Major League Baseball's offseason is in full swing, and things figure to get even more frantic with the Winter Meetings just around the bend. So before it's too late, let's get out in front of the forthcoming deluge of signings and trades and tell certain notable teams how they should be conducting their business.
This time up, it's the St. Louis Cardinals, coming off a deeply disappointing 2023 campaign, and lead decision-maker John Mozeliak, who will nod dismissively when confronted with our unsolicited advice. In each instance, we strive to be realistic in addressing each team and operate under the awareness that teams can't force players to sign with them or force other teams to trade with them. So consider these to be "politely recommended hypotheticals" as opposed to "unyielding marching orders."
So now assume the position, Cardinals, and be crushed under the weight of our counsel. Do these things now.
1. Add one more starting pitcher – preferably a young-ish one with upside
The Cardinals' front office has already been highly active when it comes to repairing a rotation that was one of baseball's worst in 2023 and played a leading role in the team's surprising 91-loss campaign. Before December even arrived, the Cardinals added Sonny Gray to the front end and innings-eaters Lance Lynn and Kyle Gibson to the back end. Given that depth and stability were leading issues this past season, those three known quantities and their capacity to take the ball 30 or more times per year are sorely needed. Gray provides ace-ish run prevention, Lynn's home run issues figure to regress in a positive direction, and Gibson is more than adequate by the standards of fifth starters.
That said, the work is not done, or at least it shouldn't be done. As things stand now, Miles Mikolas is likely to be in line to be the team's No. 2 starter, and to state the obvious there's quite a bit of drop-off from Gray to the 35-year-old Mikolas. On another level, Steven Matz at age 33 is the youngest pitcher presently slated for rotation duty in St. Louis. Matz's penchant for injuries is also relevant here. To address that sub-optimal gap between their No. 1 and No. 2 starters and give the rotation some much-needed youth, St. Louis should target another starting pitcher in the days and weeks to come.
Gray's $75 million contract is heavily backloaded, and he'll make just $10 million in 2024. That gives the Cardinals room in the current budget -- maybe $20 million or so -- to make further additions. Maybe they don't return to the top of the agent market for, say, Yoshinobu Yamamoto (although he'd be a perfect fit for the Cardinals and many other teams), but a trade is also a path for St. Louis to add a front-end starter alongside Gray. Will the Mariners deal from their impressive stores of controllable starting pitchers to address needs in the lineup? The Cardinals with their abundance of young-ish position players could make for a compelling partner. The Cards and White Sox have had occasional discussions about Dylan Cease, and he'd of course check a lot of boxes for them. Elsewhere, the Rays are believed to be shopping Tyler Glasnow and his $25 million walk-year commitment, and he'd absolutely give the Cardinals the ceiling and swing-and-miss they need alongside Gray. The Cardinals very likely won't be willing to take on all $25 million, but perhaps the Rays would be willing to kick in some cash (thus increasing their prospect haul) or take on Matz's $12.5 million salary in return while also getting multiple young talents from St. Louis. The backloading of Gray's deal makes Glasnow in particular a compelling possibility.
If there's more payroll flexibility and will than you'd think, then, yes, the Cardinals should absolutely be all-in on Yamamoto. If, however, reality prevails, then a trade seems the best route to get some upside in the rotation alongside all the new stability in place. Such a trade would be varying degrees of painful in terms of which players head elsewhere, but it's something the Cardinals need to do in order to maximize their chances for a rebound in 2024.
2. Fortify the bullpen, ideally with a Jordan Hicks reunion
The Cardinals aren't necessarily desperate in the rotation, especially since the cascading effect of adding three starters pushes some reasonably promising arms into likely relief duty. Right now, Ryan Helsley, Jojo Romero, Giovanny Gallegos, Andre Pallante, Matthew Liberatore, and Zack Thompson form the probable bullpen core. That's a sound foundation, but the Cardinals could probably use some additional depth from the right side, especially given Pallante's reverse-platoon tendencies.
On the free-agency front, old friend Jordan Hicks would be a good fit. One of the hardest throwers in baseball, Hicks was a Cardinals lifer until he was dealt to the Blue Jays at the deadline. He took a step forward during the 2023 season thanks to some tweaks to his delivery and warm-up routine, and the results started to match the stuff. Given Hicks' skills and upward trajectory and the organizational familiarity, he'd be a perfect fit back in St. Louis. On top of all that, Hicks is still just 27 years of age.
Failing that, Phil Maton is a possible target, or the Cardinals could explore trade options.
3. Sort out the outfield logjam via trade
Barring a trade that plucks Tommy Edman from the Cardinals' roster, the jack-of-all-trades may be in line to be the team's primary center fielder in 2024. That's how impressive he was defensively while getting his first extended run at the position this past season. If that's the case, then the corners will be manned by Jordan Walker and Lars Nootbaar. That leaves uncertain roles for Tyler O'Neill and Dylan Carlson. Sure, there's the DH spot, but Nolan Gorman figures to see some time there, and manager Oli Marmol loves to use the DH to give partial rest days to veteran regulars like Nolan Arenado, Paul Goldschmidt, and Willson Contreras. Carlson in particular badly needs regular playing time to see if he can reach his still notable ceiling at age 25, but it's hard to see how that happens in St. Louis barring unfortunate injury. That's where those aforementioned trade possibilities come into play, whether for a starting pitcher or relief help.
At least one of Carlson and O'Neill needs to be playing for another team in 2024 in order to help Marmol's roster flow better and to make optimal use of the team's tradable assets. Neither outfield is going to be a centerpiece of any meaningful trade – although Carlson has more trade appeal than you might think – but they can be interesting complementary additions in a larger swap.