ST. LOUIS -- With free agents eligible to sign with new teams late Friday afternoon, the Cardinals will soon find themselves back on the clock.
Weeks of discussion about how to close the gap in the National League Central shift to action in rebuilding a roster that netted the Cardinals 88 wins last season. The to-do list is multi-faceted, but it starts just as it did one winter ago: Find that big bat.
As that search now takes on more urgency, here is a look at what the Cardinals are hoping to accomplish and how they might proceed to address their greatest deficiency:
Why the need?
Despite executing a trade for cleanup hitter Marcell Ozuna last December, the Cardinals still lacked sufficient middle-of-the-order punch. Regressions by Tommy Pham and William Fowler contributed to that. So, too, did inconsistent production from Ozuna.
The Cardinals ranked 28th in the Majors with a .716 OPS from their three-hole hitters, 18th with a .756 OPS from the cleanup spot and 17th with a .750 OPS from the No. 5 place in the batting order. With a lack of high-impact, homegrown players at the high levels of their farm system, the Cardinals don't have an internal solution to address this need. Thus, they're once again forced to look outside for a boost.
Where is the ideal fit?
The Cardinals won't rule out an upgrade at any position, but they could most easily slide someone in at third base or right field. Adding a first baseman would work, too, though it would require shifting Matt Carpenter across the diamond to third, where he's not as strong defensively.
Though Jedd Gyorko is returning, the Cardinals contend that his output might be better maximized as a part-time player. The club's right-field situation is crowded -- Fowler, Tyler O'Neill and Jose Martinez remain on the roster -- but each of those options brings its own questions. Even with Fowler under contract for three more seasons, the Cards won't hesitate to reduce his role if a right-field upgrade is available.
How much financial flexibility is there?
The short answer is plenty. The Cardinals have cleared Adam Wainwright's $97.5 million contract from the books and are not handcuffed by other long-term deals. Gyorko and Carpenter are entering the final guaranteed years of their contracts. Yadier Molina is signed for two more, and Fowler's deal has three years remaining. The Cards will potentially shed a bunch of payroll next winter, too, when Ozuna, Michael Wacha and Miles Mikolas become free agents. All this -- as well as their lucrative local TV deal that recently kicked in -- has the organization in a position where it can handle giving out a long, lucrative contract to the right player(s).
What free-agent candidates could emerge?
Bryce Harper and Manny Machado headline an attractive free-agent class. The Cardinals, as noted above, have the financial flexibility to pursue either, but they have historically finished as the bridesmaid when trying to lure top-tier free agents. With several large-market teams expected to be in the hunt for these players, it's a stretch to think the Cards will land either.
But missing on Harper and Machado wouldn't leave the Cardinals without options. Josh Donaldson or Mike Moustakas could fit the need for a power-hitting third baseman. Highlighting the group of free-agent outfielders behind Harper are A.J. Pollock, Nick Markakis, Michael Brantley and Andrew McCutchen.
Could the trade market offer better options?
It did last year, which is why the Cardinals pivoted from their unsuccessful pursuit of Giancarlo Stanton to land Ozuna. That situation was a unique one, though, as the Marlins publicly stated their desire to deal three All-Star outfielders as part of a rebuilding process. Finding an impact bat can otherwise be quite challenging and costly in the trade market.
If the D-backs decide to initiate a rebuild, they could dangle first baseman Paul Goldschmidt as available. There's no doubt that Goldschmidt would be a terrific fit in terms of production. But acquiring him would come at a high prospect cost and would represent only a temporary fix as Goldschmidt is due to be a free agent after the 2019 season.
Is there a backup plan?
It's hard to envision the Cardinals going through an offseason without making some sort of offensive upgrade. But if the club has to settle on Plan B or C in that pursuit, it might also invest more heavily on the run prevention side. There are positions on the field where the Cards could improve defensively, and the allure of adding a front-line starter might increase. That could push the Cards into the market for starters like Patrick Corbin, Dallas Keuchel or Nathan Eovaldi. As for the bullpen, the Cardinals are expected to make additions regardless of what they do on the offensive side.