Cardinals' key questions for 2021

ST. LOUIS -- On Friday we can officially say goodbye to 2020 and hope that 2021 brings a little more normalcy. The Cardinals, though, have had their eyes on '21 for a while now, aiming to improve the roster internally, as well as exploring outside options, with “patience” as their unofficial slogan for the winter.

Now that 2021 is arriving, though, the offseason market should begin to pick up, and with it, the Cardinals can answer some questions that face them to begin this season.

Here are five questions facing the Cardinals entering the new year:

1) Will Molina, Wainwright return?
The Cardinals’ main goal this offseason is to retain their “legacy players,” as president of baseball operations John Mozeliak called the longtime battery of and . The deals haven’t come to fruition, mainly because the club is waiting to see if there are any answers to the upcoming season -- for example, if there is any way to get fans safely back in the stadium -- before moving in the free-agent market.

The Cardinals have said they want both back, and both players have said they want to be back. There was some initial competition from other clubs, but those have tapered off in recent weeks. So the door is wide open for the two to return to St. Louis. The question remains, though, of what Molina and Wainwright are asking for and if the potential contracts can fit into the Cardinals’ financial structure for next season.

2) How will the offense improve?
The Cardinals had the lowest slugging percentage of any postseason team for the second straight year, with their 2019 figure of .415 dropping to .371 in ’20. St. Louis ranked 24th in MLB this year with 4.14 runs per game -- the National League averaged 4.71 -- and the club was 4-26 when scoring three runs or fewer.

The Cardinals’ strength is defense and pitching, so they don’t need to lead the Majors in every batting stat to win. But they do need to improve the offense, at least to league average. A simple, short-term fix way for this is with the designated hitter, but NL clubs are working under the assumption the DH won't stay for 2021.

With or without a DH, there’s one offensive group that could use improvement: the outfield. Last season, Cardinals outfielders produced a .677 OPS, the third-lowest OPS produced by the club in its history.

How to improve that number? The Cardinals could add an outfielder from the free-agent market or via trade. There are plenty out there, especially after many were non-tendered in early December. If the Cardinals don’t want to give up yet on their young outfielders like or -- a fair concern, given the experience of trading away 2020 postseason star Randy Arozarena just a year ago -- the club could sign a left-handed-hitting outfielder to platoon, while allowing No. 1 prospect Dylan Carlson to start every day and give more playing time to and (a left-handed hitter).

Mixing and matching the outfield to create as much production as possible would be different than what the Cardinals have done recently. And it could make for different results.

3) Who is at second and third base?
Right now, the Cardinals see as their everyday second baseman after they declined Kolten Wong's option. That leaves at third base. Carpenter, who is entering the final guaranteed year of his contract, will likely get the opportunity to start the season as the everyday third baseman, but with the contract shrinking each day that passes, the Cardinals will be less likely to ride it out through an entire season if he struggles like the past two years.

If they don’t land an infielder in free agency or via trade, the Cardinals have options in the Minor Leagues. If Carpenter struggles and Edman moves to third, could get a shot at second base. So could two new faces, and , whom the Cardinals signed to Minor League deals with invites to Spring Training. Or if one of the third-base prospects in the system, like Elehuris Montero or even Nolan Gorman -- who stood out this past season at the Cardinals' alternate training site -- hit their way into consideration, they could offer some serious competition.

4) Who's in the rotation? And the bullpen?
With out for a year recovering from Tommy John surgery, the Cardinals have two open spots in the rotation behind , and . Wainwright gets one if he returns. The final piece of the Opening Day rotation will be a competition between a number of candidates, and that will help shape the bullpen. Internal options include , , , and even , who has been in this mix at the start of spring for the past two years but wound up as a late-inning relief arm.

The Cardinals were clear Martínez will have to earn his spot in the rotation, and if he’s better suited for the bullpen, he could be a reliable swingman, especially in the early months of the season. So too could Reyes, and this would allow him to build up his innings rather than just go into a starter’s workload after three years of injury and pitching as a reliever last season.

The way the Cardinals structure their rotation will help their bullpen take form. Aside from Wainwright, the pitching staff is not a question they’ll need to answer early in 2021, but it will be a storyline to keep an eye on as we enter Spring Training.

5) Is this the year to maintain status quo?
It’s clear the Cardinals are eyeing 2022 as a chance to get some contracts off the books -- more than $60 million will be gone -- and usher in a new era, fueled by young talent nearing the Majors and the financial freedom to supplement that talent from the outside. So is 2021 the year to coast? Should the Cardinals solely focus on retaining Molina and Wainwright while not adding much to the offense and see where that takes them? In other words, should 2021 be a repeat of '19 and '20 in order to reset for '22?

The Cardinals have pushed back on that.

“Yes, we understand there’s economic uncertainty,” Mozeliak said this month. “Yes, we understand it doesn’t look great at the moment, but we still want to put a team out there we can be proud of.”

Saying that 2021 matters means the Cardinals will need to address the offense’s weakness. Significant help doesn’t have to equal expensive help, or even long-term help. There are plenty of bats out there, at every price point, that can help lift the lineup. If they can make the right call, the Cardinals will be able to find help for the offense and compete in 2021 while also eyeing '22 to bring the real action.

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