A Cardinals franchise that has always prided itself on its draft-and-develop strategy to serve as the lifeblood for its talent pool has now been forced into uncomfortable territory, where they will eventually have to ponder some major, direction-changing decisions.
The Cardinals suffered one of their toughest campaigns in 2023, bottoming out at 71-91 and finishing last in the division for the first time in 33 years. A season such as this has a way of making a franchise reevaluate the way it operates and become much more open to change -- even though that change defies a lot of what it has believed for years.
A Cardinals franchise that has purposefully stayed out of the open bidding wars of MLB free agency is now looking at that avenue to try and distance itself from a poor 2023 season. A Cardinals franchise that has openly disavowed giving pitchers long-term contracts -- especially ones on the wrong side of 30 years old -- is about to do just that when the free-agency machine starts humming in full force in the coming weeks. A Cardinals franchise that has always valued its young and developing prospects as nearly untouchable pieces will likely have to use some of them as trade bait to help them lure reliable pitching to Busch Stadium.
That’s the position the Cardinals now find themselves in, and president of baseball operations John Mozeliak knows the only way out of this predicament is to find answers to the kinds of questions he hoped to never ask.
Can the Cardinals possibly outspend the deep-pocketed, big-market competition to land 25-year-old Japanese strikeout artist Yoshinobu Yamamoto or likely National League Cy Young Award winner Blake Snell? Can they utilize their culture and cash to get Aaron Nola to leave a perennial power with the Phillies? Can they somehow make up with World Series hero Jordan Montgomery after dealing him to the Rangers?
Do Sonny Gray and/or Michael Wacha have enough left in the tank to be the kind of difference-makers they need? Can they stomach potentially trading the 50-home run potential of Nolan Gorman, the Gold Glove grit of Brendan Donovan or the reliable steadiness of Tommy Edman if it means landing Tyler Glasnow, Logan Gilbert, Dylan Cease or Shane Bieber?
“Look, you have to have an understanding of how you value the player,” Mozeliak said on Wednesday. “Like in any [free agency or trade] markets, there are times when you have to make uncomfortable decisions. We understand that.
“In an offseason where there is certainly a lot of noise of what may or may not happen with the market … our approach is going to be that we understand that there might be some uncomfortable decisions for us, and we’ll see how we react to it. But we’re also not going to just do something stupid just to say that we did it.”
If Mozeliak had things to do over again -- and, in some ways, he does this winter -- he would have fortified his team’s thin pitching staff prior to last spring. A plan which might have kept the franchise away from the perilous position it sits now. Mozeliak has had months to replay that decision, and he has been quick to point blame squarely toward his own chest.
This may push the Cards out of their comfort zone, where they will have to spend big free-agent dollars or prospect capital to acquire the pitching they need. There’s already some queasiness about the predicament, but it’s clearly the only way.
“When you think about the modern game, pitchers don’t go as deep as they once did and you have to backfill for that -- that puts more pressure on your bullpen,” Mozeliak said. “So, we’re hoping to add more than one pitcher that can give us innings. I understand it’s going to be difficult, but for us to get back to where we need to be, we have to upgrade that pitching.”