SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Major League Baseball’s annual general managers meetings have come to a close, meaning club strategies are officially off and running.
This is especially true for the Cardinals, who will be one of baseball’s most interesting teams this offseason.
After their dismal 71-91 season, president of baseball operations John Mozeliak has been candid about his desire to never repeat a season like 2023. That means Mozeliak and the Cardinals’ front office must show they’ve learned from last winter’s missteps.
“My own (mistakes) I have no problem calling out,” Mozeliak said. “Adding depth, adding more pitching prior to going into camp would have in hindsight made more sense. So that’s what we’re trying to prepare for.”
The Cardinals want to add at least two starting pitchers — Mozeliak reiterated Wednesday at the GM meetings — deviating from the summer when he expressed a desire to add three. That the game plan has changed is not necessarily a cause for alarm. The Cardinals’ front office must remain open to every avenue and gauge different market values, both in free agency and via trade. Starting pitching will come at high costs, and while the Cardinals aim to establish an Opening Day payroll of $200 million (which would be the highest Opening Day payroll in club history), it is fair to question whether that would be enough to vault St. Louis into the upper echelon.
For you late night fiends:
Trying to predict how John Mozeliak and the Cardinals will navigate the pitching market? Good luck with that.
On the GM meetings and the ever-changing state of the #STLCards https://t.co/3EZ39YisN0
— Katie Woo (@katiejwoo) November 8, 2023
Based on a Mozeliak session with reporters that spanned more than 30 minutes, here’s what the Cardinals will focus on over the next few weeks as market values begin to set.
Rotation upgrades remain a priority, but the price matters
“We certainly feel we need at least two starters,” Mozeliak said when asked how the organization felt about the volume of pitching depth needed for next year’s team. “I think we have some (internal) talent that we can arrange, but we’re not going close ourselves off to the reliever market. We are going to take a more patient approach to that and allow things to happen. I think our checklist is starter, starter and then see what we look like.”
Mozeliak knows one thing for certain: The free-agent market will be ferocious.
“I think we’ll be able to (add two starters), but they’re not all going to be like, the guy. That’s going to be hard,” Mozeliak said. “The upper tier of this market is going to be uber-competitive. We know we need innings, right? Obviously when someone says that, there’s a bandwidth of super quality and then inching our way through.”
In other words, don’t expect the Cardinals to land two of Yoshinobu Yamamoto, Aaron Nola and Blake Snell, who will make up the highest tier of free agents in the starting pitching market. St. Louis can’t overspend on one arm. If Nola, whom the Cardinals have been linked to since October, is in their price range, the Cardinals will entertain offers, but they can’t outbid teams connected to top-tier starters, because St. Louis must leave enough funds to allocate to other areas of the roster.
However, free agency isn’t the only route Mozeliak will look at this winter.
“We do have some position player talent or depth, so we also do want to explore the trade market too, just in case we aren’t successful in the other one,” he said.
One thing in the Cardinals’ favor this winter is the lack of position players in this year’s free-agent class. Mozeliak can use that to his advantage, as he has plenty in the major leagues and minor leagues.
Roster depth could be key in exploring trade market
The Cardinals have substantial depth throughout the roster, but a good assortment of that depth is redundant. The club has several offense-first corner outfielders who are limited defensively. They also have an array of versatile middle infielders on the 40-man roster and in the upper levels of their minor-league system.
A point of emphasis for Mozeliak is finding ways to even out that depth. When asked if he felt the position depth on his 2023 roster created a logjam, Mozeliak said: “I totally agree with that. I think a lot of it was lacking experience. When you think about younger players and you’re trying to create that opportunity for them and they’re not playing, you’re really doing them a disservice. That was the thing that was really push-pull for me last year.”
He added: “A lot of our position players were somewhat out of sorts because they weren’t having that sort of consistent and constant use that you’d normally see.”
The natural solution, of course, is to take advantage of that depth and put it toward other resources. This is where the trade market for starting pitching becomes intriguing. When asked to project next year’s Opening Day outfield, Mozeliak was clear that the lineup was not set in stone, but that Lars Nootbaar (left field), Tommy Edman (center field) and Jordan Walker (right field) were the leading candidates. With Tyler O’Neill and Dylan Carlson seemingly pushed out of starting roles at this time, St. Louis could field calls on either player, along with outfielders like Alec Burleson, Juan Yepez, Moises Gomez and Luken Baker.
Next year’s payroll is not impacted by uncertainty over RSNs
Uncertainty regarding television revenue will be a major factor for many teams this winter. Roughly one-third of the league’s teams are operated by Bally Sports, whose parent company, Diamond Sports Group, filed for bankruptcy. This process has led to MLB taking over the broadcasts for the Arizona Diamondbacks and San Diego Padres, and it’s also led to the Minnesota Twins revealing that the team’s payroll for 2024 will take a significant hit. Other teams, including the Cardinals, that are impacted by this are the Atlanta Braves, Cincinnati Reds, Cleveland Guardians, Detroit Tigers, Kansas City Royals, Los Angles Angels, Miami Marlins, Milwaukee Brewers, Tampa Bay Rays and Texas Rangers.
The good news is that even with the uncertainty surrounding their regional sports network (RSN), Bally Sports Midwest, the Cardinals have not been told to scale back on spending. That means the Cardinals remain on track for a $200 million payroll, which they were trending toward last season until their record prompted them to offload contracts at the trade deadline. Last year, the Cardinals opened the season with a payroll of $176.5 million, putting them right at league average, per Cot’s Contracts. Due to the contracts that were dumped at the trade deadline and Adam Wainwright’s retirement, St. Louis is looking at an end-of-season payroll of around $145 million (though that number could change depending on if any player is not tendered a contract by next week’s tender deadline). That would give the team roughly $50 million to $55 million to spend this winter, should they want to reach the aforementioned $200 million payroll mark.
“I do think there are a lot of question marks for next year,” Mozeliak said. “But our other revenue source is attendance, and that’s something that from an organization standpoint, we want to be focused on that. … We understand this is product-driven.”
Losing its RSN would be disastrous for St. Louis, as the Cardinals rely heavily on revenue sharing. But as Mozeliak mentioned, the Cardinals also benefit immensely from ticket sales. St. Louis had the fourth-best attendance in baseball this year, drawing more than 3.2 million fans. However, their gate revenue dropped dramatically, as many of those recorded ticket sales did not actually fill seats at the ballpark, especially in the second half of the season.
Mozeliak acknowledged there was plenty of incentive to build a compelling product on the field so attendance would rise back to its usual standard. So begins another trying task for Mozeliak and the front office. The Cardinals must build an exciting product while working against the big-market teams in pursuit of quality starting pitching. They must also do so while two of its top revenue sources are no longer as dependable as years prior.
Roughly three weeks remain before MLB’s annual Winter Meetings, which usually represent the apex of offseason deals. The clock is ticking for the Cardinals, who arguably face their most dire winter yet.
(Photo of John Mozeliak from Oct. 1: Jeff Curry/USA Today)