It's the holiday season, and that gives us a perfect excuse to continue talk of the Cardinals' offseason wish list as they look to rejuvenate their roster heading into what's hoped to be an exciting 2022 season. To do so, let's crack open a Hot Stove-themed Inbox, as pooled from questions received on Twitter:
If the Cardinals were to spend big money at one spot, what's the most likely decision? Starting pitching or shortstop?
This, succinctly, might be the question of the Cardinals' offseason.
If we're going by the sheer language used by the front office, starting pitching is the pathway to expect. President of baseball operations John Mozeliak said as much at the General Managers Meetings. Part of that is due to need; the Cardinals have only four bona fide starters ready for Spring Training -- Adam Wainwright, Jack Flaherty, Dakota Hudson and Miles Mikolas -- and while there is a score of other arms expected to compete for spots (Alex Reyes and Jordan Hicks among them), the club learned last season that it could use at least one more mid-rotation arm to bolster its group of starters.
It remains to be seen how much the club will spend to accomplish that goal, or if a trade is the road they go down. Former Giant Alex Wood may be a fit, given he's a sorely-needed lefty and could come at a reasonable price. Steven Matz fits that bill, too, though he's already being courted mightily by a group that reportedly includes the Cardinals. Max Scherzer would be the storyline fit, bringing home the Mizzou alum and Missouri native, but as the market has dictated quickly this winter, starting pitching is not coming cheap.
There is a fair argument the Cards could and should be in on the high-profile shortstops available given the middling production they received from the position last season. Corey Seager and his left-handed bat would be an excellent fit in a vacuum, but he is also being highly sought. Plus, Mozeliak has preached some patience with Paul DeJong, who battled a left rib fracture and never found his footing last season. All signs this offseason point to starting pitching as the focus, and the exact path taken may very well demonstrate the magnitude in which the organization feels it needs to improve upon the 2021 club.
What free agent pitchers from their 2021 roster are the Cardinals most likely to retain for 2022?
Harkening back to the last question, starting pitchers J.A. Happ, Jon Lester and Wade LeBlanc are all possible candidates for a reunion that would signal more modest candidates for the rotation, though questions reside with all three. Is Happ's second-half turnaround for real, after he was tied for the lead in the Majors in earned runs when he was acquired at the Trade Deadline? Is Lester, who has pondered retirement, returning to action? Is LeBlanc, who missed the final month with an elbow issue, healthy enough to provide enough innings at 37 years old?
Is Lars Nootbaar doing enough in the AFL to convince the front office he is the left-handed bench bat they need? Or will they pursue one via trade or free agency?
Very much yes to the first part, but the second part still remains a possibility.
Nootbaar, even before posting the third-best OPS in the Arizona Fall League with a 1.080 mark, had turned heads last season as a real quality fourth outfielder and left-handed bat for the Cards in 2022. He can take a walk, plays quality defense and steal a bag in a pinch. Part of that emergence made the existence of Nick Plummer -- the former first-round Draft pick who was allowed to hit free agency at the start of November -- a little bit redundant in the Cards' pipeline.
Still, the Cards could benefit from adding a proven Major League bat in 2022, and especially one that hits from the left side of the plate. Nootbaar likely hasn't done enough to earn such a role, but at the very least he has given a glimpse at the spark he can play should he fill in for an ailing outfielder. Juan Yepez is surging as a possible designated hitter option should the DH be introduced to the NL in the next Collective Bargaining Agreement, though he's a right-handed hitter. The expected emergence of Nolan Gorman (the club's top prospect) could spell a left-handed power option, but should the Cards could benefit by adding one more power threat through free agency or trade this offseason. Nootbaar makes the need a little less dire, but it's a need nonetheless.