Cardinals Have Solid Core for Future Success Despite World Series Loss
Earlier this season, I chose the St. Louis Cardinals as the "Most Brilliantly Run Franchise in Baseball". True to form, they had another brilliant season that included their fourth World Series appearance in the past 10 years.
While they couldn't outlast the Red Sox, who beat them in six games, they shouldn't miss a beat in 2014 as long as they continue to follow the model of success that's allowed them to post winning seasons in 13 of the last 14 years.
As they've shown the baseball world throughout the season and into the playoffs, their young talent is for real, and they should continue to produce more homegrown talent that should put the team in a position so that they don't have to rely on the free agent and trade markets.
That doesn't mean they won't be active in the offseason, though.
For example, they don't have to re-sign Carlos Beltran because they have the option of moving Allen Craig to right field and handing the first base job over to Matt Adams, who posted an .838 OPS as a rookie. Or they could hand the job to Oscar Taveras, who entered the season as one of the top prospects in baseball before an ankle injury hindered him in 2013.
But that doesn't mean they can't or won't sign Beltran.
The Cardinals have the financial resources to make moves in free agency and the farm system that would allow them to do nothing and still be a good team. It's good to have those options. Some teams have neither.
General manager John Mozeliak had a quiet offseason prior to the 2013 season, opting to use his financial resources to lock up Craig and Adam Wainwright to long-term extensions. With most of his team's core of talent under club control for several more seasons and several million dollars coming off of the books, he could focus more on adding another impact bat or pitcher to push the team over the top next season.
Here's everything you'll need to know before Mozeliak and the front office get started.
The Cards are in great shape heading into the offseason with $65 million guaranteed to six players, including $17 million for slugger Matt Holliday (pictured), and approximately $20-28 million ticketed to five or six players likely to be offered arbitration. That's well under their 2013 Opening Day total of nearly $117 million, according to Baseball Prospectus.
With home attendance consistently near the top of the league—they were second behind the Dodgers with 41,602 per game this season, according to ESPN—and an additional nine home playoff games worth of ticket sales, it wouldn't be a big surprise if they boosted payroll once again.
The question is whether they'll have to spend that much to put together a championship-caliber roster for 2014.
With Jake Westbrook likely to have his $9.5 mutual option (minus a $1 million buyout) declined for 2014, the Cards have approximately $44 million coming off the books.
Carlos Beltran will command a big money three-year deal, making him a bigger risk in the National League where he'd be making a sizable salary to play right field regularly during his ages 37-39 seasons. Expect the Cards to make what they believe is a fair offer before allowing him to move on to the American League.
All-Star closer Edward Mujica (pictured) was relegated to mop-up duty in the playoffs, making it very unlikely he'll want to return even if the Cards do want him back. Westbrook is also unlikely to return while Chris Carpenter is planning to retire, according to Nick Cafardo of the Boston Globe.
The Cards will likely shop for a shortstop, although 36-year-old Rafael Furcal probably isn't high on their list after missing the season recovering from Tommy John surgery.
John Axford and Jason Motte, who is also recovering from Tommy John surgery, are each non-tender candidates because they could both make somewhere around $6 or $7 million in arbitration.
Holes to Fill
As mentioned in the introduction, the Cardinals have two pretty good in-house options in case Carlos Beltran bolts as a free agent. It's highly likely that either Allen Craig and/or rookie Oscar Taveras (pictured) are manning right field in 2014 so don't expect the team to seek a replacement through free agency or the trade market.
Finding an upgrade at shortstop is most likely at the top of the team's "things to do" list this winter while adding depth to the pitching staff could also be on the agenda.
There really isn't much that needs to be done. They're great now and they'll be losing just one key component—Beltran—to this year's team. Edward Mujica, despite losing his job late in the season, was a huge factor in the team's success but the likely return of Jason Motte, along with the emergence of young pitchers Carlos Martinez and Kevin Siegrist, should more than make up for his departure.
Potential Free-Agent Targets
The Cards will have one and possibly two free agent shortstop targets and then they'll have to decide to what degree the bullpen will need reinforcements.
Jason Motte could return early in the season from Tommy John surgery, which he underwent in May. Then again, a normal 12-18 month recovery for that particular surgery means he could be out the entire season. Trevor Rosenthal, Carlos Martinez and Kevin Siegrist give the team a trio of dominant late-inning relievers, but they'd all have more value as starters. Will one or two return to starting?
With these questions looming, the team might want to shore up the 'pen by adding another veteran with late-inning experience.
Here are some potential free-agent targets who could help at shortstop or in the bullpen.
Stephen Drew, SS: There may not be a more obvious match than the Cardinals and Drew, who had a .777 OPS and 13 homers during the regular season for the World Series champion Red Sox. It could cost four years and at least $48 million, but it would be well worth it in order to add the 30-year-old to the lower half of the lineup.
Jhonny Peralta, SS: Peralta isn't the defender that Drew is but he'll be less expensive and would also be a major upgrade at the plate. He could also shift over to third base down the line if the Cards were to sign him to anything more than a two-year deal.
Grant Balfour, RP: One of the most reliable closers in baseball in 2013, Balfour (pictured) will land a closer's gig next season. So unless the Cards want to utilize Rosenthal in a setup role or transition him back to a starting, Balfour will sign elsewhere.
Jesse Crain, RP: If the plan is to stick with Rosenthal as the closer in 2014, Crain would be a great fit in an 8th inning role. The 32-year-old veteran could look for a closer's gig after posting an 0.74 ERA with 46 strikeouts in 36.2 innings pitched, but he might be content with continuing in his familiar role as a setup man if the Cards were to give him a three-year deal in the neighborhood of $18-$20 million.
There are several potential trade scenarios that could occur, including a trade of third baseman David Freese (pictured), which would allow Matt Carpenter to slide over to the hot corner in order to open up second base for Kolten Wong.
If Carlos Beltran is re-signed, the team could shop top prospect Oscar Taveras or open up center field for him by trading Jon Jay. Or they could trade away one or two of their talented young pitchers in a deal for a starting shortstop.
Here are some potential trade targets that would fill roster holes.
Elvis Andrus, SS, Texas Rangers: The Rangers signed Andrus to an eight-year contract extension in April so it's highly unlikely he'd be on the trade block. But if they can't figure out the best way to get Jurickson Profar in the lineup after a few months of roster maneuvering this winter, they may find the best solution is to trade one of them.
Didi Gregorius, SS, Arizona Diamondbacks: Chris Owings' impressive late-season stint (16-for-55, 5 2B, 6 BB, 2 SB) makes it likely that Gregorius has some competition for the starting shortstop job next spring. Or the D'backs could make it easier by trading Gregorius to St. Louis.
Jurickson Profar, SS, Texas Rangers: I'm sure the Taveras-for-Profar talks will pop up again, just as they did earlier in this season. Even I jumped on the bandwagon with a one-for-one deal in my "Potential Jurickson Profar Trade Ideas ..." piece in early April.
Luke Gregerson, RP, San Diego Padres: Originally drafted by St. Louis and traded to the Padres for Khalil Greene prior to the 2009 season, Gregerson would fit nicely in between the hard-throwing young pitchers in the Cardinals' bullpen with his wicked slider a good contrast. Entering his final season before he can become a free agent, the small market Padres will at least listen on any trade offers.