ST. LOUIS -- One of the biggest question marks heading into 2020 was Adam Wainwright’s status and whether the 38-year-old pitcher would return to baseball.
On Tuesday, the answer veered toward yes. President of baseball operations John Mozeliak said that the Cardinals and Wainwright are discussing contracts to get Wainwright to play in St. Louis in 2020.
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“I think both parties would like to try to find a way to make it work,” Mozeliak said at a press conference at Busch Stadium. “I think that’s what we’ll try to find a way to do over the next few weeks.”
Wainwright is a free agent for the first time in his career, and after the Cardinals were swept in the National League Championship Series, he didn’t know if this year would be his last. The Cardinals veteran signed a one-year deal last year to prove that he had more in the tank after he was sidelined with injuries for most of 2018. Then he threw 171 2/3 innings -- his most since '16 -- and went 14-10 with a 4.19 ERA over 31 starts. In the postseason, he had a 1.62 ERA over three games (two starts).
“The only person I’ve got to prove anything to is me,” Wainwright said at the end of the Cardinals’ season. “I wanted to make all my starts, which I pretty much did -- missed one start, I think -- and I wanted to pitch well in the postseason. I did that. … I could’ve always done better, but I was throwing the ball better in the postseason than I did all year, so I can hang my hat on that.”
Another one-year deal seems likely, although it could initially be more than the $2 million earned on last year’s contract before maxing out his incentives for $10 million. Next year would be Wainwright’s 15th Major League season, all with the Cardinals.
If the Cardinals can bring Wainwright back, he’d likely join Jack Flaherty, Dakota Hudson and Miles Mikolas in the rotation, and the Cardinals would only need one starter to fill the rotation.
Payroll could limit offseason strategy
Retaining Wainwright is only one piece of the Cardinals’ offseason puzzle, and they discussed some of their plans on Tuesday.
The plan might not be as aggressive as it’s been in recent years. The Cardinals have roughly $143 million committed to 11 players on long-term contracts and don’t have a ton of spending money. Chairman and CEO Bill DeWitt said Tuesday that he thinks the Cardinals will stay around the $162.6 million payroll that they had on Opening Day this year.
“This year, when we think about acquiring talent versus what opportunities might exist, we might have our limitations in that regard,” Mozeliak said. “We all try to think about how we try to build for the future, and we’re all trying to think about what possibilities could be anew. Everybody welcomes that.”
While the target this offseason is offensive upgrades, Mozeliak said that most of the lineup from 2019 is likely to return next year, except for Marcell Ozuna, who is a free agent. After extending a qualifying offer for the left fielder on Monday, the Cardinals plan to reach out to Ozuna about a potential deal, but there’s no guarantee that he returns. If he doesn’t, the outfield gives the Cardinals some room to add to the lineup, but they also want to promote from within. Players like Harrison Bader, Lane Thomas, Randy Arozarena, Tyler O'Neill, Dylan Carlson and Justin Williams will all be competing for outfield spots come Spring Training.
“When you look at our system and the type of depth that we have, we want to create some of that opportunity for them,” Mozeliak said. “Nothing is worse than if you can’t have some internal promotions at some level. It’s hard to say exactly what the next two months are going to look like, because we don’t know, but we’re excited about what we have internally and to give that a chance to play.”
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The other position the Cardinals could upgrade is third base, but they emphasized their confidence in Matt Carpenter to return to form after his career-worst year. Carpenter signed a two-year contract through 2021 last year and is guaranteed $18.5 million in '20. They pledged similar confidence to Dexter Fowler last year, and while the outfielder had a better year in '19, his numbers were still below his career average.
“I had coffee with [Carpenter] before he went home for the offseason,” Mozeliak said. “He wasn’t pleased with the year he had, he had higher expectations. He’s going to spend his offseason preparing and trying to do some things to help to change that trajectory. Our expectation for him next season is for him to be a contributing member in that order, and he wants to do everything he can to be a part of that.”
The Cardinals are hoping that most of the offensive upgrades come internally, with their veteran players having better years and their top prospects emerging. They’re going to look at both the free-agent and trade markets for opportunistic additions, but it likely won’t be big-name players.
“Even as you think about our club and how it was built this year, there’s not a lot of room for change, but we recognize if we can create some, we should,” Mozeliak said. “… Things could happen, there could be trades. But how does our offense get better, it’s not by one position. It’s by collectively producing more.”
Reliever Jordan Hicks, who had Tommy John surgery in June, is staying in St. Louis this offseason to work with the Cardinals’ rehab team. It was too early for Mozeliak to project Hicks’ 2020 outlook, but rehab has been going smoothly for the 23-year-old right-hander. The Cardinals expect Hicks to be back as the closer at some point in 2020.
Brett Cecil -- who is part of the Cardinals’ payroll limitation after signing a four-year, $30.5 million contract that takes him through 2020 -- is still a question mark heading into the offseason and Spring Training. The lefty reliever missed all of '19 with carpal tunnel syndrome.
“We don’t know,” Mozeliak said. “He missed a lot of time. He’s going to spend his offseason in Jupiter, so he’s going to be working with our rehab team down there. Hopefully he’s someone who could contribute, but it’s a big question mark what we’re going to get. He’s got to prepare himself for the year.”
Alex Reyes last threw in the Minors on June 23 and missed the rest of the year with a right pectoral strain, making it three straight years that the former top prospect has been sidelined with injuries. The Cardinals are hoping that 2020 will be different.
“He checked out healthy at the end of the year,” Mozeliak said. “We’re encouraging him to have a quiet offseason and report to Jupiter in early January at some point and begin his throwing program.”
Anne Rogers covers the Cardinals for MLB.com. Follow her on Twitter @anne__rogers and on Facebook.