Makeup of 2022 St. Louis Cardinals starting to take shape. But plenty of questions loom


As the annual Major League Baseball general managers meetings wrap up in Carlsbad, California, the St. Louis Cardinals have made moves which begin to form the shape of their 2022 club even as the winter’s biggest questions remain unanswered.

The team announced Tuesday they re-signed lefty reliever T.J. McFarland to a one year contract, returning a valuable ground ball getter who helped stabilize the bullpen down the stretch. In addition, though it’s yet to be officially announced, the club has reached an agreement with Skip Schumaker to return to St. Louis as bench coach, filling the role previously held by new manager Oliver Marmol.

With the addition of Schumaker, the only vacancy on the Major League staff is that of assistant hitting coach after the Cardinals opted not to bring back Jobel Jiménez. The team has been consistent in its desire to add a coach to the staff with substantial experience in the big leagues, and will likely do so in that position.

Even as the Major League team takes shape, smaller moves made at the minor league level have revealed some of the team’s thinking as they seek to reorganize their depth.

Both Austin Dean and Justin WIlliams, each of whom made the opening day roster in 2021 and got substantial playing time in the season’s early going, have departed. Dean was claimed on waivers by the San Francisco Giants and Williams, after clearing waivers, opted for free agency rather than accepting an assignment to Memphis.

With the departure of two outfielders at the upper levels of the organization, it came as somewhat of a surprise the Cardinals then made the decision not to add 2015 first round pick Nick Plummer to their 40-man roster, and in so doing, allowed him the opportunity to reach free agency as well.

Plummer, 25, began to follow through on that first round promise this season, batting .280 with 15 home runs and a .479 slugging percentage split between Double-A Springfield and Triple-A Memphis. He joined the team’s taxi squad in Los Angeles for the Wild Card game, and his addition to the roster was at the time believed to be a fait accompli. Now, the Cardinals will attempt to bring him back on a minor league deal but must face down competition on the open market in order to do so.

Finding a redundancy in Plummer on the organizational depth chart comes in part from the ascendance of two other left-handed hitting outfielders. Lars Nootbaar was a reliable contributor at the big league level in the second half of 2021, and has rolled that over into success in the Arizona Fall League. As of the start of play Thursday, Nootbaar’s 1.078 on base plus slugging percentage was good for third in that league, barely trailing the 1.100 mark of teammate Juan Yepez.

Possible work stoppage

Alec Burleson, a second round pick in 2020, climbed through three levels of the minors in 2021, and is himself a lefty-hitting outfielder knocking on the door of the majors. His ascendance in combination with Nootbaar’s left Plummer without an obvious place in the organization, though it remains a surprise the Cardinals did not anticipate that redundancy and seek a solution in the trade market.

As free agency begins to take shape, it will come as no surprise if the players who eventually sign the largest deals of the winter wait to do so until the dust settles around the negotiations for a new collective bargaining agreement. And yet league sources have suggested that there may be a rush for stability among players in lower tiers in the run up to the December 1st expiration of the CBA.

With the looming possibility of a work stoppage that could put the movement of players on ice, many mid-tier free agents may prefer to secure certainty for themselves rather than scrambling for jobs if the game were to re-open its doors on a limited timeline.

Mid-tier shopping

It’s in this market where the Cardinals are likely to do a fair amount of shopping. The club remains engaged with righty Luis García about a return engagement in the bullpen, and could well be interested in bringing back lefty starter J.A. Happ if they find themselves unconvinced that a larger investment in a starting pitcher would bear significantly sweeter fruit.

That middle course is not totally unfamiliar to the Cardinals, even as it comes with the attendant warnings which accompany previous free agent signings that turned out to be significant disappointments. With the possible exception of remaining willing to scoop up a shortstop such as Trevor Story if the market steers him their direction, the Cardinals will return in 2022 a large portion of the roster which finished out 2021 riding high.

A strange combination of tumult and stasis has defined the early winter thus far for St. Louis, and it would be a surprise if that path was deviated from any time soon.

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