ST. LOUIS – The offseason is officially here, and the Cardinals have begun the task of evaluating the pandemic-shortened season, balancing the resilience they showed while playing 53 games in 44 days after a COVID-19 quarantine while also looking toward changes to come in 2021.
When the Cardinals were eliminated from the postseason in a Wild Card Series loss to the Padres, they credited their perseverance while making it clear they weren’t satisfied with the way the season ended.
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“I assure you, we’re taking a deep dive into all that,” president of baseball operations John Mozeliak said Wednesday when asked about evaluating 2020. “We’ll use all the tools that are available to use, whether it’s from an analytical slant to getting coaches' opinions of where we are. I know [manager Mike Shildt] and his staff are already beginning this process. And ultimately, we have some time. We don’t have to make these decisions tomorrow. And so we’ll use this to best evaluate where we are and see where we can possibly have some upgrades.”
Here are the five most pressing questions that St. Louis faces this offseason:
1) Is it the end for Yadi and Waino?
This could be a dramatic offseason in St. Louis, headlined by the futures of Adam Wainwright and Yadier Molina, as both are set to hit free agency. Molina, 38, has expressed interest in playing two more years, with the Cardinals or another team. Wainwright, 39, hasn’t commented on whether he’d return next season, but he's been comfortable with one-year deals the past few years.
Wainwright was the Cards’ most reliable starter, posting a 3.15 ERA across 10 starts and giving the club much-needed innings. Molina caught 37 games in 39 days when he returned from the COVID-19 injured list. He reached milestones from his 2,000th career hit to his 100th postseason game.
After the Cardinals were eliminated from the postseason, Shildt expressed his desire for Molina to return.
“I can tell you honestly, I hope like heck I see him in Spring Training at six in the morning, coming to our complex getting his work in, because this guy has got some baseball left in him,” Shildt said. “He’s dedicated himself to be able to play. Not only play, but excel. And I think he more than proved that this year. This is a hungry guy. I’d love to have him back, and I don’t know how much clearer I can make that.”
2) How will the outfield look?
The club remained firm this season that it wanted to see what it had with young outfielders Harrison Bader, Tyler O’Neill and Lane Thomas before adding an outfielder externally. Bader earned time with elite fielding and career highs in on-base percentage (.336) and slugging (.443).
But the Cardinals’ outfield production struggled once again this year. It ranked 27th in the Majors in batting average (.209), 22nd in slugging (.383) and was second worst in the Majors with 3.54 plate appearances per strikeout.
While O’Neill led the outfielders in plate appearances (157) and tied for the team lead with seven homers, he dropped off in the second half and saw his slugging (.360) and OPS (.621) drop from 2019, when he had 151 plate appearances. Thomas' season was interrupted by COVID-19, but he also struggled after returning, with a .450 OPS in 40 plate appearances -- four fewer than his 44 plate appearances last year, when he had a 1.093 OPS.
Thomas didn’t make the postseason roster. O’Neill appeared in all three games in the Wild Card Series but didn’t have one at-bat.
The Cardinals’ No. 1 prospect, Dylan Carlson, earned a chance to be a starting outfielder next year with how he finished the regular season -- a .936 OPS in his final 12 games -- and his postseason play. Assuming Dexter Fowler -- who has one year left on his five-year, $85 million deal -- remains in right field, Carlson could be in center or left. That leaves one or two spots open for improvement.
Again, finding additional offense in the outfield will be a focus.
3) How can the offense be fixed?
For the second straight season, the Cards had the lowest slugging percentage of any postseason team, with their 2019 figure of .415 dropping to .371 in '20. St. Louis ranked 24th in MLB this year with 4.14 runs per game. Its Game 3 loss to the Padres marked the 30th time in 61 games that the club didn’t score more than three runs, and it was 4-26 in those contests.
Paul Goldschmidt was the Cards’ most consistent hitter, but the club couldn’t find protection for him during most of the season. St. Louis struggled from the No. 4 spot, hitting .198 with 3.15 plate appearances per strikeout.
The Cards need a slugging presence to complement Goldschmidt, a problem that preceded the daunting schedule that might have fatigued the club this season. The Cardinals are putting their confidence behind hitting coach Jeff Albert, bringing back his tech-savvy approach for a third season, even after the club has seen a regression in the offense over the past two seasons. Mozeliak noted that the organization hired Albert to revamp the entire Cardinals system, and that takes time – and patience.
“When we hired Jeff, it was for him to help create a real top-down approach in our methodology, and I really feel like he’s done an excellent job doing that,” Mozeliak said Wednesday. “Obviously when you’re taking a group of Major League hitters and putting them with a new coach, there’s going to be a learning curve. When you think about these types of changes in your system, they do have to have a more organic feel. So as players progress up through the system, when they do get to the big leagues, they now know what that normal looks like. I really have a lot of confidence in what Jeff’s doing and what this team is doing. Overall, I feel like they’re going down the path that we envisioned, but again, it’s something that we understand will take time.”
4) Will Wong return?
The answer is no, at least not right now. On Wednesday, the Cardinals declined Wong’s $12.5 million club option for 2021, instead paying the eight-year veteran a $1 million buyout and making him a free agent -- and one of the best second basemen on the market. Mozeliak didn’t rule out a reunion with Wong on a new contract, but given that the Cardinals declined the option because of financial reasons, an extension seems unlikely at this point.
So this question might now be: What will the infield look like without Wong? Tommy Edman will likely now be the starting second baseman, and that opens up third base. Matt Carpenter will see playing time there, but the Cardinals can also use the spot as a place to upgrade offensively in the free-agent or trade markets. It gives the club another spot in the field to improve their lineup.
5) What will the rotation look like?
The Cardinals have two established starters returning for 2021: Jack Flaherty and Kwang Hyun Kim. Wainwright’s future is unknown. Dakota Hudson's Tommy John surgery puts his ’21 season in doubt. There are undetermined roles for Carlos Martínez -- whose tumultuous season ended with a left oblique strain -- and those who emerged this season, like Johan Oviedo, Alex Reyes, Daniel Ponce de Leon and Austin Gomber.
Miles Mikolas is making steady progress in his recovery from surgery on his right flexor tendon, but the Cards won't be able to assess his readiness until January.
Ponce de Leon and Gomber made impressive strides as spot starters down the stretch, and they’ll get strong consideration for the rotation. So will Reyes, who had his first healthy season in three years and ended it as the closer. The Cardinals have plenty of rotation options within the organization, and they’ll look outside, too. They will also be able to use some of those internal options as trade chips this winter, which would narrow the competition for the rotation. Their pitching is a strength, and there’s nothing to suggest it won’t be moving forward.
Anne Rogers covers the Cardinals for MLB.com. Follow her on Twitter @anne__rogers and on Facebook.