Small tweaks all the Cardinals need this offseason
Bench, bullpen main areas St. Louis may bolster for run in 2015
The Cardinals will open the 2015 season as the two-time defending National League Central champions and are likely to look fairly similar to the club that captured the most recent of those titles.
With a rotation coming back in full and lineup of returning position players, the Cardinals are expected to spend the next few months looking to complement rather than overhaul. General manager John Mozeliak recently described the organization's position as "opportunistic" -- the same word he used leading into the winter a year ago.
"I feel like the great news for us is we have a lot of young talent on this team," Mozeliak said shortly after the Cardinals were bounced from the NL Championship Series by the Giants. "Our goal is to try to build within, and I feel like we have the parts to continue to do so."
"The one thing we have to do is look at, 'What could we do differently?' Or, 'What additions might make sense?' But this is a young team. Our core veterans are signed and the rest of our younger players are under control. It's a good spot in that we know our offseason isn't going to be weighted down with huge decisions. It's just going to come down to what complements we can make."
Adding a right-handed bat -- possibly one that could be paired with Matt Adams at first base -- will be a pursuit. So will adding depth to a 'pen that is likely to lose Pat Neshek and Jason Motte.
Those are two of the team's five free agents, of which only Neshek played a significant role on the 2014 team. That underscores the fact that the Cardinals look to spend the offseason building around a core instead of replacing one.
As the Hot Stove season approaches, here is a position-by-position look at who is returning and where additions might be needed:
Arbitration-eligible: RHP Lance Lynn, OF Shane Robinson, C Tony Cruz, INF Daniel Descalso, OF Peter Bourjos, OF Jon Jay
Free agents: INF Mark Ellis, C A.J. Pierzynski, RHP Justin Masterson, RHP Motte, RHP Neshek
Rotation: The Cardinals will retain their entire rotation and should have the depth to supplement it without having to seek pitching out on the market. The five starters the club had to end the season -- Adam Wainwright, Lynn, Shelby Miller, John Lackey and Michael Wacha -- are each under contract through next season. Lefty Jaime Garcia will spend the offseason continuing his recovering from thoracic outlet surgery and may also be a rotation option. Youngsters Marco Gonzales and Carlos Martinez provide additional coverage.
Bullpen: There will be some necessary bullpen remaking, as the Cardinals are likely to lose their setup man (Neshek) and recently showed themselves exposed with not enough left-handed relief. Look for that to be an offseason priority. Martinez is projected to slide into Neshek's role, with Trevor Rosenthal remaining as the team's closer. Randy Choate and Seth Maness return as key pieces, and the Cardinals hope that Kevin Siegrist, when healthy, can enjoy a bounce-back season. Sam Freeman, Nick Greenwood and Tyler Lyons contributed quality innings out of the 'pen this year and each is returning. With Neshek and Motte unlikely to return, though, the Cardinals will be looking to add more arms.
Catcher: With an offseason of rest, Yadier Molina is expected to be completely healthy next spring. He battled a right thumb injury and left oblique strain this year, missing seven weeks because of that first injury and the final three postseason games due to the latter one. The Cardinals have talked about reducing Molina's catching load so that he can better handle the demands of a full season. That will put more of an onus on his backup, who has been Cruz for the past few seasons. Cruz is arbitration-eligible for the first time and will likely be tendered a contract. The Cardinals have also not ruled out seeking another backup option on the market.
First base: Adams had a career-high 563 plate appearances in his first full season starting at the position. His final season totals -- a .288/.321/.457 slash line with 15 homers and 68 RBIs -- were respectable, though Adams' production did wane significantly toward year's end, and he did little to evoke confidence in his ability to hit left-handed pitchers. While the Cardinals believe Adams can still improve in that area, they will have their eyes on adding a right-handed-hitting first baseman that could be a platoon option alongside Adams. Internally, Xavier Scruggs, who made his Major League debut in September, could also fit into this first-base mix.
Second base: The job is once again earmarked for Kolten Wong, whose breakout October offered a glimpse of the potential the Cardinals believed he had all along. With the confidence gained from shining on baseball's biggest stage and more consistency in keeping his swing short, Wong should be better suited for handling the ups-and-downs of a full season next year. The Cardinals will need better regular-season production from the position, as the club's second basemen ranked 13th in on-base percentage (.283) and batting average (.225) in 2014. The Cardinals are likely to have a new backup options behind Wong, as Ellis won't be re-signed and Descalso looms as a likely non-tender candidate. Internally, Pete Kozma or Greg Garcia could fill that void. The Cardinals may also seek a veteran utility infielder.
Shortstop: Jhonny Peralta played up to -- and beyond -- his contract in the first season of his four-year deal with St. Louis. While his defensive versatility offers the Cardinals the option of moving Peralta elsewhere down the road, he'll still be needed at short in 2015. Kozma and Garcia can back him up at the position. Hopes of Aledmys Diaz, the Cuban shortstop the Cards signed last March, being ready to break into the Majors next year hit a significant snag this season as Diaz spent more time nursing injuries than actually on the field.
Third base: Matt Carpenter returned to his natural position in 2014 and will stay there until further notice. He fills the leadoff spot in the lineup and offers a solid defensive fit. He led the NL in walks (95) and pitches per plate appearance (4.37), while ranking top 10 in the league in runs (99), on-base percentage (.375) and at-bats (595). With no obvious backup for Carpenter, the Cardinals might seek for an experienced utility infielder that could offer the club some coverage.
Outfield: Right field remains the most unsettled spot on the diamond, though it's not necessarily one that the Cardinals plan to address from the outside. Randal Grichuk and Stephen Piscotty will report to Spring Training with an opportunity to win playing time in right. Jay is expected to be tendered a contract so that he can be the team's starting center fielder. Matt Holliday will again take his place in left. Bourjos remains under team control if the Cardinals want to keep him around as a defensive-minded backup. With a surplus of outfielders already, this is not an area the Cardinals need to address.