Looking In On The Offseason
The offseason isn't over, so the St. Louis Cardinals could still do something else, but we might as well look at the roster changes they've made so far.
Rotation: The major change is that the Cards traded Jaime Garcia to Atlanta for John Gant, Chris Ellis, and Luke Dykstra. Gant's the only to play in the majors so far, with a fairly unimpressive 50 innings last year, though he may not have been fully healthy. It feels like a weak haul, since none of the three project as difference makers, but Garcia's coming off a season in which he did stay basically healthy, but didn't pitch well, and only has one year left on his contract. If Gant and Ellis can function as back of the rotation injury replacements or bullpen reinforcements, maybe that's not too bad.
Beyond that, they lost Tim Cooney as a possible rotation filler to the Rule 5 draft, but Marco Gonzales might be back and able to contribute. As it stands, though, it looks as if Lance Lynn and Alex Reyes are the early frontrunners to fill Garcia and Wacha's spots in the rotation. Wacha might still be a possibility if necessary, Tyler Lyons should be back, and Luke Weaver will get a chance to actually pitch in AAA for awhile. If Wainwright can bounce back, and if Reyes can throw more strikes (and if the Cardinals defense is better than atrocious), the rotation might not be too bad, if not overwhelming.
Bullpen: Seung-hwan Oh is still here, presumably he'll retain the closer role he took over from Rosenthal. But Rosenthal seemed to find the ability to throw strikes after returning from injury, so hopefully he can be a major player again. Siegrist is here, as is Broxton (sigh). Seth Maness was non-tendered, not surprising given his Tommy John surgery. Likewise, Zach Duke is out for the year with TJ surgery. The big signing was Brett Cecil from Toronto, for 4 years and $30 million. Cecil struggled some last year, wasn't as effective against right-handed hitters as he had been in the past. Hopefully that was a one-year fluke, and not a trend. If he can pitch against batters from either side of the plate, that'd be handy.
Oh, Rosenthal, Siegrist, Cecil, Broxton makes five. The other two I would assume are going to be Wacha and Lyons, if they're healthy and ready to go. I'd guess Gant might be next man up, or Tuivailala. I'd go with Socolovich myself, who has done nothing but get outs everytime the Cards actually call him up, but they just don't seem high on him for some reason. So it'll be some guy who throws hard but can't find the plate with a road map, most likely.
Catcher: They cut Brayan Pena with a year left on his contract. They resigned Eric Fryer to a minor league deal. Of course, they wouldn't ever play Fryer when they had him last year, so hard to see what good he is. They have Carson Kelly, but he's supposed to start the year in AAA. It appears they've well and truly abandoned any pretense they're going to try and restrict Molina's innings behind the plate. And if you're going to let him play until he breaks down entirely, why bother to have a decent backup? He'd just sit on the bench. So presumably Fryer or someone similar will collect splinters in his butt until Molina gets hurt, at which point they'll bring up Kelly so he can play most every day. In theory.
Infield: Not much movement here. Matt Carpenter is supposed to be the regular first baseman now, which may not be much of a defense improvement at the position. I expect Carpenter will be better than Matt Adams, but not by much. Adams is a solid first baseman. Probably it's more about improving the defense at the positions Carpenter used to play. Kolten Wong will probably get the chance to be the starting second baseman, until Matheny loses confidence in him again. So, April 17th then. Aledmys Diaz is still the starting shortstop, so hopefully the improvement he showed at the position over the course of the season (when he went from "horrendous" to "below-average") was real. Peralta and Gyorko will probably split time at 3rd, assuming Peralta can bounce back enough to keep Gyorko from taking the job entirely. Greg Garcia and Matt Adams are still around, too, for now.
Outfield: Matt Holliday signed with the Yankees. Brandon Moss is still out there unsigned, as far as I know. The Cardinals signed Dexter Fowler as a free agent. So over the course of two offseasons, the Cards and the Cubs swapped outfielders. I'm inclined to think the Cubs got the better of that deal, even allowing for Fowler's deal being much cheaper, and the fact Heyward completely forgot how to hit last year. The fact Michael Wilbon is sure the Cards got the better end only further convinces me, because Wilbon's a dope.
Fowler's not a bad player by any stretch, he can hit some, draw some walks. I'm certainly looking forward to his generally good baserunning, after watching this team run around the bases like a bunch of kids at a laser tag place. But his defense isn't really anything to write home about, and he's on the wrong side of 30 already. Like with Heyward (who is at least a few years younger), I worry how Fowler's skills are going to age. The patience and plate discipline will presumably hold up, but I'd expect speed and defense to suffer.
At any rate, Fowler is the presumptive centerfielder, with Grichuk moving to left, and Piscotty remaining in right. The backup outfielder is probably Tommy Pham, although it's hard to be sure given Matheny doesn't seem much of a fan. That and Pham has trouble staying healthy. There is Jose Martinez, who played a little last season, and the Cardinals signed a Jordan Schaefer to a minor league contract last month, he's played some outfield in the majors, but after that, there ain't much.
And there's no room for them, anyway. If the Cardinals carry 7 relievers - and it's pretty likely they will because everyone does these days and the Cards seem unlikely to buck the norm in that regard - they have space for 5 bench players. One spot goes to the guy who sits on his butt watching Molina everyday, because you need someone who can competently catch just in case Yadi gets injured or ejected. Then there's Matt Adams and Greg Garcia, who is out of options, so he can't be sent to the minors without going through waivers. And I feel like a guy in his mid-to-late 20s who still hasn't hit arbitration, can play second base, third base and shortstop, all passably well, and is quite good at getting on-base, would draw interest from somebody. And the Cardinals need all the guys who can actually get on base they can get. So that's three guys, plus whichever of Gyorko and Peralta isn't starting. Which leaves one spot for an outfielder. At least Pham can, theoretically, play all three positions, though it's more likely Matheny would move Grichuk to CF to spell Fowler.
Anyway, overall, it doesn't feel like the Cardinals did much to change their level. They should still have a decent floor for their production, what with all the roughly average players. But their ceiling seems limited because there are so few real standouts. Maybe Carlos Martinez is a superstar, maybe Reyes can become one immediately, maybe Wainwright can dig deep and reach that level again. If he can stay healthy and hit like he has the last two years, I think Matt Carpenter can be a superstar, albeit a low-level one. Molina probably is, if he can hit like he did in 2016 and keep his defense from slipping much more (and if we decide there are all kinds of ways he adds value we can't measure in terms of influence on a pitching staff). I think if Diaz can be close to average defensively, and hit as he did last year, he could another lower-tier guy like Carpenter, but that's about it. The other guys are mostly just average. Nothing wrong with that; average guys are handy to have, and you never know when one is going to have a sudden freak year of being really great (although I suspect that was what last season was for Gyorko), but it tends to limit how far you can go with those guys.
Of course, if the bullpen can avoid shitting itself multiple times this season, that may be enough all on its own, at least to make the playoffs.