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How the Cardinals Could Fix their Bench in 2016

Part 1 of this article looked in depth at the St. Louis Cardinals bench in 2015 and how its low usage seemed to have contributed to what manager Mike Matheny admitted may have been “overuse” of key players.

Here in Part 2, I offer my thoughts on how the Cardinals might build a stronger bench in 2016. In the recent past, the club has economized on reserve positions and the bullpen. That can change without breaking the bank. I offer several specific player acquisition suggestions below, but consider them examples, as I have not completed an exhaustive analysis of potential targets by position.

Reserve catcher

Let’s start with the reserve catcher. Starter Yadier Molina will turn 34 years of age next July and has missed significant time late in the last two seasons due to injury.

Back up Tony Cruz has become arbitration-eligible for the first time. As a result, his salary is expected to roughly double – from about half a million to around $1 million next season.

Though the Cardinals currently have five catchers on their 40-man roster, there is no heir apparent to Molina anywhere near St. Louis who is being blocked.

In 2014, when Molina was injured, the Cardinals added veteran A.J. Pierzynski down the stretch. I don’t know whether A.J. would not return to St. Louis in 2015 due to Molina’s presence or was not asked because the club was committed to Cruz. Either way, in hindsight, it was too bad.

Pierzynski, who signed with Atlanta for just $2 million, went on to hit .300 and draw rave reviews for his work.

Breves television analyst and Hall of Fame pitcher Tom Glavine saw the team every day. He spoke to the Boston Globe about Pierzynski’s work behind the plate.

“He did a great job with the staff, the veterans that he caught and the younger pitchers he helped bring along,” said Glavine. “His experience back there really helped the younger pitchers out.”

Pierzynski is expected to return to Atlanta for 2016, but in hindsight, wouldn’t it have been better if the Cardinals had spent the extra $1.5 million to keep him in St. Louis?

Looking ahead, the Cardinals need to upgrade the position. They should bite the bullet and cut ties with Cruz, just as they did the year before in letting Daniel Descalso and Shane Robinson go. They need to find another A.J. out there so Mike Matheny can rest Molina more often in 2016.

What I mean in “another A.J.” is a later-in-career veteran with prior starting experience who can still swing the bat a bit. Before Cruz, the Cardinals attempted to follow this approach with Gary Bennett, then Jason LaRue and Gerald Laird.

I have not looked into the catching free agents in depth, but among the names expected to be on the market are Alex Avila, Chris Iannetta, Dioner Navarro, Brayan Pena, Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Geovany Soto. Certainly there has to be a fit somewhere.

It will cost a few million more, and perhaps some kind of playing time assurance, but it will be worth it if the Cardinals can finally have a rested and healthy Molina in October. At age 34 next fall, he won’t have that many more chances.

Reserve infielders

In Part 1, I went into detail about why Pete Kozma spent the entire 2015 season with St. Louis. Hint: It certainly was not his bat.

While Greg Garcia did ok late in the season, I don’t see the primary in-house solution as offering enough either offensively or defensively.

I believe the answer is to go out and get another starter-quality shortstop, someone who Matheny would feel as comfortable using as any of today’s starters.

When Jhonny Peralta was signed to a four-year deal two years ago, many expected he would not finish the contract as the starting shortstop. To his credit, the 33-year-old (he turns 34 in May), has been a solid defender, getting by with good positioning and steady play once he gets to the ball. Offensively, Peralta had a very strong first half in 2015 and a very rough second half.

Signed in the same off-season was Aledmys Diaz. At the time, some had hoped that after two years of minor-league grooming, the Cuban would be ready to step in at short, but that is not the case.

Second baseman Kolten Wong also struggled down the stretch in 2015, though his age is not a factor.

Third baseman Matt Carpenter has proven he can play an entire season at second base if need be, though he was rarely used there during 2015.

If the Cardinals add a starting-quality shortstop, it would free Peralta to back Carpenter up at third base, a position at which Peralta has over 200 games of MLB experience. He also could help fill in the corner outfield. Carpenter could move to second when Wong needs time off.

Essentially, there would be four starters for three positions – at least until the inevitable injuries hit.

Granted, this approach would cost more money, but could make the Cardinals a better team during the season and in the playoffs.

The trendy free agent choice among many Cardinals fans is Ben Zobrist of the Royals, a switch-hitter who can play all over – second, short and the outfield. Demand will be high with contract years for a 35-year-old potentially being an issue, though the Cardinals clearly look to be a great fit.

Another interesting free agent name is Ian Desmond. The Nationals shortstop had a dreadful first half, which knocked him down the free agent pecking order. Some have speculated that the 30-year-old might be interested in a one-year deal to re-establish his full market value. What better place to do that than in St. Louis?

The second reserve infield position could be the back-up first baseman, whether Brandon Moss or Matt Adams, both left-handed hitters. Moss adds the benefit of also being able to play in the outfield.

I sense that Adams’ days of starting could be over, as I think that position is the most likely one to be upgraded from the outside – if someone with more thump in his bat can be found as a free agent or in trade.

Mozeliak made what I believe was a very telling statement recently when he said on KMOX Radio that he wants a .900 OPS performer at first base, not a .750 one. Adams’ only season above .780 was .839 in 2013, far below the ideal. Moss reached it once, in a partial season of action back in 2012 (.954).

Though both are arbitration-eligible, Moss is two years ahead in the process, just one year from free agency. That makes his projected salary roughly $6 million more than Adams’ – pricey for a reserve. Of course, one could be included as part of a trade for a new starter at the position.

Either would be a nice late-game pinch-hitter, providing Matheny a left-handed power threat off the bench.

Reserve outfielders

Obviously, the re-signing of Jason Heyward is the pivotal decision for the Cardinals this off-season. If the 26-year-old returns, the five outfield spots would appear to be filled with Matt Holliday, Jon Jay, Randal Grichuk and Stephen Piscotty, leaving Tommy Pham back in Memphis initially.

If Heyward walks, the Cardinals would still have five outfielders, not to mention any reserve infielders who could play out there as well. This reinforces my suggestion that first base could be the focus of an upgrade to a better-quality starter. Of course, trades could affect the outfield returnees, too.

Bottom line, I don’t see an outfield reserve position being a primary off-season focus. In fact, I expect the Cards will divest here, finding a new home for Peter Bourjos at a minimum.

Middle relief

All we know for sure is that Trevor Rosenthal, Kevin Siegrist and Seth Maness will return. The other four bullpen spots appear to be up for grabs.

Getting back a healthy Jordan Walden would be huge, but the veteran set-up man has already missed five months of action with a lingering biceps injury. Hard-throwing rookie Sam Tuivailala may be ready to stick, but maybe not quite yet.

In the past, the Cards have used the bullpen as a way to work less-experienced starters onto the roster, such as with Carlos Martinez. Could they do the same thing with some combination of lefties Tyler Lyons, Tim Cooney and Marco Gonzales?

Could one of them become the long man, or will the Cards ask veteran Carlos Villanueva back for a second season?

Obviously, there are a lot of “ifs” there and not a lot of experience, meaning the club will almost certainly look for veteran relief help this winter. While the choices are too great to evaluate individually, here is hoping the Cardinals set the bar higher than in recent years.

In four of the last five seasons, a non-roster invitee made the bullpen out of spring training. With Villanueva and Pat Neshek (2014), it worked out. In the cases of Scott Linebrink (2012) and Miguel Batista (2011), the low-budget route failed miserably.

I just hope the criteria is to secure the best arms available, not get the lowest-budget deal.

Rotation

With John Lackey likely moving on, the question is whether or not the Cards will pursue a high-profile, big-money starter like David Price. That could free up pitching to be used to try to help shore up the offense in trade, as was done the year before in the Shelby Miller-Heyward deal.

Or will the club wait and make a trade deadline addition to give the club a second-half boost, as when they acquired Lackey in July 2014?

While I think the Cardinals will add a veteran arm somehow at some point, I am least worried about starting pitching depth because of the wealth of young arms in house. Wainwright essentially replaces Lackey in the rotation, joining the other four returnees, with the aforementioned three left-handers (Lyons, Cooney and Gonzales) in reserve.

Still, as we all saw, the last starter left standing this October was the “old man” Lackey. We should not forget why it occurred.

In conclusion

Despite returning starters locked in at every position other than the free agent Heyward in right field, the Cardinals need to enhance their depth. I believe a veteran catcher, a starting-quality shortstop, a couple of experienced bullpen arms and one starting pitcher now or later could be just what the doctor ordered. Finally, the bench could be strengthened further if they acquire a new starter at first base.

Doing this would cost some money, but not an exorbitant amount. The new local television contract is locked in with the revenue being built into the future plans, though in reality, most of these proposed moves could be short-term in nature.

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Brian Walton

Brian Walton runs The Cardinal Nation and The Cardinal Nation Blog, covering the St. Louis Cardinals and minor league system.
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20 Responses to “How the Cardinals Could Fix their Bench in 2016”

  1. Bw52 says:

    Very nice article Brian.Dead on.N ow trade Jon Jay and save the 6 plus million he will get paid in 2016,that will offset the Moss money..
    I also would like to see a veteran RHP who can be a swing man who can start if needed..Having the 3 lefties who can start(Cooney,Lyons and Gonzales) is okay but Lyons did well out of the pen in 2015 and could be needed there.The more i read about the teams that could be interested in Heyward the more i think some team will offer more than the Cards are willing to go.Angels or Cubbies are my 2 finalist for him.Angels -because he fills a need and a OF with Trout,Heyward and Kole Calhoun is pretty damn good and gives the Angels another shot at the playoffs.Cubbies could sign Heyward for several reasons-Need for a real RF,Great defense,Good hitter,smart player who can be a tablesetter for their big boppers.Plus Cubbies signing Heyward weakens the Cards and forces the Cards to scramble to react and catcup.

  2. Bw52 says:

    Brian-Your minor league Free agent and Rule 5 articl coming out soon?

  3. blingboy says:

    It is hard to find anything to add to that.

    I don’t think the trade market should be overlooked as to the second catcher. I have a hunch there might be something over in the American League.

    Brian, assuming a Heyward walk and absent any injuries, who do you see as the CF and RF starters with Holliday on opening day?

  4. JumboShrimp says:

    with Pyerzinski, the cards could not give him enough playing time to woo him away from Atlanta last winter. Yadier wants to play most of the time.
    With relief pitchers, mike likes to ride favorites hard. A good bench hinges on a manager smart enough to use all the roster.

    • Brian Walton says:

      I am taking that as a theory unless you have a link.

      AJ is 39 and had been released by Boston before StL signed him. Atlanta was grooming Christian Bethancourt and likely told him his 2015 job would be to get the rookie ready. He got just $2 million. I bet the Cards could have kept him with a good $ offer.

      The problem is that what Yadier may want is not always good for the team. Bosses have to make tough decisions to overrule the employees at times.

  5. blingboy says:

    Brian, how good a fit is A. Ramirez fit with your reserve catcher suggestion in the article?

    • Brian Walton says:

      Not sure which catcher you are talking about. Aramis Ramirez is a third baseman and retired. Alexei Ramirez is a shortstop.

      Guessing you meant to say shortstop instead of catcher, Alexei might be a more reasonable target than Desmond or Zobrist, but both of the others are better hitters. I wouldn’t object.

      • blingboy says:

        Yes, I meant SS. Been a long day and I had been thinking about the similarity between Peralta’s and Molina’s situations. I have always liked Ramirez and it seems like his everyday starter days might be over. It is just not reasonable to expect either JP or Yadi to keep up the pace. At least getting Holliday some rest seems more straightforward.

  6. blingboy says:

    I have been getting that tingly feeling I only get when Brian is about to post an updated Roster Matrix.

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