As we approach spring training for the 2020 Cardinal season, a look back brings to mind the immortal words of one Forrest Gump, who said “life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.” That part of life applies to baseball teams too. The Cardinals are a big picture organization. While we focus on the season at hand, they generally are taking the long view, thinking several years ahead. When you work that way, you never know what you’re gonna get.
Let’s go back to the season opener of 2017. They thought they knew what they were going to get. The Cardinals opening night lineup against the Cubs included newly signed center fielder Dexter Fowler, second year All Star shortstop Aledmys Diaz, 31 year old Matt Carpenter, who had been an .875-.885 OPS guy in previous years, Yadier Molina and Stephen Piscotty…who had just signed big new extensions…Kolten Wong, promising 25 year old left fielder Randal Grichuk, and starter Carlos Martinez. On that night, it wasn’t unreasonable to think most of that lineup would be getting ready to head to Jupiter right now to prepare for 2020. The rest of the starting rotation included Lance Lynn, Michael Wacha, Mike Leake and Adam Wainwright.
Certainly, the Cardinals figured that by 2020, Grichuk, Piscotty, Diaz, Wong, Fowler and Carpenter would improve or maintain their performance. Molina was backed by top catching prospect Carson Kelly. Third baseman Jhonny Peralta was on the last year of his contract, but shortstops Delvin Perez, a first-round pick, and Edmundo Sosa were among the Cardinals top seven prospects. Move Diaz to third base, plug in one of those guys, and your infield would theoretically be good. Plus, your number three prospect was outfielder Harrison Bader.
Sure, Martinez was the only starter you could have planned on for 2020 back then. But the Cardinals top two prospects were near major league ready starters Alex Reyes and Luke Weaver, and joining those two in the top ten Redbird prospects were Jack Flaherty, Junior Fernandez, Sandy Alcantara, and Dakota Hudson. 25-year-old lefty Marco Gonzalez, coming off Tommy John surgery, figured to be a mainstay in the future. Knowing that a bullpen contains so many interchangeable parts, that was something the front office would work on year-to-year. It wasn’t unreasonable to think the young club with young pitching on the way would be good for a long time.
Sadly, the piece of chocolate we bit into was one of those hard, bit o’ honey things that chips your tooth and doesn’t taste great.
In three years, Fowler has fallen from the ranks of leadoff hitter and isn’t much of a factor in the top five in the lineup. Diaz never regained his rookie form with the Cardinals and was shipped to Toronto, as was Grichuk, who never reached his hoped-for potential here. Carpenter was solid until last season, then fell off the cliff. Piscotty’s mom was diagnosed with ALS and he was traded home to Oakland. As Diaz fell off, the club brought up third base prospect Paul DeJong to play shortstop. Perez and Sosa never ascended, leaving a hole at third. To replace and improve upon Grichuk, the Cardinals tried to work a deal for former MVP Giancarlo Stanton of the Marlins, but he invoked his no-trade rights. So, the Redbirds traded Alcantara to Miami in a deal for Marcell Ozuna. To fill the hole at third, Kelly and Weaver were shipped to Arizona for first baseman Paul Goldschmidt, with Carpenter moving to third. Wong has been OK; Molina has started to play to his age.
It’s no surprise that as we approach 2020 that Lynn, Wacha and Leake are no longer with the organization. In a bit of a surprise, if we go back to opening night of 2017, Wainwright is. But there were contingencies in place, right? The rotation was supposed to include young veterans Martinez, Reyes, Weaver, Gonzalez and someone from among Flaherty, Alcantara or Dakota Hudson.
Along with shipping Alcantara and Weaver out, Gonzales was never healthy with the Cards and was traded to Seattle for Tyler O’Neill. Reyes had Tommy John surgery at the start of that season and hasn’t really returned. Martinez has been beset by injury. Hudson and Flaherty have arrived, and Wainwright turned back the clock in 2019. The Cardinals added free agent Miles Mikolas and will try to start this year with Flaherty, Hudson, Mikolas, Wainwright and the winner of a competition between Martinez, free agent Kwang-Hyun Kim and perhaps Reyes, prospects Ryan Helsley and lefty Genesis Cabrera.
The 2020 team isn’t what the Cardinals envisioned, but the organization generally don’t change course and spend lots of money to fill holes. They prefer to fill from within. Sure, they’d be interested in Colorado’s Nolan Arenado at the right price, but they aren’t going to pay the Rockies price, especially since Arenado has an opt out in his contract after 2021.
While we focus on 2020, the Cardinals are looking at 2022. The three-year plan for 2020 doesn’t look good right now. Ozuna left as a free agent, so they’ll give O’Neill a shot in left. During that 2017 season, Lane Thomas was acquired from Toronto for international cap space, and he’ll compete with Bader in center field. As expected, Fowler has moved to a corner and will play right. Maybe we’ll see top prospect Dylan Carlson and get a head start on 2021 and 2022. But we will see Carpenter, DeJong, Wong, Goldschmidt and Molina. Maybe they’ll surprise us this year, but the Cards are excited about 2022.
Wainwright, Molina, Fowler, Wong and Carpenter will be off the books. The Cards will have a $17 million option on Martinez.
MLB pipeline released their top 100 prospects over the weekend, and Carlson comes in at number seventeen, third baseman Nolan Gorman is 47th Matthew Liberatore, recently acquired from Tampa Bay, is 58th.
That 2022 lineup should include Carlson and two from among O’Neill, Bader, Thomas and Justin Williams. Gorman should be at third base, DeJong is signed at shortstop, Wong could still be at second, although another second baseman could be on hand for 2022. Goldschmidt is signed, but if he’s hurt the Cards have prospects like outfielder Williams, third basemen Elehuris Montero or Malcolm Nunez or massive (6’4”, 265 pound) Luken Baker, their #26 prospect, working through the system to play first. Three of the club’s top eleven prospects…Andrew Knizner, Ivan Herrera and Julio Rodriguez…are catchers.
Starting pitching should be blossoming in 2022. Mikolas will still be under contract. With luck, Flaherty, Hudson, Liberatore, Reyes and Cabrera will be young veterans entering their prime. Ryan Helsley has a chance, although he could land in the bullpen. Last year’s first round pick, Zack Thompson, will be on the way. Maybe Martinez is still around. And there will be bullpen arms, but the financial decks should be cleared to pursue free agents if the Cards don’t pick up a big-ticket item.
It isn’t appealing for 2020, but the Cardinals made their 2020 bed three years ago and that didn’t work out as hoped. So now they focus on getting prospects to the majors and getting them seasoned while trying to compete the next couple of years, with the big focus on those guys being ready for 2022. And hope that in 2020, they get a delicious chocolate covered cherry from the box.