- The addition of the Cubs' former centerfielder doesn't just weaken a division rival; it also was a terrific pickup for St. Louis in what was a good off-season.
Before pitchers and catchers report to spring training, we’re checking in to see how each team has fared thus far this off-season, acknowledging that there’s still time for that evaluation to change. Teams will be presented in reverse order of finish from 2016. Next up: the St. Louis Cardinals.
86–76 (.531), second place in National League Central
LHP Jaime Garcia, OF Jeremy Hazelbaker, OF Matt Holliday, RHP Seth Maness*, 1B Brandon Moss
LHP Brett Cecil, OF Dexter Fowler, RHP John Gant
(*free agent, still unsigned)
Off-season In Review
One year after losing Jason Heyward to the Cubs, their biggest division rivals, the Cardinals paid back the favor this winter, snatching Fowler away from Chicago in a bid to reassert NL Central supremacy. The addition of Fowler, who’s coming off a career year atop the lineup and in centerfield for the World Series champions, fills St. Louis’ most pressing off-season need. Otherwise, the Cardinals stayed on the sidelines, bidding farewell to some veterans and losing two draft picks as MLB-mandated punishment for former scouting director Chris Correa’s hack of the Astros’ internal database.
Sticking to the on-field product: Fowler is the most significant addition to St. Louis' roster, but he didn’t come cheap. To secure his services, the Cardinals handed him a five-year, $82 million deal—one that carries a full no-trade clause—and forfeited their first-round draft pick thanks to the qualifying offer attached to him. That’s a lot to give up for a player who turns 31 in March and grades out as an average defender at best. On the other hand, Fowler is a good hitter with terrific on-base skills, and he set career highs last year in on-base percentage (.393), OPS+ (126) and WAR (4.2). He can expect to see a dip in those numbers thanks to age and not getting to hit in front of Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo any more, but he should add yet another dangerous bat to a potent St. Louis offense.
Fowler’s addition moves Randal Grichuk from centerfield to left, where the former top prospect will take over for Holliday, whose eight-year run with the Cardinals is over. The 37-year-old veteran struggled through injuries for a second straight season, playing just 110 games and posting his lowest OBP (.322) and OPS+ (107) since his days in Colorado a decade ago. Barely able to play the field and a poor defender when out there, he took a one-year offer from the Yankees to be their new designated hitter. Also gone from the outfield is Hazelbaker, a career minor leaguer who became the latest St. Louis player to succeed out of nowhere, hitting 12 home runs in part-time duty last season. Nonetheless, he was waived and claimed by the Diamondbacks, who are apparently unaware that Cardinals Devil Magic is non-transferrable.
Along with Holliday, the Cards cut ties with two other notable veterans in Garcia and Moss. The former was dealt to Atlanta after a year in which injuries and ineffectiveness added up to a 4.67 ERA and 88 ERA+. Garcia can be lights out when healthy, but that hasn’t been the case for several seasons now, and with free agency just a year away, St. Louis chose to move on. As for Moss, the 32-year-old first baseman clubbed 28 homers in 464 plate appearances last year, but he hit just .191/.248/.392 from August onward, including a miserable 9-for-101 stretch in September. He signed with Kansas City.
Aside from the outfield and the rotation, the Cardinals also shuffled things in the bullpen, with Cecil and Gant arriving and Maness departing. A longtime lefty specialist for the Blue Jays, Cecil traded one set of feathers for another, signing a four-year deal worth $30 million with the Redbirds. The 30-year-old is coming off a relatively down season, with a 3.93 ERA and just 36 innings pitched due to a lat strain, but he’s been a reliable late-game option for Toronto over the last four years, with a 2.90 ERA and a strikeout rate of 11.5 per nine in that span. Gant, who arrived as part of the Garcia trade and is best known for his odd windup and motion, struck out 49 in 50 innings for Atlanta but was plagued by allowing too many walks and home runs. Now that he’s in St. Louis, expect the 24-year-old righthander to fix all of that immediately.
Maness, meanwhile, moves on after a 2016 season interrupted by Tommy John surgery. A ground-ball specialist by trade, the 28-year-old righty is still looking for work as he rehabs his elbow, though it’s how he’s recovering from his injury—and what that could mean for future Tommy John patients—that’s the real story right now.
Unfinished Business: Second base, bullpen depth
There wasn’t much St. Louis had to do this off-season other than add an outfielder, and the team accomplished that nicely with Fowler. Beyond that, the front office is likely banking on improvement from last year’s 86-win squad to come from within, primarily through better health and results from Grichuk, starters Adam Wainwright, Michael Wacha and Mike Leake and third baseman Jhonny Peralta, as well as the return of righthander Lance Lynn from Tommy John surgery.
If there is one potential problem spot, it’s second base, where Kolten Wong is now working on three straight seasons of disappointing results. Last year, the Hawaii native hit just .240/.327/.355 and struggled through injuries; his season included a mid-June demotion to Triple A (albeit one that lasted only 10 days) and a brief stint in the outfield when he was called back up. Still just 26, it’s too early for the Cardinals to give up on the talented Wong, but it’s hard to imagine he’ll have much of a long leash after another lost year.
Elsewhere, the bullpen could use some depth. Closer Seung-hwan Oh was fantastic in his first season in the United States, posting a 1.92 ERA and striking out 103 in 79 2/3 innings, and he’s got a solid trio of setup men behind him in Cecil, lefty Kevin Siegrist and young righthander Matt Bowman. But beyond them, there isn’t much. Hefty righty Jonathan Broxton, 32, is showing his age, getting touched up for a 4.30 ERA in 60 2/3 innings, and former closer Trevor Rosenthal fell apart last year thanks to injuries and an astronomical walk rate (6.5 per nine). Another righthanded arm to go with Oh and Bowman would be ideal; perhaps that will be Gant, or St. Louis could also dip into its never-ending stash of pitching prospects.
Preliminary Grade: B+
It’s hard to quibble with any of St. Louis’ off-season decisions. Fowler was an expensive addition, but he was the best option on the market for the Cardinals, and he should be a valuable producer atop the lineup. St. Louis still might not have enough firepower to catch the Cubs atop the division, but the race should be closer this year if everything breaks right for the Cardinals.