How to Make the ’19 Cardinals a Playoff Team in an Ultra-Competitive NL

The “what” is the easy part…it’s the “how” that gets complicated.

What the Cardinals and their fans want is a return to the playoffs.

How they get there is the part that takes hard work from Bill DeWitt Jr., John Mozeliak and Michael Girsch.

Let’s begin by looking at what the Cardinals biggest offseason priorities are:

1) A big bat.

The Dude. The Guy. A Superstar. Call it what you want…the Cardinals need someone to stabilize the middle of the order. They need a legit 3-hole hitter.

2) A dominant lefty for the bullpen.

It would be nice to have a lefty who can get left handed hitters out, wouldn’t it?

3) Even more bullpen depth.

I’m okay with some of the young potential starters working in the bullpen next season but they’ll need another arm on top of the aforementioned lefty. Basically, they need another Bud Norris.

It’s not a long list but the elements on it are extremely important. The nice thing about 2018 is that the Cards found out that they have some really nice pieces to build around. Those pieces are largely inexpensive and under team control for multiple years which means the Cards are very well positioned to spend some money.

The Cardinals spent more than $163 million on payroll in 2018 (according to Spotrac.com) and as of now they have just about $101 million committed for 2019. Marcell Ozuna, Michael Wacha, Greg Garcia, Tyler Lyons, Dominic Leone, Chasen Shreve, and Matt Bowman are arbitration eligible so that $101 million will have plenty added to it. The Cardinals will definitely be keeping Ozuna, Wacha and Leone but the others could all be non-tendered if contract agreements can be reached without a hearing. Ozuna was $9 million this year, Wacha was $5 million and Leone was $1 million. That $15 million for those three will probably jump to $20-25 million in 2019. Still, that leaves $37-42 million in payroll space.

It’s also important to remember that the Cardinals don’t have any significant long-term commitments. They only have about $44 million currently committed to the 2021 roster. Molina is up after two more years. So is Carpenter (actually there is a team option for 2020 so they’re only obligated for one more year). Wong only has two more guaranteed years. Gyorko has one more guaranteed year. Fowler has three years left at $16.5 million per. Simply put, the Cardinals have enough money coming off the books over the next two years (and they have a lot of young players to fill spots moving forward) that they won’t have to worry about being hamstrung even if they give out a monster long-term deal this offseason.

Now that we’ve established what they need to do and how they can afford it, let’s talk about who they can target and how they can go about getting them.

The Big Bat

This isn’t a situation where some marginal or decent player coming in will be good enough. They need “The Guy,” a legitimate #3 hitter to stabilize the lineup. In free agency you have Bryce Harper and Manny Machado as the sure things, the rockstars in their prime. Then you have Josh Donaldson, a year removed from a .944 OPS but a guy who just missed most of his age 32 season. They’re the best FA options. After them the picture is a little less clear. A.J. Pollock is a very good player but injury prone and used to playing CF – the Cards would have to convince him to move to RF and even then you have the Dexter Fowler Dilemma. They could look at Brian Dozier but they’d need to move him to 3B, an unfamiliar position, and he’s coming off a down year. Mike Moustakas will be out there but I’m not sure he’s much of an upgrade over Gyorko. Michael Brantley is a good hitter but he’s limited to LF and is injury prone. Carlos Gonzalez can play RF but his numbers outside of Coors have never been great and he’s 33. Andrew McCutchen will be out there but he’s not the hitter he used to be. Same goes for Adam Jones, really.

The bottom line is simple: Harper and Machado are the guys who definitely fit what the team needs and Donaldson is the only other one even close.

The trade market won’t exactly be loaded with great options. It’s tough to find a player of the caliber the Cardinals need on a team that would be willing to deal him. For example, the Rockies just made the playoffs for the 2nd straight year so what is their motivation to trade Nolan Arenado?

Here are a few names that could be available on the trade market who could fit the Cardinals needs:

Jose Abreu, CHW – He’d theoretically be available but the White Sox are planning on turning the corner soon and seem to like him, plus he’s not a defensive fit for the Cards.

Robinson Cano, SEA – You’d have to move him to 1B or 3B, which is not ideal, and the Mariners would have to eat a bunch of the money (or maybe take Fowler in return?).

Nick Castellanos, DET – Not good enough for what the Cardinals need and a defensive liability no matter where you play him.

Paul Goldschmidt, ARZ – Seems more likely to me that they’d load up to make one more run with him but if Pollock goes maybe they consider kicking off a re-tool.

Andrelton Simmons, LAA – I don’t think the Angels trade him but he’d be a guy to go after hard. He’s been a solid hitter the last couple of years and he’s the best defensive SS in the game. If Machado and Harper aren’t possible he’d be next on my target list with the idea that Paul DeJong would slide over to 3B.

Mike Trout, LAA – LOL…I know, I know.

Joey Votto, CIN – LOL. Not happening.

Barring some weird stuff playing out somewhere that’s about it. The other players who fit the 3-hole hitter description just aren’t going to be available. They’re gonna have to spend on an FA.

(BTW, my money is on the Cards landing Josh Donaldson on a 3-4 year deal.)

The Dominant Lefty

Zach Britton and Andrew Miller are both FA and they’d be fantastic…but they both had health problems in 2018 and they’ll be in the market for significant contracts. Still, they’re dominant pitchers when healthy and these guys are what you need. The competition will be significant but the Cardinals have the edge of offering either of them the closer’s role with Hicks serving as a setup man. Still, that kind of defeats the whole “dominant lefty” thing because if they’re closing they’ll mostly pitch in the 9th. If either is open to the role Miller had in Cleveland that would be ideal. Sean Doolittle could be a free agent if the Nationals decide not to pick up a $6 million team option on him but I don’t see how they’d let him walk at that kind of bargain price, they’ll keep him.

Sorting through trade possibilities for LH relievers is damn near impossible. There are a lot of them and their availability is difficult to assess.

Even More Bullpen Depth

Let’s assume the Cardinals are going with the same roster construction they did in 2018 – 8 position players, 4 bench players, 5 starters and 8 relievers. There are three relievers on the current roster that I’d definitely want back.

  1. Jordan Hicks
  2. Dominic Leone
  3. John Brebbia

So that leaves five more spots and I want two of them to be lefties. In all honesty, I wouldn’t bring back any of the current lefties. They’re not reliable enough for what this team needs so I’d move on from Brett Cecil, Tyler Webb and probably Shreve as well (especially since he’s due a bit of a raise in arbitration). If you can bring Tyler Lyons back as a non-roster invite to see if he’s healthy that’s fine but you can’t count on him. Here’s what I’d like to see on the LH side.

  1. FREE AGENT/TRADE ACQUISITION (needs to be a significant player)
  2. Genesis Cabrera

Cabrera would need to earn his spot, no doubt, but he’s a lefty that throws 95+ MPH as a starter. He could be phenomenal as a reliever. With the SP depth the Cardinals have in the Majors and at the upper levels of the minors there is no need for Cabrera to start in 2019. He could be a major weapon in the pen.

  1. FREE AGENT/TRADE ACQUISITION (RH)

This can be a Bud Norris-like deal. Short term, low salary flier on a guy with some upside. Honestly, I’d love to see Trevor Rosenthal re-signed in this spot. Might even be a spot for Adam Wainwright.

  1. IN-HOUSE CANDIDATE
  2. IN-HOUSE CANDIDATE

Plenty to choose from here: Mike Mayers, Giovanny Gallegos or any of the potential starters who don’t make the rotation (Luke Weaver, Dakota Hudson, John Gant, Daniel Poncedeleon, Austin Gomber). These two spots can be righties or lefties, either way is fine. Since there will probably only be one rotation spot available (after Carlos Martinez, Jack Flaherty, Miles Mikolas and Michael Wacha) there should be plenty of candidates for these two spots.

Conclusion

None of this will be easy. It will be difficult to recruit major free agents and it will cost a lot of money. That said, the time for patience is over. The National League is extremely competitive heading into 2019-2020 and hoping for 90 wins is not good enough.

The Cubs aren’t going anywhere. They have a strong core, a great front office and and tons of money.

The Brewers are here for a bit too. They have a strong core, a solid farm system and enough money to keep up for a few years.

The Braves are just getting started. They’re awesome now, they have more elite kids coming and they have money to spend.

The Dodgers are a powerhouse. Boatloads of money, free from luxury tax penalties, very strong farm system and an attractive location.

The Rockies have made the playoffs two years in a row.

The Diamondbacks are still competitive.

The Phillies have a nice core and they’re expected to spend whatever it takes to land Machado or Harper. They have TONS of money free to spend.

If the Cardinals are going to maximize their chances at making the playoffs in 2019 they’ve got some work to do.

More: 5 Ways The Cardinals Can Win 95 Games in 2019 (And Get to the Postseason)