Free agents are officially on the market, qualifying offers have been extended (and rejected), contract options exercised and/or declined and 40-man rosters whittled down. Welcome to the MLB offseason.
For the Cardinals, it can’t come soon enough, as they’ll try to wash away the taste of a season that began with World Series aspirations and ended in a shocking last place finish. This is far from a rebuilding job, though, and GM John Mozeliak’s mandate is clear. How will he approach a pivotal winter in St. Louis? What are the team’s biggest needs, and who might be brought in to fill them? We’re breaking down the Redbirds’ offseason plans from every angle.
Cardinals offseason preview
Season in review
Just about everything that could go wrong did go wrong for St. Louis in 2023. Just three of the team’s Opening Day starters — Paul Goldschmidt, Nolan Arenado and Tommy Edman — appeared in more than 120 games. Prize free-agent acquisition Willson Contreras got off to such a slow start both at and behind the plate that manager Oli Marmol more or less benched him for stretches. And then there was the pitching staff: Cardinals starters pitched to a 5.07 ERA on the year, fifth-worst in all of baseball and ahead of only the Rockies, A’s, Reds and Royals. Jordan Montgomery was the only member of St. Louis’ rotation with an above-average ERA, and once he was shipped to Texas at the trade deadline, the bottom truly fell out. Despite a roster that seemed as deep and well-rounded as anyone in spring training, the Cardinals slumped to a 71-91 record, a full five games beneath the lowly Pirates in the NL Central cellar.
Pending free agents
If there’s a silver lining to all that carnage, it’s that the Cardinals don’t really have to worry about replacing any key players. Only four members of the 2023 team are set to hit free agency, and none of that group — backup catcher Tres Barrera and relievers Drew VerHagen, Wilking Rodriguez and Jacob Barnes — figured to play much of a role in 2024.
In case that season review didn’t make it clear enough, Mozeliak enters this winter with a very simple shopping list: pitching, pitching and, oh yeah, more pitching. The bullpen needs its own facelift after Jordan Hicks was dealt to Toronto, Giovanny Gallegos imploded and Ryan Helsley suffered through an injury-plagued season, but the main priority is fixing the starting rotation — a task that will involve acquiring not just one but multiple arms, whether via free agency or trade. Mozeliak admitted as much during this month’s GM Meetings, saying “I think this [offseason] is a little bit of a broader stroke because it’s more of a volume play than just one [addition].”
Best free-agent fits
You could pretty much just run down a list of the top available starters and they would all be a great fit for St. Louis. The team appears to be interested in a few names in particular, though, starting with a reunion with Montgomery, who was a stalwart atop the team’s rotation before being dealt last year and was even better in helping the Rangers capture the World Series. The lefty reportedly liked his team with the Cardinals and would be interested in a return, and his steadiness and ability to sop up innings would do wonders. St. Louis has also been linked to longtime Phillies ace Aaron Nola, and while he struggled through an up-and-down 2023 and saw a dip in his K rate and fastball velocity, his durability and strong postseason performance should make him awfully appealing. Blake Snell would provide a swing-and-miss element that this rotation was desperately lacking this past season, while 25-year-old Japanese phenom Yoshinobu Yamamoto offers legitimate ace upside and is just entering his prime.
Of course, Mozeliak can’t afford to just shop in the high-rent distract. He’ll also need to consider some lower-tier options, guys like former Cardinal Michael Wacha, former Padres righty Seth Lugo and veteran Kenta Maeda. He’ll also need to add at least one high-leverage reliever, with both Josh Hader and Aroldis Chapman offering appeal as high-strikeout options who would introduce a needed left-handed element.
Mozeliak doesn’t have a particularly deep farm system to pull from, but what he lacks in Minor League talent he more than makes up for in young, tradable Major League talent — particularly in the outfield. Both Dylan Carlson and Tyler O’Neill have struggled with injuries and inconsistency over the last couple of years, but both were highly-touted prospects who have shown flashes of stardom that might entice a team (like, say, the outfield-needy Yankees?) to take a chance on them. Things could really get wild if the team decides to make Goldschmidt available, with the 36-year-old a year out from free agency but still hitting at a very high level. The Cardinals’ core is too good for a rebuild, and they deserve exhausting every possible avenue to fix this broken pitching staff.