Five virtual Winter Warm-Up topics from columnist Ben Frederickson that Cardinals fans should be discussing ...
Cardinals Winter Warm-Up has a much different feel this year due to the all-virtual setup caused by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Usually, key Cardinals decision makers like chairman Bill DeWitt Jr., president of baseball operations John Mozeliak and general manager Michael Girsch make trips to the media room and main-room stage for multiple Q&A sessions, sometimes with media members, and sometimes with fans. That was not the case this year, but the Cardinals did roll out a series of sit-downs recorded with Cardinals broadcaster Dan McLaughlin. You can find the series of interviews here. Here are some observations from those chats.
1) Cards awaiting decisions from Molina, Wainwright
DeWitt Jr. confirmed the club has made at least initial offers to free agents Adam Wainwright and Yadier Molina.
It sounded like DeWitt wanted that known, that offers had been made.
It sounded like the Cardinals are not all that interested, at least at the moment, in budging from those offers.
"Hopefully they will come back," DeWitt Jr. said. "But that's to be determined. They are free agents, and they will help decide that for us as well."
"They are clearly both iconic Cardinals. They have had great success. Championship teams. Good teammates. Leaders. So, we are hopeful they will come back. We have made them both offers. I think they just want to see what the market is. They may choose to go elsewhere. That's their decision. Someone may come in and offer them more, and they may choose to take it. We will just have to see."
Here's Mozeliak's latest take on whether the battery will be back:
"I'm in contact with both agents," Mozeliak said. "Obviously, we understand the importance they have meant to this organization, what their legacies are about. I'm hopeful we can find a pathway forward. There are expectations, and there is reality. Sometimes they don't always meet. All I would say to our fanbase right now is, just be patient, which I've said all offseason. Hopefully we can find a positive way to resolve this. But time will tell."
Waiting. Waiting. Waiting.
2) DeWitt warms to DH (somewhat)
It would not be Winter Warm-Up without an update on if and when the designated hitter could be coming to the National League. We saw it last season as a player-safety element of the one-year deal agreed upon by players and owners. Owners and players have not yet ironed out if it will be back for 2021. The topic is expected to be a big part of the new collective bargaining agreement that must be negotiated before the 2022 season. Here's the latest on where key Cardinals leaders stand:
"The DH, historically, those of us in the National League have not been fans of it," Dewitt Jr. said. "But, you know, that (2020 season) also opened up some eyes. You get a little more offense, and take pitchers out of potential injuries at the plate, stuff like that. I think that was interesting."
"I do like the game better without the DH," Mozeliak said. "I just feel it's more strategic. I think the manager is forced to understand what is in front of him versus, it's a little bit simplified when you don't have to worry about those types of pitching changes. Having said that, a team that could use a little offensive boost, if I'm looking at it from purely a short view, I don't think it would be the worst thing in the world. Regardless of what I think, I think it's coming, whether it's this year or next year. I just think there is a lot of momentum for it."
Yes, Mozeliak was implying that the offense-challenged Cardinals could benefit from the DH returning to the NL in 2021. That would be the easiest way to improve the lineup. Plenty of intriguing candidates remain available on the open market. And it would allow the Cardinals to continue their ongoing outfield experiment with internal options.
In other rule-related matters, Mozeliak and DeWitt Jr. said they are big fans of the rule that puts a runner on second base to start extra innings, because it preserves players and cuts back on roster changes required by marathon extra-inning games.
3) Gorman, Liberatore and Thompson climbing fast
Girsch had some interesting things to say about notable Cardinals prospects Matthew Liberatore, the prized lefty pitcher the Cardinals acquired in the Randy Arozarena trade, and Nolan Gorman, the heavy-hitting third baseman — unless he is moved to a different position.
Girsch said what the Cardinals have been whispering for a while. Liberatore and Gorman could be in the majors in 2021. Liberatore would be first, unless a curveball arrives.
"If things go the way we hope this year, he (Liberatore) will at least be in consideration by the second half of the season," Girsch said.
Girsch explained how the Springfield alternate site used in 2020 offered Gorman a unique challenge. What he did not get in reps in a normal minor league season, he might have made up for in reps against really challenging pitching, more challenging than he might have faced in the minors.
"Nolan had a tough assignment in that most of the guys were big-league quality pitchers, because we needed them as insurance," Girsch said. "And the guys who weren't were elite left-handed prospects (Liberatore and Zack Thompson). For a guy who had been in A-ball the year before, it was a good wake-up call as to what he is going to face going forward."
On the defense side, Gorman benefited from extensive one-on-one work with Jose Oquendo.
"He's got a bat that can probably play anywhere," Girsch said. "But we would like him to be a plus third baseman if at all possible, and he has committed to making that effort."
If you had not already, add Zack Thompson's name next to Gorman and Liberatore on the list of up-and-coming Cardinals who could impact the 2021 season before it ends.
4) Are the Cardinals eventually going to go shopping?
Girsch said the Cardinals are "still hoping to make improvements."
Mozeliak said he thinks there will be a lot of transactions across baseball between now and the start of spring training, but also suggested teams could find themselves making more moves during camp, similar to the Cardinals late addition of pitcher Kyle Lohse before the 2008 season.
"It wouldn't shock me to see some of that happen this year," Mozeliak said. "People get into camp. People look at what they have. Maybe reassess and do something different ... The more time you can buy to when you understand when you can open up your gates, and how many people you can have come to your stadium, is going to drive a lot of this ... Each team is its own entity. Each team has its own rules. But a lot of this is based on state and local government, on what you can and cannot do. We are not all playing from a level playing field this year. I think that has created some of this slowness this offseason."
Mozeliak also added this when describing the 2021 team:
"We are built around pitching. I still think we will be a very good defensive club. Look, we've gotta pick it up offensively. We know that. Whether that means we have some additions between now and the time we start. Whether that means some of the players that performed last year we are hoping to perform better. Overall, we are just a good baseball team. Mike Shildt and his staff do a great job of preparing these guys. There was a definite positive takeaway from our season last year. Players were engaged. Ultimately, look, we have a bright future coming with our farm system. We are excited about where we are. It's hard to sort of put a bow on our club today, because there is still some time. There are still some things that may or may not happen. So, for me to write the conclusion of what 2021 is going to look like, I can't. I can say I think we will be an exciting team to watch. There is no doubt the Central seems like it has opened. Hopefully we can take advantage of that."
Said DeWitt Jr.: "Most of our club is under contract. We know what the payroll of that group is, and it's substantial. So, once we sort out what we think our revenue is going to be, it will enable us to make decisions on what we might be able to add. But, we are always looking to improve. Hopefully we will be able to before the season starts."
There will be no blockbusters. There could be some late, affordable and short-term moves to bulk up an offense that needs help. At least, there should be.
5) Outfield experiment enters final stage
Add this candid Mozeliak quote to the list of reasons I don't think the Cardinals are very interested in adding outside outfielders before the season starts:
"Go back a year, and think about (Randy) Arozarena. Here's a player that we could not find at-bats for. We put him in a deal, and then of course he becomes legendary in October. That is sort of my greatest fear. Making sure we give these guys some true chance. I have a hard time accepting last year as a great sample size, because it was such an unusual year for our team. Not making excuses, but when you have that quarantine, then another 10-day dead period, then you are told to go play. I just don't think from a player standpoint, or even pitching standpoint, that we ever really caught our stride. Now, as we sit here today, how do we create that opportunity moving forward? ... You have these guys that really want a chance to play, that want at-bats. That is probably going to be the most important thing we get right, or we can't make another mistake on. That is going to be critical on trying to make sure we get these guys at-bats. And the most important part is, what do they do with them? Because we have to see an uptick in our offense, or it's going to be a long year."
Depending on how MLB decides to calculate things, Justin Williams could be out of options entering this season. There's another outfield bat the Cardinals could risk losing without getting a good read on unless that meaningful sample size happens in 2021.
Again, the most likely route the Cardinals have to improve their offense without making what they feel are premature calls on the outfield would be to add a proven DH. If there is no DH in the NL in 2021 and the Cardinals can't find some other way to bulk up the lineup, well, that would send them into the 2021 season relying on a whole lot of optimism and hope.
It was interesting to hear Mozeliak suggest that a piggyback-type style approach to the major-league rotation could be a strength in 2021, considering the Cardinals have traditionally resisted that kind of approach in favor of a more traditional five-man rotation ... Girsch admitting he has not yet picked out his place for spring training was a clear reminder of how everything in baseball is written in pencil at this moment ... Mozeliak sounded very optimistic about the minor leagues getting back in motion this season, which is of course good news.
@Ben_Fred on Twitter