Such was the roller coaster of St. Louis’ 2021 season, from competitive to lackluster to competitive once again until the final out of the National League Wild Card Game against the Dodgers, when Chris Taylor walked it off with a home run and sent the Cards into their offseason.
St. Louis faces an offseason of retooling and refocusing -- especially now, under the leadership of new manager Oliver Marmol, who at age 35 is the youngest manager in Major League Baseball.
“Ultimately, our comfort level of keeping that continuity and really building on what we have going, when I spend some time talking to players, other staff members, net-net we felt like we're in a really good place directionally where we were headed,” said president of baseball operations John Mozeliak. “So we felt Oli will really be that seamless transition to where we're trying to get.”
Here are five questions the Cardinals must answer this offseason:
1. How will Marmol lead the organization?
Parting ways with Mike Shildt was not a reflection of team performance in 2021, Mozeliak affirmed, but a “philosophical difference” in what the next phase of Cardinals baseball should look like. Mozeliak noted a particular divorce from what the front office’s desires were and what was executed. Marmol, Shildt’s bench coach over the past three seasons and another Cardinal lifer, will be under a microscope to see how his philosophy is instituted.
What will Marmol’s coaching style be? That’s to be determined, but at the very least, he’s earned rave reviews from his current and former players for both his leadership qualities and an affable personality -- a native Spanish speaker who is the first person of color to be the Cardinals’ full-time bench boss.
2. Might they add a starting pitcher?
Adam Wainwright, Jack Flaherty, Dakota Hudson and Miles Mikolas are surefire options. Behind them, Alex Reyes, Jake Woodford, Johan Oviedo, Matthew Liberatore and, possibly, Jordan Hicks will be in the mix. Save for Hudson, St. Louis hoped to have each of those top four for the entirety of the 2021 campaign, but injuries derailed the availability of Flaherty and Mikolas. Both were healthy by year’s end, but Flaherty now faces an offseason of building back up to a starter’s role.
It’s anyone’s guess how much their depth could be tested next season due to health. The Cardinals admitted they could have benefitted from stockpiling more to alleviate the injury load last season, and they may look to make up for lost time this offseason.
Could a reunion with Jon Lester be in the works? He’s not sure if he’ll play next year or retire. How about one with J.A. Happ? The veteran wants to pitch next season. Or anyone new? Hometown kid Max Scherzer is set to become a free agent. So are younger high-quality arms like Kevin Gausman, Marcus Stroman, Carlos Rodón and Robbie Ray -- the latter two being lefties.
3. Will they be in play for any of the shortstops?
There were some Trade Deadline tremors, albeit to a modest degree, that St. Louis was exploring reuniting Nolan Arenado alongside Rockies shortstop Trevor Story. Mozeliak said the Cardinals had one deal on the table fall through at the Trade Deadline, but he said it was not for a position player.
The speculation still presides, though, if not for Story than for the shortstop market as a whole. St. Louis took starting time away from Paul DeJong as his offensive numbers continued to dip this season, instead plugging in Edmundo Sosa, who proved capable with his first chance at regular playing time.
Might DeJong have the makings of someone who could benefit from a change of scenery? If that’s the case, do the Cardinals see Sosa as an acceptable long-term answer, or does Story (now set to be a free agent), Corey Seager or Carlos Correa pique their interest?
4. What’s next for Matt Carpenter?
Carpenter hoped he -- and the team en masse -- would be able to deliver another dose of memorable moments at Busch Stadium in the NLDS. That, obviously, did not happen, thus likely spelling the end of Carpenter’s Cardinals career. He has a vesting option for 2022 based on plate appearances that he did not meet, which now becomes a $18.5 million club option. St. Louis is not expected to pick it up and would instead exercise a $2 million buyout.
But Carpenter, who will be 36 by Opening Day 2022, has expressed his desire to remain in baseball. It’ll ultimately be up to him to find a deal to continue what’s been a stellar career highlighted by a .275/.377/.471 slash line from 2012-18 with 133 homers, 485 RBIs and a 131 OPS+ alongside three All-Star nods. The drop-off, though, has been precipitous: a .203/.325/.346 slash line with an 83 OPS+ across his last three seasons and relegated to the bench in 2021.
5. Who will stay and who will go?
The best moves St. Louis made last season may have been the most unheralded (at least at the time). Luis García and T.J. McFarland went from the Minor Leagues of other organizations to the back end of the Cardinals’ bullpen, stabilizing the relief corps with two vastly different roles.
Both are free agents, but both could very well have a role in the 2022 bullpen should the two sides want a reunion. Also on their way out the door (but with little expectation of a return): Carpenter, Andrew Miller, Kwang Hyun Kim and Carlos Martínez.