With rotation set, Cards turn focus to other needs

December 7th, 2023

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- After being one of MLB’s most active teams prior to start of the Winter Meetings by signing three free-agent pitchers, the Cardinals throttled things back at baseball’s biggest summit and shifted their focus to the trade market -- potentially acquiring relief talent while also dealing it away.

The Cardinals' cooldown was a sign of what's to come from now until the start of Spring Training. In many ways, St. Louis is content with the rotation following the additions of Sonny Gray, Lance Lynn and Kyle Gibson. And, barring a shocking development, they likely won’t make another play at a starting pitcher despite potential aces Dylan Cease, Corbin Burnes and Tyler Glasnow's reported availability on the trade front.

Asked directly whether the average age of a staff that also includes Miles Mikolas and Steven Matz concerns him, president of baseball operations John Mozeliak said: “I don’t worry about it. I know that there’s some risk, but I don’t worry about it. Those guys know what they need to do to pitch."

Mozeliak believes the proven veterans on the Cardinals' pitching staff will complement a lineup that still includes Paul Goldschmidt, Nolan Arenado, Willson Contreras and others.

When asked whether he viewed the Cardinals as a championship contender as currently constructed, Mozeliak replied: “I do. We’re excited about what we have. Again, you’ve got to play games and you need lots of things to happen. I can be as bullish as I want, but that’s why we play and that’s the beauty of sport. … We understand there are still opportunities that lie ahead and hopefully we’re able to make them happen. But even after all that, it doesn’t matter; you have to go and play.”

Landing reliable relief arms to fortify the bullpen around closer Ryan Helsley was the Cardinals' focus throughout the Winter Meetings after the club sandwiched the signings of Gray, Lynn and Gibson around the Thanksgiving holiday. While most Cardinals fans have openly pined for the club to be aggressive in trading for another front-of-the-rotation starter, the club has seemed content to instead focus on using their remaining financial resources and trade capital to land reliable relief pitching.

Content is not a way to describe the mood around outfielder , whom the Cardinals oddly pinpointed as a future trade chip in their pursuit of bullpen help. O’Neill, who finished eighth in the National League MVP race in 2021 after tallying 34 home runs and 80 RBIs, has seen his past two seasons marred by numerous injuries.

Apparently because of that -- and a simmering rift between O’Neill and Oliver Marmol that dates to early in the 2023 season when the manager questioned the outfielder’s hustle while running the bases -- the Cardinals don’t have the two-time Gold Glover in their outfield plans going forward. Marmol and Mozeliak said they see the Cards' outfield lineup being Lars Nootbaar, Tommy Edman and Jordan Walker, with versatile speedster Dylan Carlson serving as the primary backup.

That leaves out O’Neill, whom the Cardinals declined to non-tender in mid-November in hopes that he could fetch them a return in the trade market. While Mozeliak said “there’s definitely interest” in O'Neill on the trade market, super-agent Scott Boras, who represents O'Neill, questioned the Cardinals' logic in trading an outfielder just two years removed from a season in which he flashed superstar potential.

“Tyler O’Neill was eighth in MVP voting, 30-plus home runs, won two Gold Gloves,” Boras said, referring to O’Neill’s breakout performance in the 2020 and 2021 seasons. “With the talent evaluation of the Cardinals, it’s nice to know that they have players who reach higher levels, I guess.”

Back to the bullpen, the Cardinals are still searching for more relievers with swing-and-miss stuff, which is something of a departure from the days of St. Louis targeting pitchers who kept the ball on the ground. As evidence of that, the Cardinals plucked 25-year-old right-hander Ryan Fernandez away from the Red Sox in the Rule 5 Draft on Wednesday. Fernandez struck out 67 batters over 54 1/3 innings, which gives some indication as to what the Cardinals will be looking for as they continue to add bullpen depth. Former Cardinal Jordan Hicks and Astros standout Phil Maton could be two future targets.

“The volatility of the relief market, that’s the challenge, right?” Mozeliak said. “For us, we used to just try to identify ground-ball machines because that fit in well with the makeup of our club, and that’s something we do still value. But trying to find that different [swing-and-miss] component or different looks is something that matters. Have we identified the perfect fit yet? No, but that’s the purpose of these of these few days [at the Winter Meetings].”