The St. Louis Cardinals fell way short of expectations in 2016. Maybe it was the Chicago Cubs’ excellence from start to finish; maybe it was injuries to key players; maybe it was the lofty expectations from a 100-win 2015. Maybe it was a mixture of all of those factors. Going back to the topic of the Cubs though, it is clear that the Cardinals are likely not going to win a division title in the next 2-3 years, which leaves them fighting for one of two Wild Card spots that anywhere from 4-6 other teams could be also fighting for, and in order to secure on of these spots general manager John Mozeliak is going to have to make some upgrades across the roster to improve on the disappointing 86-win season that saw the Redbirds on the outside looking in for the first time since 2010. Mozeliak started his retooling process early in the offseason, signing left-handed reliever Brett Cecil to a 4-year deal and adding another setup weapon to utilize as a bridge to closer Seung-hwan Oh.
Despite the Cecil signing, there are still plenty of moves to be made to help poise the Cardinals for a return to the postseason. Firstly, and possibly the most impactful….
1. Sign third baseman Justin Turner
Turner has emerged as a staple in the Los Angeles Dodgers lineup over the last three years. Turner, at one time cut by the New York Mets, is coming off a season that saw him slash .275/.339/.493 and hit 27 homers, and this after undergoing knee surgery last offseason. The 31-year-old was one of the top free agents heading into this offseason and remains unsigned heading into the Winter Meetings. Turner should be the Cardinals number one target, as he brings necessary power that the Cardinals will be lacking with Matt Holliday and Brandon Moss departing as well as providing an upgrade at a position where the Cardinals are severely lacking (looking at you Jhonny Peralta.)
Yes, there was a reason Mozeliak decided to frontload Peralta’s four-year contract when it was signed back in 2014 and it was because there was an expected decline, and that wasn’t even predicting the thumb surgery and various other injuries Peralta has been hindered by. Peralta is 34, has been on a steady decline, and simply can’t be counted on to stay in the lineup. On the flip side, Turner is three years younger and has only gotten better over his time with the Dodgers while providing consistently good defense at the hot corner. If the Cardinals are serious about getting better and getting back to the postseason, signing Turner is the first step. They certainly have the funds, what with the $12 million saved by letting Seth Maness, Moss, and others walk.
2. Vintage Adam Wainwright, or something close to it
This is where the “wish” part comes in. Wainwright was awful in 2016. No two ways about it. The 35-year-old put up an unsightly 4.62 ERA in just under 200 innings, allowing a league-leading 102 earned runs. Wainwright just never seemed right all season long, and as the season wore on it was clear that it was not just rust from missing most of 2015 that was bothering the former All-Star.
If the Cardinals are going to improve next season they will need their former ace to prove he still has legitimate stuff. However, Waino doesn’t need to be an ace any longer thanks to the emergence of Carlos Martinez. Mozeliak doesn’t need Wainwright to be a top-five vote getter for Cy Young anymore; all he needs is for Wainwright to bring that ERA down, say, a run, and give solid mid-rotation-starter stuff every five days. Obviously the veteran isn’t going to just take his foot off the pedal when it comes to how he competes, but a certain pressure will be lifted from his shoulders as the fiery Martinez becomes the face of the rotation. If the Cardinals can once again hand the ball to their former ace and be confident in his ability to limit the opposition to just three or four runs with the occasional flash of brilliance, that will be more than enough to improve their record by a few wins.
3. For God’s sake, better health … please
It’s no secret that the Cardinals were hit by injuries during the 2016 campaign. That’s no excuse, obviously, as every team deals with injuries over the course of 162 games, but at a certain point it gets a bit ridiculous, and it definitely hit that point for the Cardinals. First it was Lance Lynn undergoing Tommy John surgery before the season even started. Then it was Peralta in spring training with his thumb. Then it was relief pitcher Mitch Harris with nerve issues. Then it was backup catcher Brayan Pena, who was supposed to get significant playing time to lessen Yadier Molina‘s load but played a grand total of 20 innings. Then it was fourth outfielder Tommy Pham — the list goes on and on and eventually key cogs of the machine were going down. Matt Carpenter, Matt Holliday, Matt Adams, Aledmys Diaz, Mike Leake, Trevor Rosenthal, Michael Wacha. In the end, it was too much for the Cardinals to overcome and they ended up missing out on the playoffs.
4. A short-term option in center field
Some readers are going to look at that line and think, “Short-term? Why? Dexter Fowler is out there!” Keen observation, readers. However, I’m not on the Fowler bandwagon for a couple reasons: 1) Fowler’s defensive metrics were helped greatly by his positioning and he isn’t nearly as good as some fans think he is. He is over thirty, and his legs are going to start to go and he won’t have as much range. 2) He isn’t worth giving a four- or five-year deal to. Maybe one or two year, sure, but Fowler won’t take that. He bet on himself last year with a one-year deal to stay with the Cubs, won the bet and got a ring, and now he’s going to cash in. Mozeliak is better off allocating those funds elsewhere (see Number 1 above). That still doesn’t explain why a short-term option is preferred. Here’s your reason: Harrison Bader.
Bader is the Cardinals third-ranked prospect, and once Alex Reyes loses prospect status he will move up again. This dude can hit. I first saw video of Bader last year around this time when putting together a top-20 prospects piece for the team. Holy wow. Coming out of Florida, Bader’s hit tool was noted as pretty good, but the dude has crushed it. He raked in the low minors and did well at Double-A before hitting somewhat of a wall at Triple-A Memphis. Still, the guy looks like a true 20-20 player and plays a good center field. I couldn’t get enough of this guy, and while he might need another year or so based on how he slowed down in Memphis, he’s the real deal and he is going to make an impact in St. Louis soon. Putting a long-term piece in center field would be a mistake unless it’s going to be someone like Adam Eaton who you can move into a corner once Bader is ready. Mozeliak isn’t an idiot; time and time again he has demonstrated the savvy and knowledge of his staff that makes him a great GM. Trust him even if he does trade for Brett Gardner — it’s only a temporary bridge to get to a big-time talent.
5. Carson Kelly‘s continued development
This could just as easily be Alex Reyes in this spot, but Kelly is less of a sure thing and with Yadi starting to decline and always getting older the heir needs to be identified. Kelly, a converted third baseman, has made huge strides with his defense since switching positions just a few short years ago. Kelly can hit, but it’s his development as a catcher that needs an eye on it. The 22-year-old has come far enough along, apparently, that the Cardinals were confident enough to release Brayan Pena and let Kelly be the primary backup, and now it’s time for him to show us what he can do. This upcoming season is going to be an audition for Kelly, because Yadi’s contract is up following 2017 and the Cardinals will likely be unwilling to give a four- or five-year deal to a catcher who will be 35 by the end of the contract who also happens to have caught over 1,000 innings eight of the past nine years. They may be unwilling to even go past two years. Kelly will need to show he can handle extended work and make strides at the highest level.