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Why Wild Card Letdown Bodes Well for Cardinals’ Future

Third Baseman Nolan Arenado following the St. Louis Cardinals 3-1 Wild Card loss to the Los Angeles Dodgers. (Photo credit: Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP)

It was, as they say, the worst of times, and it was the best of times. The 2021 St. Louis Cardinals made every single fan run the full gamut of emotions. They started the season strong, got hit by the injury bug, took a nosedive, then somehow found an extra gear only to crash against a wall known as the defending champion L.A. Dodgers.

The Cardinals flew home disappointed with their loss in the NL Wild Card game on October 6th, knowing the magic had worn off. And it was truly magical how they ended up in the playoffs, to begin with. Given barely a one percent chance of making the postseason as late as the end of August, the Cardinals went into September. They blew everyone away with a franchise-record seventeen consecutive wins. That run secured their berth in the postseason. Unfortunately, one game was all they got.

It was a disappointing end, yes, but also hopeful and brimming with optimism for what’s to come. Had you asked mid-season, few people would have penciled the Cardinals into the postseason. Despite that, they defied the odds and gave their fans hope. And if we were all paying attention, that hope should extend beyond this season. Here are a few reasons why.

We’re Getting the Band Back Together

Before the Wild Card game in Los Angeles, the Cardinals had a few big announcements. Both Adam Wainwright and Yadier Molina were confirmed to be returning for what will most certainly be their last season next year (we’ve all heard that before). That’s not even the biggest news.

Offseason trade acquisition and superstar third baseman Nolan Arenado told Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that he would not exercise his opt-out clause and would return next season. He also appeared on Matt and Leslee Holliday’s “Table Forty” podcast, where he talked about how much he enjoys playing in St. Louis. It looks like Nolan is here to stay.

Those announcements solidify a core of players that were the league’s best defensive team, including a solid outfield led by breakout star left fielder Tyler O’Neill. The Cardinals have also found their lead-off man in Tommy Edman, who had a very solid season atop the lineup. That’s to say nothing of the first baseman Paul Goldschmidt who put up yet another stellar campaign. Rookie Dylan Carlson was also quite impressive and looks to build on that success going into next season.

September Player of the Month Tyler O’Neill is emerging as a star player. (Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images)

The Pitching Returns

There was possibly no team in the majors whose pitching staff was more decimated than the Cardinals in 2021. At one point in the year, four out of their five starters were out with injury, leaving 40-year old Adam Wainwright as the only healthy member of the original five. They lost closer Jordan Hicks early on, leaving a bullpen in flux that struggled for much of the season.

All of that changes going into next year. Ace Jack Flaherty will be back along with Dakota Hudson as they both came back for the season's final weekend. Miles Mikolas was finally healthy again and pitched solidly down the stretch. All-Star closer Alex Reyes should round out the starting five unless the team decides to sign an additional arm to bolster the rotation. Hicks will be back as well.

Will top prospect Matthew Liberatore contribute in 2022? (Photo by Mary DeCicco/MLB Photos)

We haven’t even talked about top pitching prospect Matthew Liberatore who will likely push for a roster spot. With another year under their belts, Jake Woodford and Johan Oviedo showed flashes of promise at the big level this year and could also make a case for themselves.

Where did all this money come from?

President of Baseball Operations John Mozeliak will not be able to utter that oft-used line of “it’s complicated“ when addressing holes on the roster. A whopping $42 million committed to only three players will come off the books as Carlos Martinez, Matt Carpenter, and Andrew Miller reach free agency. The only one with the possibility of returning is perhaps Miller, but that’s no guarantee.

This is important on two counts. First, it frees up money to address multiple areas of need where three players consumed a large portion of the budget. Secondly, it becomes a matter of addition by subtraction as Martinez was injured and Carpenter vastly underperformed. And it’s not exactly like Miller was dominant out of the bullpen with his 4.75 ERA. The point is, there are holes to fill and money to fill them with.

Free Agent Smorgasbord

If there was ever a time for the Cardinals to make a big splash in free agency, then now is the time to do it. The most glaring area of need is at shortstop. Paul DeJong hit below .200 and lost his job to Edmundo Sosa, who was solid but left room for more. Enter this off-season’s crop of free agent shortstops.

One would have to go back several years to find a FA shortstop class this deep. Trevor Story, Corey Seager, Carlos Correa, Javier Baez, and Marcus Semien are perhaps the most intriguing names out there. Any one of them would be an upgrade to what this team already has, but with Arenado already in the fold, it seems inevitable that Story will end up in St. Louis. That’s another column for another day. The bottom line is that help is there, and Mozeliak and Co. have proven their willingness to sign a free agent shortstop in the past (see Jhonny Peralta).

Few Truly Glaring Holes

Despite their struggles, this was still a 90-win team that overcame a ton of injuries this season. It boasted the best defense in the majors and an offense that started to click over the season's last month. Except for the aforementioned shortstop position, there’s not a position player you could upgrade over.

The pitching staff and the bench are where this team needs the most help. Carpenter was woeful, to say the least, and a lack of pitching depth was the Achilles heel for much of the season. This was still a solid team, but they just weren’t ready to hang with the big boys of the NL. Bolster the pitching staff, get a good bench bat, upgrade at shortstop, and this should be a team that could push for a World Series title in 2022.

Brian Swope is an editor and staff writer for Gateway City Sports. He is also the host of the Yakker Jacks podcast and an IBWAA member.

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