ST. LOUIS -- As the offseason rolls on, so does this Inbox. Let’s dive right in.
Who is in the Cardinals' rotation in 2020? Do Dallas Keuchel or Cole Hamels make sense for it?
-- Grace, Madison, Wis.
The first one, and the prioritized one, is letting Carlos Martínez work his way back to the rotation. This has always been Martínez’s preference, and the Cardinals are monitoring his workload this offseason to see if a return to the rotation is a viable option. The right-hander received a platelet-rich plasma injection in his right shoulder after the season ended to aid his recurring shoulder issues that put him in the bullpen in the first place, and now he’s set to have a normal offseason. If his shoulder holds up, we could see him back in a starter’s role in 2020.
Daniel Ponce de Leon and Austin Gomber are also internal options if Martínez sustains a setback and has to be used in the bullpen again. Jake Woodford, who was added to the 40-man roster Wednesday to avoid the Rule 5 Draft, will also be in this mix. All of them will get the opportunity to compete for the spot in Spring Training.
The next option is adding to the rotation externally. Specifically to your question, the free-agent market for starting pitching is strong this offseason. It’s unlikely the Cardinals are going to go after the top-tier guys like Gerrit Cole and Stephen Strasburg, but don’t rule out the next level. Keuchel would be a great fit in the Cardinals' rotation, especially after proving himself with the Braves after he was signed in June. The Cardinals have had interest in Hamels in the past, too. Both are veteran left-handers who would benefit any rotation. But the Cardinals need to decide -- and predict -- what they’ll be able to get out of their internal options first before spending money on a free agent. This might not be decided until December or later because they want to see how Martínez responds and make sure he continues to stay healthy.
Could John Gant compete for a starter spot next year? What are the expectations for him?
-- Brad, Herculaneum, Mo.
While we’re on the subject of pitching…
Yes, Gant can compete for a starting spot in Spring Training like last year, but it’s more likely the Cardinals will need him in the bullpen, especially if Martínez does go back to starting. Gant is the only arbitration-eligible Cardinal this year (after Dominic Leone was designated for assignment on Wednesday), and it is very likely that he will get a new contract with the expectation that he can be the first-half Gant we saw (2.22 ERA and an All-Star candidate) and not the second-half Gant he turned into (6.65 ERA and left off the postseason roster).
But the door is open for Gant. If he has a strong spring, he could be that high-leverage setup man that the bullpen needs, especially with the thought that Giovanny Gallegos, Ryan Helsley or Andrew Miller could emerge as the closer (if Martínez is in the rotation) and Jordan Hicks works his way back to the bullpen.
Would the Cards be willing to move a contract and get more payroll flexibility? Dexter Fowler has a no-trade clause, but he might be willing to go to a contender.
It depends on what the return is. And, as you mention, whether the player would allow a trade. Fowler has two years left on his contract, and the Cardinals are planning on him being in the lineup next season. The same goes for Matt Carpenter, who also has a no-trade clause in his contract.
Also, who’s to say that the Cardinals won’t be contenders in 2020?
Molina’s current contract ends at the end of 2020, but he and his agent have reportedly told the Cardinals that the 37-year-old catcher wants to play for longer, although for how much longer is unclear. The Cardinals will likely engage contract talks during Spring Training.
Obviously, this puts Knizner and the Cardinals’ other catching prospects further down the line. Knizner is the club’s No. 3 prospect, according to MLB Pipeline, and the Cardinals like his offensive power. But they’ve been open to signing a backup catcher, like they did with Matt Wieters this year, so Knizner can play every day in Triple-A and work on his defense.
If Molina does continue playing and the Cardinals do find a backup catcher, it’s possible that Knizner could be a trade candidate. That opens the door for Ivan Herrera, who is the Cardinals’ No. 6 prospect and had an impressive Arizona Fall League. Herrera is only 19 and still a ways away from the Majors, but he had an .821 OPS during the AFL and received high reviews about the way he handled some tough Glendale pitchers.