The St. Louis Cardinals were supposed to be the big spenders this offseason. With a new TV deal and some money coming off the books next season, GM John Mozeliak said they were going to be able to do something they normally don’t — sign a free agent. What they may not have kept into account was whether the free agent would want to sign with them. So far the offseason has shown the Cardinals it is a lot harder to give someone $180 million than originally thought.
Going into the offseason, the top priority was to re-sign Jason Heyward. Not because he’s the greatest player of all time, but partly because the Cardinals have already invested so much in him in trading away Shelby Miller to acquire his services. With Holliday gone after this next season, and Stephen Piscotty in the wings, signing Heyward was as about the long-term stability of the outfield and team in general. Did the Cardinals absolutely need an outfield bat urgently? With Piscotty being the Cardinals’ most-productive hitter in the 60 or so games he played last season, there’s an argument to be made that outfield is not the most urgent need of the Cardinals. That title goes to the category of pitching.
Despite owning the best ERA in the National League last season, the Cardinals do not expect to follow suit in 2016. After losing John Lackey and Lance Lynn this offseason, the need for a pitcher is clear. St. Louis does get Adam Wainwright back for a full year, but all of their starters have injury question marks linked to them.
The Chicago Cubs didn’t expect to follow their unbelievable season with another 97-win season with the same roster, so they made moves…big moves. The Cubs went into the offseason saying they weren’t going to go a big spending spree, but they ended up signing the Cardinals two best players from last season as well as Ben Zobrist. Their version of not going on a spending spree would have been the equivalent to the Cardinals “flexing” financially as they were supposed to do this offseason.
Interestingly enough, the Cubs didn’t outflex the Cardinals financially, but they out-sales pitched them. The Cardinals offered $200 million to Heyward, which would have been good for $80 million higher than their franchise record contract (Holliday’s seven year-$120 million). It doesn’t appear Heyward chose the Cubs because they offered $30 million more as the Boston Red Sox did with David Price. Rather, Heyward picked the Cubbies and their $184 million, opt-out laden offer because he wanted to be a part of something special in Chicago. He could be apart of the first World Championship team in over a hundred years. Just think of how that would change the rest of his life. How can you beat that sales pitch?
The overall tone with the Cubs is they are a juggernaut team, beautifully built, with the smartest guys in the world running the machine who could do no wrong. The Cubs have the best, most fun manager, and have more fun than the Cardinals, especially when they beat them in the postseason last year. For the Cardinals, the most successful team in the National League, ever, this narrative is disastrous when you’re battling said team for the same free agent. With Price, at least the Cardinals were outbid. With Heyward, they were simply not good enough. That must hurt for a team that has gone to the postseason four years in a row, and the year before that, won the World Series.
The question now becomes, after missing out on the two top free agents, and their top two targets, what do the Cardinals do? Most people have already written them off from winning the NL Central next season, as the Cubs have gotten better and their young players will continue to progress, while the Cardinals have lost Lackey and Heyward. I wouldn’t buy into a desperation mode yet for the Cardinals.
Piscotty was their most productive hitter when he played for them, and Randal Grichuk hit 17 home runs playing in only 100 games. They went a whole season without Matt Adams, who has potential to hit 30 home runs, as well as adding Brandon Moss to platoon at first. Concerned their middle infield can get into offensive funks too often? They traded for Jedd Gyorko to complement their lefties at first and second base, as well as being an option to replace Jhonny Peralta at shortstop some days. Not to mention, a healthy season of Matt Holliday can’t hurt, as long as he’s still on the team come Spring Training.
Even with the Cardinals missing out on Heyward, it’s hard to imagine their offense could be worse than 26th in runs scored next season. With Adams, Holliday, Piscotty, and Grichuk all getting full-time at-bats, the offense should be better. Could they use a transformative bat? Yes, but if they were to do so, it appears it would have to be through trade.
The Cardinals could use a game-changing pitcher, but that also appears unlikely unless through trade. The Cardinals, if they want to compete moving forward, have to hold onto their top prospects. It seems signing a pitcher on a two-year deal makes the most sense. Signing someone like Scott Kazmir, Doug Fister, or Wei-Yin Chen if they want to expand the length of a deal could also be smart. Mozeliak has expressed a preference in shorter term deals (smart man), but obviously David Price was an exception. That’s the problem with the Cardinals free agent plan. If they lose out on their guy, they don’t just go for the next best player in that position.
When St. Louis lost on Heyward, most assumed Alex Gordon would their guy, but that’s not the case. They don’t value those players even remotely similarly. While I’m glad they aren’t in a panic mode, signing anyone who is willing to play, it is causing quite a stir among Cardinal fans who look at this team, which has money to spend, sit and watch their rival steal their two best players.
The Cardinals may have money to spend this offseason, but rushing into long-term deals will make it hard for them to spend on the right guys in a year or two to stay competitive when the Cubs’ young core is hitting their prime.
The Cardinals are still a good team, with questions in their rotation, but also seeing the return of their ace in Adam Wainwright. After a terrible offseason thus far, it is not time to panic, but sign a pitcher who is aiming to reclaim value (Fister), and possibly trade for Carlos Gonzalez. I wouldn’t be opposed to signing someone like Alex Gordon, but unless Mozeliak is playing the media, it appears they have something else in mind for left field once Holliday is gone. It is clear, the Cardinals need at least one starter and possibly another bat, but with their outfield full, as well as two first basemen already, it gets harder to foresee a big offensive move unless the club gets really creative.
Regardless, the Cardinals can’t be named winners this offseason no matter what they do at this point, and a lot of that has to do with the Cubs moves and less about what they failed to do. But if they don’t make a move before Christmas, it’s clear their fans will be sending coal to the Cardinals front office.