The first question the Cardinals need to answer this winter is whether Dexter Fowler will agree to move to left field, and if not, will he waive his no-trade clause? (File) 

By Rob Rains

For the second year in a row, the Cardinals’ off-season is starting a month earlier than they would have liked.

As they again watch the postseason go on without them, Cardinals’ executives will have more time to start searching for answers about what is missing in their team and what changes need to be made between now and February to help assure that the current playoff drought comes to an end in 2018.

There are certainly more questions than answers at this point, but here are 10 that need to be answered before the team reports next February in Jupiter, Fla.:

1. Will Dexter Fowler agree to waive his no-trade clause if the Cardinals tell him they want to move him to left field?

Even without making any moves this winter, there already are three players on the Cardinals’ roster who are better defensive centerfielders than Fowler - Tommy Pham, Harrison Bader and Magneuris Sierra.

Fowler was willing to give up his hold on the leadoff spot during the first year of his contract with the Cardinals but he reportedly balked at moving to left field, saying he came to St. Louis to play center. If that stance continues this winter, the Cardinals would be better served to see if they can find a team that would accommodate his wishes to remain in center field and find a place where Fowler would agree to go. The Cardinals were able to find a taker for Mike Leake, and that could happen again with Fowler, although as was the case with the Leake trade to Seattle, they would no doubt have to eat a good portion of the money left on his contract.

Figuring out what to do with Fowler is the first answer the Cardinals need before addressing the rest of the outfield situation.

2. Who goes and who stays in the outfield?

Once the Cardinals know what they are going to do with Fowler, they can move on to the other outfielders on the roster. At least two of the current group likely need to be moved, and perhaps three if the team acquires another outfielder through a trade or free agency.

Randal Grichuk looks as if he will be one of the group which the Cardinals will try to trade, and perhaps Stephen Piscotty. Grichuk is not really any different as a player now than he has been the last couple of years, and becomes arbitration eligible this winter, meaning he will start making more money. The Cardinals are willing to give Piscotty a pass on this year, mostly for personal reasons, but certainly both outfielders’ names will come up in discussions this winter – as could that of Pham.

Even though Pham had the best season of anybody on the Cardinals this year, the team has to be aware of the fact he is 30 and has never had a year like this before – when he was both healthy and productive. There has to be at least some doubt he can match that performance again, and it makes sense to see what his trade value could be in a deal – it will certainly never be higher.

It’s likely the team would not deal either Bader or Jose Martinez, both of whom will not make much more than the minimum salary net year and can be backups at worst. The organization also is high on young outfielders Tyler O’Neill, who hit 31 homers in Triple A this season between Tacoma and Memphis, and Adolis Garcia, signed out of Cuba just before spring training last year. The Cardinals believe both could be ready for the majors at some point next season.

3. Where do they go to find a closer?

The answer might be nowhere if they are able to get a deal done with free agent Juan Nicasio, who assumed the role after he was acquired from the Phillies in an early September trade. Nicasio is likely to be a hot commodity on the free agent market, however, so the question will be how many years and how much money it will take for the Cardinals to bring him back.

Signing relievers to multi-year contracts has not worked out lately for the Cardinals (see Cecil, Brett as the latest example) but perhaps Nicasio will be different. Knowing that Trevor Rosenthal won’t pitch next year, even if the team finds a way to keep him under contract, and that Seung Hwan Oh is leaving, means Nicasio is really the only pitcher on the current roster who could fit this role.

If Nicasio doesn’t return, one option might be for the Cardinals to head back to Japan, where they found Oh. There have been indications the Orix Buffaloes could post closer Yoshihisa Hirano this winter, and at age 33, he would not be subject to any free agent signing restrictions and likely would come with a shorter contract and less money than Nicasio.

The right-handed Hirano has been with Orix since 2006 and has been their closer for the last five years. He has 29 saves this season and has 156 in his career.

4. Are there any free agents worth pursuing?

There always are attractive players available, and names such as J.D. Martinez and Eric Hosmer come to mind. They will be expensive, however, and even if the Cardinals are interested, they will have to decide how much they are willing to spend. There also is one other player who is expected to be on the market, however, who would not cost much – and definitely would offer a significant upgrade to the roster – Japanese two-way sensation Shohei Otani.

It was thought the Cardinals had no chance of signing the 23-year-old Otani because of their restrictions on signing international free agents, but there is a catch – while the Cardinals and several other teams are limited from signing players for more than $300,000, they could sign Otani if he agreed to that salary. Otani has reportedly told teams money is not going to be the deciding factor in where he signs, betting on himself that he will make much more than that in the coming years. Another team known to be interested in Otani, and under the same $300,000 limitation as the Cardinals, is the Dodgers.

The Cardinals have made their interest known, and two of their top scouts, Matt Slater and Jeff Ishii, returned recently from two weeks in Japan.. The signing restrictions do not prevent the Cardinals from paying the $20 million posting fee if they were able to sign Otani.

While most major-league scouts believe Otani has more of a future as a pitcher than as an outfielder in the U.S., Otani is said to be intrigued by the possibility of doing both – and finding a team that might give him that chance could be the deciding factor in where he signs, more so than the size of his signing bonus.

If the money was all that mattered to Otani, he would no doubt wait to jump to the major leagues for two more years, when at age 25, he would not be subject to any bonus or salary restrictions.

5. Should they float Carlos Martinez’s name in trade discussions to see what kind of package they could get in return?

Don’t jump to conclusions – this doesn’t mean the Cardinals should or will trade Martinez. The way this season went, however, there should be very few untouchable players this winter, including Martinez. There is no way to judge how much interest there would be in Martinez – or in any other player for that matter – if his name doesn’t come up in discussions. Maybe the package of players the Cardinals could get in return would make it a deal they should consider, or maybe not.

The strength of this organization is in young pitchers, and as is the situation with the corps of outfielders, there will not be spots for everybody in St. Louis next season, or in the next few years. Figuring out who to keep and who to trade will be one of the biggest challenges for John Mozeliak and Michael Girsch.

6. What would it take to acquire Giancarlo Stanton?

The Cardinals won’t know the answer to this question until they make the phone call, which should be one of the first pieces of business once the new Miami ownership group has put a front office team into place. It seems likely Stanton will be traded, and the Cardinals can afford the contract if they want to, with the question being what kind of talent they would have to send to the Marlins.

The Cardinals have enough players to put a deal together, and if they could also move a couple of their other long-term contracts this winter it would make Stanton’s deal even more affordable. The Marlins are expected to see quality young pitching in return, which happens to match the strength of the Cardinals’ organization.

No moves the team makes this winter will happen in a vacuum, however, as one move will have an impact on others the Cardinals might or not make. If they were able to sign Otani, for example, that could lessen interest in Stanton.

7. What should they do with Matt Carpenter?

This will be a hard question to ask and to answer. Carpenter has been one of the faces of the franchise in recent years, but is becoming a player without a true position. His best spot going forward likely is as a designated hitter, which of course, would mean he needs to move to an American League team.

First base and third base appear to be the two biggest positions in play if the Cardinals want to upgrade their offense. There are at least some who think Toronto might be willing to move Josh Donaldson, but if so, there would no doubt be multiple teams interested. Moving Carpenter, and his salary, also would help free up money for some other possible acquisitions.

8. Will there be any changes on the coaching staff?

The team made one change during the season, demoting third base coach Chris Maloney, and it’s possible there could be additional changes this winter. Two new coaches arrived last winter from the minors, Mike Shildt and Oliver Marmol, and the organization remains high on both so it’s unlikely they will be going anywhere, except perhaps changing assignments.

The coaches who might be in the most jeopardy could be pitching coach Derek Lilliquist and hitting coach John Mabry, although manager Mike Matheny will no doubt want to retain Mabry, one of his closest personal friends. The organization is very high on the two coaches at Triple A Memphis, pitching coach Bryan Eversgerd and hitting coach Mark Budaska, and it would not be a shock to see either or both promoted to some role on the major-league staff.

9. Who else might be traded?

As discussed, there should be very few untouchables on the current roster. Adam Wainwright and Yadier Molina are not going anywhere, and neither should the young players who could form the corps of the team going forward – Paul DeJong, Alex Reyes, Jack Flaherty, Luke Weaver, Carson Kelly or Bader.

Anybody else could go in the right deal. It would not be surprising if one-third of the roster, at least eight players, is turned over before the start of next season.

10. What prospects should they add to the 40-man roster?

There will have to be some tough decisions made about who gets added to the roster and which prospects are left off, exposing them to the Rule 5 draft, mostly involving the two strongest positions in the farm system – pitching and the outfield.

The group of pitchers who have to be protected this year or who could be list includes Austin Gomber, Daniel Poncedeleon and Derian Gonzalez. Outfielders who must be protected include O’Neill and Oscar Mercado.

One interesting name will be third baseman Patrick Wisdom, who also was Rule 5 eligible last year and was not claimed. Wisdom, now 26, hit 31 homers for Memphis but does not seem to be in the Cardinals’ plans so it likely would be in his best interests to move on to another organization.

Follow Rob Rains on Twitter @RobRains