Many people might not see third base as a particular need or weakness for the Cardinals. The production that came from there, however, by Matt Carpenter could turn into a permanent hole, especially offensively, for a team that has lots of potential on the mound.
The Cardinals won the NL Central division by a game and made the postseason for the first time in three years in 2019. They made that, despite being subpar at the plate, finishing the regular season 19th in runs scored, worst of all 12 postseason participants. Their offensive woes kicked in yet again in the NLCS against the Nationals, scoring just 6 runs over four games en route to being swept out of a chance to reach the World Series.
It wasn’t a secret that Matt Carpenter’s downward heavily contributed to that. In 2018, Carpenter hit career-high 36 home runs and finished fourth in NL MVP voting. A year, and a two-year contract extension, later, he recorded the least WAR since his rookie 2011 season – 0.8.
The pressure for the Cardinals to continue competing becomes even bigger, and the first step is finding a bat, or perhaps multiple bats, to replace free agent outfielder Marcell Ozuna. The former Marlin, who spent two seasons in Missouri, could still re-sign with his current team, but an upgrade is certainly needed.
The outfield free agency market seems pretty weak this offseason. Paul Goldschmidt is a lock at first base with his contract as are also Kolten Wong and Paul DeJong at second base and shortstop. There aren’t many more needs than a solid bat, and that could only happen at third base.
Fortunately, free agency gives St. Louis more than enough chances to make that leap of faith towards getting a superstar for the second consecutive offseason. Josh Donaldson and Mike Moustakas are great options that the Cardinals have already looked into. However, if the Cardinals want to take a step forward and become a top competitor in the National League, they need to start seriously exploring signing Anthony Rendon.
Rendon was in the MVP conversation after a strong second half and became a vital part of the Nationals World Series-winning team both at the end of the regular season and with a memorable playoff performance. He batted .319 and had 1.010 OPS, in addition to taking part in the All-Star Game for the first time in his seven-year MLB career. He has now batted for over .300 at the plate in each of his last three seasons.
When a team looks into a player of his calibre, it’s not a matter of whether the club needs that kind of a player, hence whether he fits there. It’s pretty obvious that the 13-time world champions need a player like Rendon. Their payroll puts them in an unfavorable situation in negotiation talks with him but there are moves they can do if they’re willing to consider him.
The Cardinals are 7th in team payroll at the moment, in big part because of a 5-year, $82-million deal with Dexter Fowler that hasn’t paid off, at least not yet. The team has nearly $35 million more to spend on 2019 salaries before getting hit with luxury tax. Matt Carpenter covers $18.5 million in 2019 before hitting free agency after the conclusion of the season.
If Rendon and his representatives set a lower bar of around $25-$30 million a year, the Cardinals might not need to cut down on 2019 salary considering that they don’t have many other needs they have to address. However, that looks unlikely as just last winter Nolan Arenado signed an 8-year deal of $32.5 million a year which many impactful players will use as leverage in the negotiating process (not to mention the contracts Harper, Machado and Trout got last offseason).
In such case, the Cardinals could possibly move on from Carpenter, trading him prior to his contract year. Carpenter probably won’t be valued anything like Rendon or Donaldson, but he can be a target for teams that prioritize other needs and still could use an upgrade at third base, like the Mets and the Phillies. A possible obstacle here is that for a deal to be beneficial for a buyer, St. Louis will still need to absorb some of his 2019 salary.
While the Cardinals are still holding on in the mix for Rendon’s signing, they desperately need an upgrade in their batting lineup and at third base, based on last year’s debacle by Matt Carpenter. No other contender needs a sudden offensive spark like the St. Louis Cardinals, and no other player can provide that spark better than Rendon.