Winter Report Card: St. Louis Cardinals
With just over a week before pitchers and catchers report, we're checking in on how each team has fared in conducting its offseason business while acknowledging that there's still time for its prognosis to change. Teams will be presented in reverse order of finish from 2014. You can find all previously published Winter Report Cards here.
St. Louis Cardinals
2014 Results: 90-72 (.556), first place in NL Central (Hot Stove Preview)
They had to come from behind in a tight division race to do so, but the 2014 Cardinals captured their second consecutive NL Central flag and made their fourth straight trip to the NLCS before bowing to the Giants. Alas, just 10 days after they were eliminated, tragedy struck when 22-year-old rightfielder Oscar Taveras was killed in an automobile accident in the Dominican Republic.
The emotional scars of Taveras' death will take a long time to heal, but loss prefigured the Cardinals' most impactful move of the offseason: a trade that sent a pair of righties, 24-year-old Shelby Miller and 22-year-old Tyrell Jenkins, to the Braves in exchange for 25-year-old Jason Heyward and 27-year-old fireballer Jordan Walden. While Heyward set career lows in homers (11) and slugging percentage (.384) last year, he still turned in a 108 OPS+ (.271/.351/.384 was his complete line), and his defense in rightfield was off the charts: 32 runs above average according to Defensive Runs Saved, 24 above average via Ultimate Zone Rating. Via the former, he was worth 6.3 Wins Above Replacement, a whisker off the career high he set in his rookie season. He's averaged 4.9 WAR in his five seasons, with a 114 OPS+ and 20 DRS per year.
With one year to go before free agency, the question is whether the Cardinals will sign Heyward to a long-term extension before he hits the market; both sides are open to it but plan to feel each other out before going forward. Until they figure that out, the Cardinals have quite a glut of outfielders, including Peter Bourjos, Randal Grichuk, Jon Jay and Stephen Piscotty, the last of whom will apparently cool his heels at Triple A for another season. Gone is frequent Memphis-St. Louis passenger Shane Robinson, who signed a minor league deal with the Twins after netting just 66 plate appearances in 2014.
As for the other ramifications of the deal, the trade of Miller (who gave the team 183 innings of essentially league-average work during a rollercoaster sophomore season) leaves the rotation with Adam Wainwright, Lance Lynn, John Lackey, Michael Wacha and either Carlos Martinez or Marco Gonzales for the fifth spot. On the heels of a season in which he delivered a 2.74 ERA and 3.35 FIP across 203 2/3 innings en route to a career-best 3.7 WAR, the 27-year-old Lynn agreed to a three-year, $22 million extension that buys out his arbitration years, a move that should be a bargain.
Even more of a bargain is the $500,000 club option that St. Louis picked up on Lackey, one that was set in motion once he lost the 2012 season to Tommy John surgery. Between the Red Sox and Cardinals, the 36-year-old righty turned in 198 innings with a 3.82 ERA (100 ERA+) and 3.78 FIP, marks he should improve upon once he gets better acquainted with NL hitters. Gone from the equation is Justin Masterson, who was torched for a 7.04 ERA in 30 2/3 innings after being acquired from the Indians yet somehow secured a one-year, $9.5 million deal from the Red Sox — still well off the $40-$60 million he sought last spring. More on the rotation below.
As for Walden, he's coming off career bests with a 2.88 ERA and 11.2 strikeouts per nine across 50 innings, though a gaudy 4.9 walks per nine left his strikeout-to-walk ratio at a career-worst 2.3. Signed to a two-year, $6.6 million extension with a $5.25 million option for 2017, he'll likely serve as a setup man in a reconfigured bullpen that lost both Pat Neshek (Astros, two years, $12.5 million) and Jason Motte (Cubs, one year, $4.5 million). Neshek's 1.87 ERA, 9.1 strikeouts per nine and ungodly 7.6 strikeout-to-walk ratio will be the tougher to replace, but for as strong as his performance was, the fact that last year was his first season with more than 40 1/3 major league innings since 2007 made the Cardinals wary of a bigger investment. Motte, who saved 42 games for the team in 2012, was limited to 25 shaky innings in his return from Tommy John surgery, with a lower back strain additionally cutting into his time.
Thirty-four-year-old Matt Belisle, whom the team signed to a $3.5 million deal, has joined the fray, though to succeed in a high-leverage role, he'll have to pitch better than he did in 2014. He was roughed up for a 4.87 ERA in 64 2/3 innings with the Rockies, and while his 3.87 FIP suggests he wasn't that bad, his .329 BABIP was his fourth straight year above .324 and just one point above his career mark; he's the evil twin of Chris Young (.255 career BABIP). Whichever pitcher out of Martinez or Gonzales doesn't land the fifth spot may be more likely than Belisle to wind up in a setup role, while ex-Cub Carlos Villanueva, who was cuffed for a 4.64 ERA in 77 2/3 innings in five starts and 37 relief appearances, is a candidate for a long man role, though he's only here on a minor league deal with a non-roster invitation to spring training.
The rest of the comings and goings concern the bench, with the departures of Daniel Descalso and Mark Ellis apparently heralding the removal of Kolten Wong's training wheels after he capped an uneven rookie season with a strong postseason run. The 28-year-old Descalso, who hit .242/.333/.311 in 184 PA, signed a two-year, $3.6 million deal with the Rockies, while the 37-year-old Ellis, who hit just .180/.253/.213 in 202 PA, remains a free agent at this writing. With Pete Kozma as the middle infield backup still on hand, the unit looks particularly weak, and likewise with Tony Cruz as the backup to Yadier Molina now that 38-year-old A.J. Pierzynski signed a $2 million deal with the Braves. Joining the team via a one-year, $2 million deal is 31-year-old Mark Reynolds, who hit 22 homers for the Brewers, albeit in a .196/.287/.394 showing (88 OPS+) across 433 PA. His .231/.351/.458 career line against lefties potentially casts him as a solid platoon partner for Matt Adams, but he's been much less productive against them over the last three seasons, including .173/.277/.296 in 112 PA last year.
Unfinished business: Trade for Cole Hamels
The forecasts at both Baseball Prospectus and FanGraphs place the Cardinals in the NL Central driver's seat, and while their rotation looks like a plus, it carries some risk. Wainwright turned in a brilliant season (2.38 ERA, 227 innings, 6.1 WAR), but he's 33 and coming off arthroscopic elbow surgery. Lackey is 36 and regressed after a strong 2013 return from surgery. Wacha is one of the game's most promising young pitchers, but he was limited to 19 starts due to a scapular stress fracture; as the career of Brandon McCarthy shows, that can be a recurrent problem that requires proactive management. Martinez and Gonzales, while both heralded youngsters, have a combined 13 major league starts between them and ERAs well above 4.00 thus far. Fallback option Jaime Garcia is coming off July thoracic outlet surgery, a resolution that ruffled the feathers of general manager John Mozeliak .
In early January, the Cardinals were rumored to be flirting with making a run at Max Scherzer or trading for either David Price or Cole Hamels. Price, who’s a year away from free agency, isn’t likely to agree to an extension with a Scherzer-like payday looming, and while trading for the Hamels may not be absolutely necessary, such a bold move would represent a significant upgrade while giving the team more breathing room in the division. The 31-year-old ace southpaw is owed $96 million over the next four years and is coming off a particularly strong season that featured a career-best 2.46 ERA, 8.7 strikeouts per nine and 6.6 WAR.
Acquiring Hamels would likely require a package involving one of the two fifth-starter candidates and one of the young outfielders (Grichuk, Piscotty or Bourjos, whom the Phillies are said to like), but if any team has the depth to pull off such a blockbuster, it's this one. Affording Hamels could make it tougher to afford an extension for Heyward, but with Garcia ($9.375 million) coming off the books after this season and Matt Holliday ($17 million per year) after 2016, the team could structure a backloaded deal if the two sides decide to go that route. It probably won't happen, but with the Nationals' and Dodgers' rotations loaded for bear, it's fun to think about, and unlike many other options to spend someone else’s money, this one has some basis in reality.
Preliminary grade: B
From the outside, the Cardinals have had a relatively quiet offseason (beyond the Taveras tragedy, of course), but the trade for Heyward — even though it cost them four years of control over Miller — could provide an instant improvement given that rightfield was the team's weakest lineup spot at -1.0 WAR. The bench and bullpen could perhaps use another body, but in the bigger picture, the low-cost moves for Lynn, Lackey and Walden will help them stretch their already well-managed payroll in other areas.