ST. LOUIS -- In the market for an everyday catcher for the first time in more than two decades, the Cardinals are eager to get to the Winter Meetings and evaluate their free-agent and trade options at that all-important position.
Pressed into finding a catcher following the retirement of the 40-year-old Yadier Molina, the Cardinals have spent nearly two months since their abbreviated time in the playoffs ended pondering their backstop options. They have made it no secret they will be shopping for a catcher at next week’s Meetings in San Diego.
The Cardinals are also hopeful of acquiring a big bat -- preferably a left-handed one and from someone who can replicate what legendary slugger Albert Pujols did in 2022.
With those key needs in mind, here are some of the things to look for during the Winter Meetings:
• Sunday, Dec. 4: Hall of Fame Contemporary Era Ballot results released (Albert Belle, Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Don Mattingly, Fred McGriff, Dale Murphy, Rafael Palmeiro, Curt Schilling)
• Monday, Dec. 5: All-MLB Team announced
• Tuesday, Dec. 6: Inaugural Draft Lottery, AL/NL Relievers of Year announced
• Wednesday, Dec. 7: Rule 5 Draft
Signing Willson Contreras could serve two purposes. First, it would give the Cardinals a major upgrade offensively at catcher. Secondly, it would do damage to the rival Cubs.
In addition to Contreras dropping several hints on social media that he is interested in playing for St. Louis, pitcher José Quintana said his former Cubs teammate made inquiries about the Cards' culture.
Landing Contreras won’t be cheap. Christian Vázquez, who just helped the Astros win the World Series, could be a more payroll-friendly option.
Potential trade candidates
Sean Murphy, a 2021 Gold Glove Award winner and a ’22 finalist, would fit the defensive-minded mold the Cardinals covet. Shea Langeliers, part of the A's haul in the Matt Olson trade, is ready to take over in Oakland, making Murphy expendable.
To land the catcher they need, the Cardinals will likely be bombarded with questions about dealing shortstop prospect Masyn Winn and young Major Leaguers Nolan Gorman, Matthew Liberatore, Juan Yepez and Dylan Carlson. One name that might surface in trade talks is two-time Gold Glover Tyler O'Neill, whose 2022 season was wrecked by injuries.
Prospect to know
Outfielder Jordan Walker, the No. 6 overall prospect per MLB Pipeline, is thought to be as close to a can’t-miss future star as the Cardinals have had in years. The 6-foot-5 Walker bulked up to 250 pounds in 2022 and thrived at Double-A Springfield. He followed that up by playing exceptionally well in the Arizona Fall League where he was named a Fall Star.
Walker, who doesn’t turn 21 until May 22, made the transition from third base to the outfield this past season. A strong showing this spring could go a long way toward shoring up the Cardinals' problems in the outfield with Walker on the Opening Day roster.
Rule 5 Draft
President of baseball operations John Mozeliak said the Cardinals were committed to increasing the payroll after packing 3.3 million fans into Busch Stadium in 2022. However, there has been no indication of how high the Cardinals will be willing to go with their 2023 payroll.
The burning question is this: Will the Cardinals spend enough to close the sizeable payroll gap between them and the Mets, Dodgers, Phillies, Padres and Braves?
Can a Cardinals franchise that has lost nine of its last 10 playoff games make the kind of upgrades that will make it a legitimate contender again?
Yes, the Cardinals have an admirable history of sustained success and playoff relevance, but rabid fans in St. Louis are eager for the franchise to spend the money to add top talent. Franchise fixture Adam Wainwright is signed for one last season, and cornerstones Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado could be running out of prime years. If there ever was a time to proverbially “go for it” for the Redbirds, this would seem to be it.
Is the franchise ready to take that financial leap? Are the Cardinals willing to pass on a second straight star-studded class of shortstops? Will they poach Contreras from the Cubs? Or is the hope that the 20-year-old Walker is ready for the MLB level?
Next week’s Winter Meetings could answer many of those questions.