ST. LOUIS -- When Cardinals manager Mike Shildt talked about his lineup heading into the 2020 season just a few weeks ago at Winter Warm-Up, Marcell Ozuna hadn’t yet signed with a team, and the Cardinals were still seen as potential suitors for the left fielder.
Shildt said he didn’t see Ozuna as being gone until he was gone, thus making it difficult to envision what kind of lineup the Cardinals might be running out on Opening Day this year.
Now that Ozuna is gone -- he signed a one-year, $18 million deal with the Braves a week after Winter Warm-Up -- the Cardinals' lineup questions only become more pertinent. And with Spring Training right around the corner, Shildt will want to start finding answers to a question that has dominated the offseason, will dominate the spring and will follow the Cards until they can consistently answer it throughout 2020.
Where will the offense come from?
The offense as a whole underperformed in 2019. Aside from Tommy Edman, who had a breakout rookie season, and Kolten Wong, who had one of his best years, almost every starter hit below their career averages. Despite the Cardinals’ strengths -- elite pitching, excellent defense and solid baserunning -- helping them to a National League Central title, the middling offense was highlighted when the Cards were swept by the Nationals in the NL Championship Series.
This offseason, the Cardinals lost two productive hitters in Ozuna and José Martínez, who was traded to the Rays along with two prospects in Randy Arozarena and Adolis García, who was then DFA’d and traded to the Rangers in December.
For context, Ozuna had an .804 OPS last season, second most among Cards outfielders with more than 250 at-bats. Edman was first with an .850 OPS, and Martínez came in at .751, which was fourth behind Dexter Fowler’s .754.
So with the loss of those two hitters, coupled without a major addition to the lineup, the Cardinals are looking at internal improvement and outfield competition as the source of a better offense in 2020. They are hoping that Paul Goldschmidt becomes more consistent in his second season in St. Louis, that Matt Carpenter recovers from a career-worst '19, that Fowler continues to stay healthy and that Paul DeJong stays reliable throughout his fourth Major League season.
The Cardinals are also hoping that their young outfield mix -- Lane Thomas, Tyler O’Neill, Justin Williams, Austin Dean and Dylan Carlson -- can take advantage of the open path that St. Louis has cleared for them on the roster. The Cards seem to like the value that they’ll get from their young outfielders (and the Draft pick they’ll receive from Ozuna leaving) more than they liked the perceived value that they would get from Ozuna staying. They’re betting they can get Ozuna’s production from lower-cost players and better years from the players they’ve signed to big contracts (i.e. Goldschmidt, Carpenter, Fowler).
As far as the lineup goes, the cleanup spot is the concern; that’s where Ozuna naturally fit in the past two years. The only player brought up directly by name as the possible cleanup hitter is DeJong, although Goldschmidt could also bat there. If O’Neill wins an outfield starting spot, his power could be another option.
There’s also concern in the leadoff spot. The Cardinals must get more production out of that spot this year. In 2019, the Cardinals hit .216 in the leadoff spot, which was second-worst in the Majors. Their .663 OPS was worst in the Majors. A consistent offense starts from the top, and Fowler and Carpenter will need to prove they can produce there again. Wong also made strides toward the top of the order last year, and he could take hold of that job this spring.
Offensive improvement is the storyline that will dominate camp this year. Even the questions of whether the Cardinals will pull off a blockbuster trade are related to how the offense produces. It’s going to be the most important thing to figure out in Spring Training and throughout the season.
And the Cardinals are proclaiming optimism. They’re looking at the numbers and saying that their veteran hitters will improve, their young players will help and their strengths from last season will remain.
But the Cards know their lineup must prove it, and spring will be the first step in doing that. Perhaps Carpenter said it best when he was discussing his offseason at Winter Warm-Up on Jan. 20:
“My swing, candidly, has felt as good as it’s ever felt. I feel really good about the work that I’ve put in. I can sit here and talk to you guys about that all day long, but until I go out there and perform and prove it and show that I can be a productive hitter, it really doesn’t mean a whole lot.”