already aware of his decision (link via Derrick Goold of the Post-Dispatch). That doesn’t seem likely to drag too deep into the offseason, while the Cardinals biggest question has to be made within five days of the conclusion of the World Series. Nolan Arenado is coming off arguably the best season of his career, one which should see him compete with corner infield mate Paul Goldschmidt for MVP support. He’ll have the opportunity to opt out of the final five years and $144M on his contract at the start of the offseason.

Arenado forewent an opt-out chance last year, telling Goold it “was always the plan” to stay in St. Louis long-term at that time. The seven-time All-Star was coming off a relative down season in 2021, however, and it wasn’t clear he’d have topped the six years and $179M remaining on his deal at that point. After this year’s incredible showing on both sides of the ball, he’d certainly beat $144M as a free agent if his main priority were to maximize his earnings. Freddie Freeman received a six-year, $162M deal (albeit with deferrals that knocked down its net present value) heading into his age-32 season coming off a less impressive platform year. Arenado would figure to top that mark were he a free agent.

The nine-time Gold Glover hasn’t tipped his hand this time around, but he’s consistently maintained his love for both St. Louis and the Cardinals organization. After the Cards were eliminated, he reiterated to reporters he’s “really loved it here” and added “hopefully we can figure (the contract) out” (via Brenden Schaeffer of KMOV).

It’s certainly possible Arenado decides not to pursue his greatest earning potential and sticks with an organization with which he’s clearly happy. That could take the form of just opting in to his existing deal or maybe a preemptive contract restructure. Arenado is slated to make just $15M in the final season of his current deal. If St. Louis agreed to make his 2027 salary more commensurate with the $32.25M average annual value of the deal’s next four years, perhaps that’d strike a balance between rewarding his excellent season while preserving continuity.

The Cardinals have plenty of breathing room financially to rework Arenado’s deal if necessary. According to the Associated Press, the Rockies will owe the Cards $16M next season regardless of Arenado’s opt-out decision, as agreed upon in the 2021 trade that sent him to St. Louis. Colorado would send an additional $5M annually through 2025 if Arenado declines to opt out. With the Rox on the hook for such a notable portion of next year’s salary, the Cardinals would only have roughly $54.5M in guaranteed commitments (subtracting the money they’d receive from Colorado) if Arenado opts out.

They’re likely to allocate another $35-40M to a loaded arbitration class, but that’d still leave them with less than $100M in player expenditures. St. Louis has opened the past two seasons with a player payroll north of $150M, so they could absolutely accommodate a hefty Arenado deal next year. Only Goldschmidt ($26M), Steven Matz ($12.5M) and Giovanny Gallegos ($5.5M) are on guaranteed deals by 2024, so there shouldn’t be much long-term concern about keeping Arenado around.

That’s also true because the Cards will retain much of their remaining roster. Goldschmidt will be back at first base, while Tommy Edman is arbitration-eligible for three more seasons to take one middle infield spot. Edman is a decent hitter and one of the game’s best defenders at either second base or shortstop. He’ll certainly be in the lineup at one of those spots for manager Oliver Marmol, but there’s at least a chance for the Cardinals to look outside the organization for middle infield help.

St. Louis sat out a loaded free agent shortstop class last offseason, counting on Paul DeJong to return to form offensively. He did not, hitting a career-worst .157/.245/.286 over 237 MLB plate appearances. The Cardinals optioned him to Triple-A midway through the year, and while he performed fairly well there, he didn’t carry that over after returning to the majors for the season’s final two months. With $11M remaining on his contract, taking the form of a $9M 2023 salary and a $2M buyout on a ’24 club option, DeJong will be tough to move. Maybe the Cardinals consider a swap of undesirable deals for a position of greater need — speculatively speaking, a deal with the Angels involving catcher Max Stassi could match up financially while making sense with each team’s roster outlook — but it’s also possible St. Louis just releases DeJong and eats the money. At the very least, his streak of five straight Opening Day starts at shortstop will come to an end.

There’s again a loaded shortstop class in free agency, with Carlos Correa and Xander Bogaerts locks to opt out of their current deals and join Dansby Swanson and Trea Turner. The Cardinals long-term financial flexibility means they could plausibly kick the tires on that group. However, signing one of the top shortstops would be out of character for an organization that has only once gone beyond $100M on a free agent contract (seven years and $120M to retain Matt Holliday in 2009-10) and has never signed a player for more than $130M. Correa and Turner would shatter the franchise record outlay, and Bogaerts and Swanson shouldn’t have much trouble topping that figure themselves.

If Arenado opts out and signs elsewhere, a run at the top free agent shortstops would appear more realistic. If he stays, then the Cards could look to trade possibilities like the Guardians’ Amed Rosario or stick with Edman at shortstop while giving second base to a combination of Nolan Gorman and Brendan Donovan. Gorman is a former first-rounder and top prospect; he has huge power but notable strikeout issues and isn’t an ideal fit in the middle infield. Donovan was a less heralded prospect but finished seventh in the majors (minimum 400 plate appearances) with a .394 on-base percentage as a rookie. He worked in a bat-first utility role and may not be a great defender at the keystone either, but he looks like the kind of excellent contact hitter the Cardinals have excelled at developing over the years.

There’s not a huge need for an overhaul in the outfield. Corey Dickerson will probably walk in free agency, leaving the Cards with a group of Tyler O’Neill, Dylan Carlson, Lars Nootbaar, Juan Yepez and breakout prospect Alec Burleson. Trading Harrison Bader at this past deadline subtracted an elite defender from the mix, but Carlson rated well in his half-season of center field work. The Cardinals seem committed to him as a franchise center fielder, and the others give them a balanced group of corner outfield/designated hitter options from which to choose. O’Neill had a down year after a standout 2021 campaign, but Nootbaar took a step forward and looks like a potential everyday player. Perhaps the Cardinals look for a glove-first backup to upgrade over Ben DeLuzio in a bench role, but this doesn’t look like a spot for a big investment.

That’d be particularly true if Arenado sticks around, since he’d lock down third base for the long haul. 2020 first-rounder Jordan Walker has blossomed into one of the sport’s top prospects as a potential impact power bat and is fresh off a .306/.388/.510 showing as a 20-year-old in Double-A. He’s played primarily third base in the minors but has gotten increasing work in the corner outfield. If Arenado and Goldschmidt are under contract for the next two-plus seasons, the corner outfield/DH is the easiest path to at-bats for Walker once he’s ready, which could be as soon as the middle of next season.

The position the Cardinals will need to address from outside the organization is catcher. For the first time in almost two decades, it won’t be Molina’s job. Andrew Knizner hasn’t shown himself capable of being Molina’s heir apparent as once hoped. He could stick around in a backup role, but he shouldn’t be expected to assume the #1 job. Prospect Iván Herrera hit .268/.374/.396 in 65 Triple-A games at age 22, earning a very brief big league look in the process. He’s a potential long-term option, but it’d probably be too risky to count on him as the top catcher for a win-now 2023 team.

Free agency doesn’t offer many obvious solutions. Longtime division rival Willson Contreras is the standout at the position. The Cardinals are a viable suitor for Contreras, but he’s more of a bat-first player and would be an atypical fit for an organization that has placed such a strong premium on defense. Signing Contreras, who’ll receive a qualifying offer, would also require forfeiting an amateur draft choice. Other than Contreras, Christian Vázquez may be the only free agent backstop who’s a lock to land a regular job, while Austin Hedges and Mike Zunino could be glove-first stopgaps to Herrera. The A’s Sean Murphy, who’s projected for a $3.5M arbitration salary and controllable through 2025, would be the prize of the trade market at the position. If the Cardinals were inclined to make a splash, it’s easy to envision the A’s having interest in big league ready players like Gorman and Burleson.

St. Louis could poke around the trade market for controllable starting pitching as well, although they won’t enter the offseason with as pressing a rotation need as most teams. Miles Mikolas is under contract for an additional season, while deadline pickup Jordan Montgomery will be back for his final year of arbitration. St. Louis signed Matz to a four-year free agent deal last winter. Injuries contributed to a rough first season, but he’ll get a chance to bounce back. Wainwright would obviously have a rotation spot if he wants to return.

There’s a bit of uncertainty at the back end, but the Cardinals have options. Jack Flaherty has shown top-of-the-rotation potential in the past and is eligible for arbitration a final time. He’s lost most of the past year and a half to shoulder issues, but he’ll certainly be tendered a contract with a relatively modest projected $5.1M arbitration salary. It’s possible Mozeliak and his staff gauge the trade market on Flaherty, but he wouldn’t garner a huge return and seems likelier to be on the Cards roster come Opening Day. If healthy, he figures to have a rotation spot.

There’s enough uncertainty with Flaherty and Matz the Cardinals could look for a depth option at the back end. Midseason trade pickup José Quintana pitched well enough down the stretch St. Louis tabbed him as the Game One starter for their Wild Card series. He’ll be a free agent and may have pitched himself beyond the Cards’ comfort range financially, but there’s a deep free agent market of innings-eating starting pitchers this winter. Players like Michael Wacha, Drew Smyly or Kyle Gibson figure to land affordable one or two-year contracts.

Adding another starter, particularly if Wainwright does opt for retirement, would have the added benefit of allowing St. Louis to pencil Andre Pallante into the bullpen. He worked as a swingman as a rookie and was a valuable ground-ball specialist. He’s an internal rotation option but could fit better in multi-inning relief. That’s also true of Dakota Hudson, who struggled enough as a starter he was optioned back to Triple-A late in the year. With a projected $2.7MM arb salary, Hudson could also be traded for a minimal return or just cut loose altogether.

At the back end of the bullpen, flamethrowing Ryan Helsley has broken out as one the game’s best relievers. The ever-consistent Gallegos joins him as a high-leverage option, and he was rewarded with a late-season two-year extension. Jordan Hicks and Alex Reyes have been inconsistent, largely due to injuries, but they’ve shown the potential to be high-leverage relievers at their best. Reyes missed all of 2022 and could be non-tendered, but the Cards could roll the dice on a $2.85M salary depending on his recovery from May shoulder surgery. Chris Stratton came over from the Pirates in the Quintana deal and could factor in as well, although a projected $3.5M salary might be rich for a player who didn’t make the team’s playoff roster.

There’s a bit of uncertainty from the left side, but the Cards again have options. Packy Naughton and former first-rounder Zack Thompson were serviceable. Génesis Cabrera had a brutal 2022 season but is only projected for a $1.2M arbitration salary. He still throws in the mid-upper 90s and has taken high-leverage innings in the past. There’s room for another left-handed arm, particularly if the Cards move on from Cabrera, but adding there feels like more of a luxury than a necessity.

That’s true for much of the roster, which boasts a few star players and the Cardinals’ typical stockpile of depth. All eyes in St. Louis early in the offseason will be on Arenado. If he opts out and surprisingly signs with a different team, the Cards could find themselves in position for major turnover. If he stays in St. Louis, as most anticipate he will, the offseason figures to be primarily about preserving continuity — although they’ll have to make a change at catcher for the first time in 20 years regardless.

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