What are the St. Louis Cardinals waiting for?

I admit it.

I have no idea what the St. Louis Cardinals are trying to accomplish this off-season.

It seemed their needs were so obvious. But, for the third winter in a row, while pundits near and far speculated that the cash-flush Redbirds would be major players on the free agent market, they made a couple of mid-level moves and then publicly turned their nose up at the rest of the players available.

I was on board with the Dexter Fowler signing. Not because I thought, as GM John Mozeliak stated, that a defensive improvement in center field should be the team’s top priority. But because I believe the club could benefit not only from a more traditional lead-off man who would allow Matt Carpenter to move down in the batting order. Plus, it could use a high-energy, make things happen sort of player like Fowler.

But even more than the Cardinals needed a new center fielder, they needed — and still need — a legitimate cleanup hitter. And preferably one that can play a corner infield spot now that the outfield is full of players who are under team control for at least four years.

St. Louis hasn’t had a legitimate clean-up man since the whole Matt Adams experiment started a few years back. The front office seemingly admits that sad chapter is over because it’s handed the only position Adams can play to Carpenter and has unsuccessfully tried to find a taker for Adams this winter.

With a broken down Jhonny Peralta the most obvious choice on the roster to play third — largely because he’s seen his range diminish too much to play his original position, shortstop — it would seem  the hot corner would be an ideal spot for the slugger the Birds need.

Yet, for reasons not apparent to me, the Cardinals allowed Los Angeles Dodgers free agent Justin Turner to return to LA for significantly less than the contract it was estimated his skills would command. Four years for $64 million. MLBTR.com projected his offensive production and sticky glove could net him $20 million a year. But, no, Mozeliak apparently never made a bid. I suppose he wasn’t sure, given the Dodgers’ lukewarm offer, that he would successfully come in second in the bidding so he could shrug his shoulders and say “we tried” a la David Price, Jason Heyward, and so on…

Whether Turner would have used the Cardinals to drive up the bid from the Dodgers, we’ll never know because this time St. Louis didn’t even try.

This team is certainly not without flaws. With Matt Holliday, Jaime Garcia, Brandon Moss, Jordan Walden and others coming off the payroll, 3.4 million loyal customers keeping the cash box full and a new, billion-dollar TV contract, the Cardinals can afford to make some significant moves. Their payroll is well below last season’s total. And I tend to agree with the folks who think, given their revenue stream, that the Birds could spend another $30 million a year and still be in the black.

Spending a ton of money frivolously isn’t the answer. But when you have the resources, needs and opportunities to make sensible additions to the roster, that’s the time to spend.

The Cardinals can’t use the excuse that this is a lousy free agent market for their passiveness. First, because of their lack of interest in the players available who could help them. Second, everyone on the planet knew this market was going to be weak and the Birds passed on their chance to add to the roster last year when it was flush with talent. They should have been better prepared to address their aging core.

They knew the Cubs were on the rise, yet the chose not to respond. And that doesn’t sit well with a lot of fans who dig deep to pay for Cardinals tickets every year. It’s not the “Cardinals Way” to market yourself as an elite program — and then to make a lackluster effort to be competitive.

This isn’t the time to go into a lengthy rebuilding program. The Cardinals don’t have a bunch of elite prospects knocking on the door in Class AAA. Guys like Kolten Wong, Randal Grichuk, Stephen Piscotty, Aledmys Diaz, Carlos Martinez and Alex Reyes are already here and ready to contribute. Guys like Trevor Rosenthal, Michael Wacha (if he’s healthy) and Kevin Seigrist have been around for a while and are starting to get expensive. So add in the fact that Adam Wainwright and Yadi Molina are into their mid thirties and entering the twilight of their careers and it’s obvious that this is the time to step on the gas and try to compete, not to pull over to the shoulder and take a look at the map.

I think St. Louis is two players away from being a legitimate playoff contender. The Redbirds need a slugger in the middle of the batting order — and a durable, top of the rotation starter to couple with Martinez.

As already mentioned, Wainwright is in the late stages of his career and Wacha is a major injury concern. So I don’t think it’s wise to count on either of them to be a number one or two starter. Mike Leak is an average starting pitcher — at best — and can’t be a shut down pitcher you’d want to use for the opener of a playoff series and it’s too much to ask Reyes to be The Man in his rookie campaign. The Birds will be fortunate if Reyes and Lance Lynn, returning from Tommy John Surgery can combine to produce enough innings to fill one starter slot between them and cover for any injuries suffered by Wainwright and/or Wacha.

The good news is, beyond those two smoking roster craters, the Cardinals have a very nice supporting cast.

If the switch-hitter fowler, Diaz and Carpenter fill the 1-2-3 spots in the batting order you have three guys proficient at getting on base and able to go from first to third setting the table. A guy who strikes fear in pitchers with his ability to smack doubles, put balls over the boards or take a walk when he needs to in the middle should drive in runs in bunches. Backing up that big bat, you’ve got capable producers in Grichuk, Molina and Piscotty to cover the 5-6-7 spots (not necessarily in that order) and the enigma that is Kolten Wong can try to get his feet beneath him in the eight hole.

Jedd Gyorko can be the super utility guy, Greg Garcia can be the extra glove across the infield and you have Tommy Pham to back up all three outfield spots. If Peralta is still around, he could be an interesting reserve, preserving his strength to be a power bench bat who can play mediocre defense at first, third or in the outfield corners or at second or short in a pinch.

The mystery hurler, Martinez and Wainwright would take the top three rotation spots. Leake would be in the mix and either Lynn or Reyes would start in the fifth slot.

I’m not too sure what to expect from Lynn, who was shut down late last season when he tried to come back early from his elbow ligament surgery. But neither he nor Reyes should be counted on for more than 150 innings because of their recent usage. So, they’re both likely to pitch between the rotation and bullpen to preserve their arms and their innings.

With one of those two in the bullpen, the reliever corps appears to be complete. New lefty Brett Cecil will join Seigrist, Rosenthal, Oh, Bowman and Broxton to make up a solid crew.

I’d really like this club if it could pull off a trade or make a signing to add a clean-up bat and a good starter. But, as it stands, I don’t see much improvement over the team that didn’t make the playoffs last year when Holliday, Moss and Jeremy Hazelbaker were providing much of the power that kept the team in the hunt until October.

The Las Vegas betting lines list the Cardinals as the most likely landing spot for remaining sluggers Edwin Encarnacion and Mark Trumbo because people see the obvious fit — even though I would have preferred Turner to adding a first baseman and moving Carpenter back across the diamond.

But I don’t hear any rumors that suggest the Redbirds are making any effort to land a slugger. I often say it’s not wise to believe anything a major league GM says, but I tend to believe Mozeliak this time when he says he doesn’t plan any more major acquisitions. Not because it makes sense. But because taking a pass on players who can help seems to be the new Cardinals Way.

 

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