It’s not surprising that the Cardinals didn’t go all the way. Underdogs often fall short even if they’re fueled by devil magic. Of the ten teams to make it to the postseason, the Cardinals were arguably the least talented. St. Louis may have come out on top of the NL Central scrum, but they didn’t compare to some of the other division winners and even some of the Wild Card teams. At 91 wins, the Cardinals had the lowest win total in the tournament, and their base runs record put them and the Braves at 90-72, five games behind the Nationals and a full 20 wins worse than the Dodgers.
That’s not to say that the Cardinals didn’t belong among the best teams in baseball. They just had the most difficult path to a championship. In this postseason, which has emphasized starting pitching so heavily (at least in comparison to recent years), the Cardinals felt good about game started by Jack Flaherty, but their rotation didn’t compare to the Nationals’. It’s not as if Miles Mikolas, Dakota Hudson, or Adam Wainwright are bad, but they were outclassed by the back of the Nationals rotation, not to mention the Astros.
The offense, which ranked 15th in baseball, showed signs of weakness against Atlanta, but really fell apart in the NLCS. In four games, the Cardinals never took a lead— not even for a half inning. As a team, the Cardinals hit .130/.195/.179 against the Nationals. They compiled just 16 hits and 7 walks while striking out 48 times. The Cardinals struck out twice as many times as they reached base! Considering that, they must have felt fortunate to score the six runs they did.
Despite the noncompetitive exit, the season has to be viewed as a success. Not only did they win the division, but more playoff berths are likely in their near future with their emergent young talent. Jack Flaherty proved to be one of the elite pitchers in the majors. Tommy Edman led the offense in his rookie campaign while impressing on defense. Giovanny Gallegos took the sting out of the Luke Voit trade by striking out 93 batters in 74 innings.
Looking ahead to 2020, the Cardinals roster will remain mostly the same, which means they are in a good position to return to the postseason. The only arbitration eligible Cardinals are John Gant and Dominic Leone, who MLB Trade Rumors estimates to make $1.4 million and $1.6 million respectively. They have just three notable pending free agents: Marcell Ozuna, Michael Wacha, and Adam Wainwright.
Since coming over in a trade with the Marlins before the 2018 season, Ozuna has slashed .262/.327/.451 while accumulating 5.4 fWAR. Internally, the Cardinals don’t have a clear option to replace him. Their corner outfielders include José Martínez, Tyler O’Neill, Dexter Fowler, Randy Arozarena, and Yairo Muñoz, but each come with downsides. Martínez and Fowler are notoriously rough in the field, and putting them in both corners would be asking Harrison Bader to catch everything hit into both gaps. Tyler O’Neill has tremendous power, but that comes with one of the worst contact rates in baseball. Arozarena hit well in limited time, but he’s unproven. Muñoz’s value is as a super utility player, but even that is tenuous if he posts another 73 wRC+. There’s a decent chance Ozuna is re-signed, but if he’s not, St. Louis should look for a corner outfielder.
After 14 seasons, Adam Wainwright’s Cardinals tenure may actually be coming to an end. The 38-year-old hasn’t decided yet if he is retiring or not, but it wouldn’t be surprising if he did. His 2019 showed that he still has something left. He pitched to a 4.19 ERA and a 4.58 DRA in 171 2/3 innings. Wainwright even impressed in the postseason shutting down the Braves in Game Three of the NLDS and striking out 11 in 7 1/3 innings in Game Two of the NLCS.
If Wainwright doesn’t return to St. Louis, that leaves two rotation slots in question behind Jack Flaherty, Miles Mikolas, and Dakota Hudson. Internal options to fill out the back of rotation include Daniel Ponce De Leon, Genesis Cabrera, and Alex Reyes who has only made five appearances since 2016. St. Louis should be aggressively active on the starting pitching market this offseason.
The Cardinals look good heading forward, but this will still be a critical offseason. ‘Good’ wasn’t enough to take down the Nationals. ‘Good’ may not be enough to win the NL Central let alone taking down the superteams they would face in the playoffs. St. Louis should be proud of what they accomplished in 2019, but their work is far from over.
Kenny Kelly is a writer for Beyond the Box Score and McCovey Chronicles. You can follow him on Twitter @KennyKellyWords.