With less than two weeks until pitchers and catchers report to Roger Dean Stadium in Jupiter, Florida, it seems more and more likely that the St. Louis Cardinals may avoid any more major roster moves or acquisitions before the start of the regular season. The Cardinals’ rather quiet second half of the offseason comes as a bit of surprise to most fans when considering just how aggressive the team and President of Baseball Operations John Mozeliak were in early December, a month that was ultimately highlighted by the acquisition of Marcell Ozuna during baseball’s Winter Meetings.

Despite adding a player like Ozuna, the Cardinals were still rumored to be inquiring on a number of high-profile players over the past month. And while most fan-driven rumors and speculation centered on the Cardinals needing to add another big bat to compliment Ozuna in the lineup or a closer for the back end of the bullpen, occasional reports suggested that the Cardinals had been checking in on several big name starting pitchers. But let’s be honest and throw in a necessary disclaimer for this topic. There is often little to no validity to most MLB rumblings and rumors, and saying the Cardinals were truly interested in adding a top of the rotation starter at any point this offseason could be either totally false or vastly overstated for the sake of having a story. It’s still worth noting that even after letting Lance Lynn test free agency, the Cardinals have allegedly expressed some interest in names like Jake Arrieta and Chris Archer.

As the roster stands currently, the Cardinals appear ready to roll with a rotation that includes Carlos Martinez, Adam Wainwright, Michael Wacha, Luke Weaver, and the newly signed Miles Mikolas. Despite John Mozeliak and GM Michael Girsch’s outspoken confidence in the ability and competitiveness of this potential rotation, perhaps what immediately stands out is the unpredictable nature of several of these arms, particularly in the form of Wainwright and Mikolas. The problem with Wainwright, who enters the final year of his current contract at age 36, stems not just from his well-documented elbow impingement injury and subsequent throwing discomfort that almost completely shut the veteran right-hander down in the last few months of the 2017 season, but also from his erratic, inconsistent performance in the season and a half before that.

Nobody but the Cardinals medical staff and Wainwright himself knows if he is truly healthy at this point as spring training draws closer and closer. For our purposes, let’s assume that he is. If we combine Waino’s 2016 season with his 2017 numbers prior to an August 11th start against the Braves in which he showed obvious signs of elbow discomfort and decreased velocity (10.0 IP excluded in total), we find a very shaky 4.76 ERA over the last two seasons while “healthy”. But Wainwright’s well-deserved status as one of the best starters in Cardinals history will unquestionably earn him a spot in the rotation entering the season. The narrative floating around that Waino could start the year in the bullpen is simply not going to happen, but if he again struggles to give the Cardinals any sort of quality innings, an in-season demotion to the bullpen may not be out of the question.

On the other hand, Miles Mikolas is largely a mystery for both fans and MLB teams alike. Nobody knows at this point exactly what the Cardinals will get out of Mikolas. “The Lizard King” put up impressive numbers in Japan, but there are no guarantees that he will be able to at baseball’s highest level. Working with new Cardinals pitching coach Mike Maddux should be a huge positive for Mikolas, who spent time under Maddux while with the Texas Rangers in 2014.

The ultimate concern for the Cardinals boils down to innings. Gone now are two prototypical innings eaters for the Cardinals in the past few seasons, Lance Lynn and Mike Leake. With some usage of top pitching prospect Alex Reyes as a starter at the Major League level in 2018 almost a guarantee, and other capable prospects such as Dakota Hudson, Jack Flaherty, Jordan Hicks, and Austin Gomber now proven enough in the minors to be in consideration for big league opportunities, it’s understandable why the team is adamant that they can find a combination to fill the necessary innings from starters in 2018 to reduce workload of a bullpen that was completely overworked in 2017.

Still, the questions around Wainwright’s injuries/performance, Mikolas’ unproven abilities, and even Luke Weaver’s lack of exposure to a full-time starter’s spot at the big league level leave fans like myself wondering if the Cardinals should be as content as they seem with the options they have. One way to solve all of this concern is to buckle down and step out of the comfort zone that has been the status quo in St. Louis for a number of years now. That’s right, the time is now to either trade some of the top talent or pay up in the free agent market.

Some fans have completely bought into the notion that trading a few top prospects would completely decimate a farm system that for years has been billed as one of the best in baseball. But the Ozuna trade this offseason should serve as a sign that the Cardinals are no longer under the post-Matt Holliday trade from Oakland mentality of protecting the farm. They are no longer afraid to pull a “mini-blockbuster” of a trade to get the talent needed to contend. Players like Flaherty, Hudson, Carson Kelly, Junior Fernandez, Delvin Perez, Oscar Mercado and almost any prospect not named Alex Reyes should not be thrown under the safety blanket. Teams are still selling talent. Names like Chris Archer, Michael Fulmer, and Jake Odorizzi are still on the block. Gerrit Cole is this off-season’s proof that the starting pitching trade market is far from dead.

The slowly developing free agent market may also yield some interesting opportunities if some of the mid-level starting options remain unsigned as spring training begins. Forget Jake Arrieta and Yu Darvish if you’re a Cardinals fan. These two will still get long-term deals worth way more than the Cardinals will want to commit to when it’s all said and done. But if players like Alex Cobb and Lance Lynn remain unsigned much longer, 1-year or 2-year deals are very much a possibility. The Cardinals could swoop in, offer big money, and find an innings eater that wouldn’t be a long-term financial commitment like Mike Leake could have been had the Cardinals not been able to dump a major portion of his salary. The major concerns that linger around this subject include this particular handful of free agents being mostly over the age of 30, as well as the risk of further blocking a path to the majors for some very young, team-controlled top pitching prospects. These are very valid concerns, but getting quality innings from starters in 2018 is an equally relevant issue to consider.

There’s no doubt that both the trade and free agent markets are risky chess matches to play. Some teams get burned. Other teams get rewarded. Either way, the Cardinals should not be merely content, because the time is now to contend, especially when considering the results of the last two seasons and the ever changing landscape of the NL Central. The Cards shouldn’t scoff at the idea of adding one more proven starter for the right price.

 

This article first appeared on isportsweb.com and was syndicated with permission.

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