Did the St. Louis Cardinals and John Mozeliak improve the club enough to make a true run at the World Series or enough to merely compete in 2018?
It's a question that won't get a full answer until the slower-than-a-glacier offseason finishes its business, but definitely a thought that deserves introspection for a club that doesn't like to use the word "rebuild".
All the news that is fit to print points to the Cardinals wanting to not only catch the Chicago Cubs and hold off the Milwaukee Brewers, but also be able to hold down a series with the National League Champion defending Los Angeles Dodgers. Mozeliak, Michael Girsch, and Bill DeWitt Jr. aren't conceding anything, and their work this winter does show a front office trying to strengthen a roster while tip-toeing around a minefield of potential overpriced free agents and general busts.
Let's do a quick review of their actions this winter:
After pushing harder than any club for Giancarlo Stanton only to see the National League MVP choose the Freedom Tower over the Arch, the club pivoted to Stanton's former teammate, Marcell Ozuna. If the charismatic Gold Glove-winning left fielder repeats 2017, no one will complain about the plan B shift. If Ozuna is the guy he was before 2017, questions will remain on the surface.
The Cardinals refused to pay big-boy dollars to Wade Davis, Greg Holland or Addison Reed to bolster the bullpen, instead signing Luke Gregerson and acquiring Dominic Leone in a trade for Randal Grichuk. Gregerson owns one 30 save season in his MLB career, but the Houston Astros didn't use him much in the playoffs. Gregerson only made five appearances in the three playoff series that the Astros competed in, yet Mozeliak called him the closer last month.
Leone has the pitch arsenal to be a closer, but doesn't have much experience in the role. After a stellar debut season with Seattle in 2014, Leone struggled during 2015-16 to repeat the performance, before becoming something else last year with Toronto, carving a niche as a setup man in the embattled American League East while working in a hitter's paradise.
The acquisition of Gregerson and Leone point to a bullpen strategy that may include more reliance on younger arms than before. Young guns like Sam Tuivailala, Alex Reyes, and Jordan Hicks could play a bigger role than the acquired talent by September. Mozeliak is simply gathering troops for protection and depth, even if proven arms are a question.
Miles Mikolas will assume the spot left by Lance Lynn, who remains unsigned and awaiting a home for the coming season. A recent export from the Japanese League and armed with a couple new pitches, Mikolas will get the chance to accumulate 30+ starts in the rotation, and he isn't the No. 5 guy, not with Adam Wainwright in steep decline.
The moves made by the Cardinals this winter were noble, but not enough according to some. MLB Network reporter Jon Morosi described the Cards work this winter as "puzzling", saying they needed to do more, but I wanted more than the word of a guy who uses sources and leans on misdirection while tending to the Hot Stove. I asked the people who give their time and money to the Cardinals: the fans.
Here's a few of their reactions.
It's hard to argue with Keane here. If the Cardinals acquire a proven 30-start rotation piece and a closer with a backbone for finishing games, they are the favorites to win the Central. Instead, they lean on internal options and proposals.
Keane isn't alone in his thinking that the Cards did a decent, if not knockout, job this winter.
Leaning on unproven arms like Hicks and a recovering arm like Reyes is risky business, but that isn't a new tactic to Mozeliak and company. They are wise because they roll the dice, and more often than not, come out on top.
Others think they didn't do enough to hold court with the contending National League teams.
Going into November, the hopes rested around the dream of Stanton playing in red, so anything else is bound to disappoint. However, the reluctance to get proven assets for important areas of the team does make one wonder what the plan is. Jeff wasn't alone with his outlook.
What do I think? A good follow of mine, @crashstl otherwise known as the Official Ray Lankford advocate, asked me the question that sparked this column. During a random Twitter Q&A, Crash asked me point blank if the Cardinals did enough to win it all or just compete. It wasn't an easy answer, so I gave the lukewarm yes and no response, while I continued to break it down in my head.
Here's what I think the Cardinals did the past three months. After making a hard push for a superstar outfielder and coming up short, the Cardinals took a few steps back, acquiring a player coming off a career year. They broke up a logjam by dealing Stephen Piscotty and Grichuk from the outfield, broadening the worlds of Harrison Bader and Tyler O' Neill in the process.
The Cardinals are resting their hopes on the shoulders of an Ozuna repeat, a Gregerson bounce-back, and a Mikolas transformation. They refused to overspend for pricey free agents like J.D. Martinez (who has a more proven bat than Ozuna) and Eric Hosmer (who has consistency in the field that he lacks at the plate), instead hinging their bets on wildcard proposals.
Did the Cardinals do enough to win it all in 2018?
No. The rotation is far too questionable, and their lineup is stronger, yet still not as threatening.
Did the Cardinals do enough to compete in 2018?
Yes. The addition of Ozuna alone makes the lineup deeper and a little scarier than 2017, so the Cards could play into a wildcard spot or push for the division.
However, they didn't make their contention a surefire thing this winter. That was not done.
With the 2018 Cardinals, nothing is a sure thing. They could win 83 games or they could win 90 games. It's going to be another unpredictable ride-and a ride that starts in ten days.