When the 2018 season came to a close over the weekend, I began to lay out plans for a postmortem, focusing on a season’s worth of questionable moves not made. Inaction that could have swayed the standings 1 or 2 games and put the Cardinals in Tuesday’s Wild Card game.
But as I allowed my brain to decompress from the stretch run, I decided against a purely critical post. It wouldn’t change anything. It is futile to bring up the slow trigger on firing Matheny, the further two week delay on addressing a clearly bad bullpen, adding only 1 outside arm to said pen at the deadline, waiting until the final week of September to promote Giovanny Gallegos, and failing to add superior talents by placing a simple waiver claim on Daniel Murphy or Josh Donaldson (only to see Wong fight injury in September and Gyorko drop off the face of the Earth) at risk of breaking the Faberge egg that was the new clubhouse chemistry.
Any of those things could have changed the season for the better.
We can’t know for sure. And that’s why I chose not to pound that drum with a full post. All-in-all, it was a frustrating, but ultimately solid season for the Cardinals.
So lets turn the page and start conversing about how the Cardinals are going to take this 88-win baseline, raise it by 5-7 wins, and be back in a playoff series this time next year.
The First Step Is House Cleaning
Every offseason starts the same way for every team, they have to sort out their 40-man roster.
There are three major drivers behind roster cleanup: Re-activation of players on the 60-day DL, protecting players from the Rule 5 Draft, and opening roster spots for the pursuit of free agents.
Getting Healthy (4)
If you include the 4 players on the 60-day DL — which does not count towards the 40-man roster in-season — the Cardinals ended the season with 44, 40-man roster players. When the offseason begins, those 60-day DL inhabitants — Alex Reyes, Dexter Fowler, Michael Wacha, and Luke Gregerson — must be move back onto 40-man roster. So 4 spots have to come open immediately.
Only Wainwright and Norris would be eligible for a $17.9M qualifying offer, something that neither will receive.
Wainwright could be brought back, though I wouldn’t expect a contract announcement until later into the offseason. The terms may get agreed upon early, but the Cardinals may wish to delay the signing until they are able to clear more space on the roster. With his long relationship with the organization, he could accommodate them in a tight roster situation.
I think they will move on from Norris, Ross, and Adams.
So, in short, none of the 4 free agents will be on the roster at the open of the offseason, creating the exact amount of space needed to activate the players from the DL.
At least that part was easy and clean.
Because of the Rule 5 Implications (4)
The Rule 5 draft forces teams to protect prospects that were 18 or younger on the June 5th prior to their signing and this is the 5th Rule 5 Draft to occur since, OR were 19 or older and it’s the 4th draft. Not all eligible players get protected. Realistically only a few are at risk to be selected by another team.
So let’s first look at who requires protection.
That may not be a complete list, but it’s a good sampling and covers most of the notables.
Like I said, most of these players aren’t at risk of being taken. And if they were, some wouldn’t be missed all that much.
Of the above names: Cabrera, Helsley, Schrock, Fernandez, possibly Thomas, and possibly Urias need protection the most. So conservatively, four players need protected. If the team had roster space, they could cover 6 or more. Ynfante and Ortega are probably far enough away in their development to not be a concern. The rest are fringe prospects and organizational depth.
For the sake of this exercise, we will assume that it is only Cabrera, Helsley, Schrock, and Fernandez receiving protection.
With the roster at an even 40 after the departure of free agents and activation of DL’d players, clearly some cuts are going to have to be made.
That’s were we turn to our first round of players that may not be tendered contracts for 2019.
The players on the current 40-man that I consider to be most at-risk are: Matt Bowman, Greg Garcia, Tyler Webb, Francisco Pena, Mike Mayers, Derian Gonzalez, Edmundo Sosa, and Patrick Wisdom. They need to clear 4 spots.
Matt Bowman struggled with injuries and ineffectiveness this season. With a truckload of right-handed pitchers, I believe he is as good as gone.
Greg Garcia is an interesting case. He is decent in his role as a LH hitting utility infielder. He doesn’t hit for a high average, but always had a high OBP, so it worked. Until it didn’t. In 2018 he had a weak .309 OBP, after posting .393 and .365 in the previous two. He is first year arbitration eligible this season, so he stands to make a little money. He is out of minor league options. Max Schrock, who needs to be protected, is a high-contact LH 2B (with a few innings at 3B). Yairo Munoz received the bulk innings at SS in DeJong’s absence this year and covers the same positions as Garcia (though not as well, defensively). Edmundo Sosa is touted as a strong defender and is also on the 40-man. All that leaves Garcia in the same position that Daniel Descalso was in following 2014, when Greg Garcia emerged. If the Cardinals plan to non-tender him in December anyway, then they will likely expedite the process and release him in November.
I think those two are for sure heading out the door.
Francisco Pena was good enough as the guy that never played behind Yadier Molina. It did raise eyebrows that it was Pena receiving the bulk of the starts when Molina was on the DL, but with Matheny in charge there were a lot of curious moves. Pena makes no money and he could be worse, but the issue here is the catchers behind him. Andrew Knizner cannot spend any more time in Springfield. Carson Kelly is caught in between. A straight timeshare in Memphis benefits the development of neither. I think Kelly, if he isn’t traded, has to be the backup in 2019. That’s why you cut Pena, for now. If you decide to move Kelly down the road, it surely won’t be difficult to bring Pena back.
Webb was okay in limited duty this season. For a team that desperately needs a very good LH reliever to emerge, releasing a decent one seems counter-intuitive. However, they may just let him walk. If anything keeps him on the roster, it’s the desperation for a competent lefty. However, Genesis Cabrera could be that guy, so we’re back to letting him go.
Good for Mayers to finally show himself as a reasonably effective MLB pitcher after his disastrous cameos in ’16 and ’17. Still, the 4.70 ERA isn’t particularly good and the bullpen is an area in need of improvement. Mayers wasn’t as good after a DL stint and his 96-98 mph fastball probably keeps him around at least until spring, but he will be out of minor league options this year.
Derian Gonzalez was protected last season despite never climbing above High-A, simply because the Cardinals were gun shy after the Padres sniped Single-A players in both 2016 and ’17. They transitioned him to relief, in hopes of a quicker ascent. Unfortunately, they didn’t learn much more about him. He threw just 33.1 combined innings across three levels and missed nearly 2 months with injury. He may survive, but he’s on the fringe.
It seems like we’ve been waiting on Sosa for 10 years. After steps back and injuries the last couple seasons, he appeared to have progressed offensively in 2018. He is probably safe on the roster for at least one more year. Being a SS helps, as they could use protection at the position.
Patrick Wisdom finally got his promotion. He was okay at the Major League level, basically on par with expectations. He still has options and gives you a power bat and depth at 1B/3B. I could see him getting cut, but could also see him staying.
My money on the 4 spots needed to protect Rule 5 players is on Bowman, Garcia, Pena and Webb.
Setting Up For Free Agency
For this part of it, I expect the Cardinals to seek out small trades to clear space. This is where we may see Wisdom exit (did his cup of coffee improve his stock?) or perhaps a Kelly move. If push comes to shove, I think Derian Gonzalez or Mayers are the next pure cuts if they have a contract ready to be signed and need the room.
They definitely need to work some 2-for-1 trades if they plan to infuse any free agent talent this offseason, because the 40-man is jam packed. Luckily, that isn’t on a firm timeline.
As always, roster management is a mess. I’m sure this only confused you more.
Thanks for reading!