Mozeliak ready to let DeJong prove himself

Cards' president of baseball operations weighs in on plans to add payroll this offseason

November 9th, 2022

While Cardinals president of baseball operations John Mozeliak was quick to pronounce Tommy Edman as his team’s starting shortstop for the season ahead, he said on Tuesday that he isn’t quite ready to give up on slumping veteran Paul DeJong as potential contributor from multiple defensive positions.

Two major parts of that equation, of course, are DeJong’s looming $9 million salary for 2023 and the shortstop’s history of powerful production from 2017-19. However, Mozeliak stressed on Tuesday while speaking from MLB’s annual GM Meetings in Las Vegas that DeJong’s steadiness and production will be under a spotlight once Spring Training begins in February. No longer can the team be content with the struggles that have befuddled DeJong the past three seasons.

“With Paulie, this spring is important,” Mozeliak said of DeJong, who hit just .157 in 77 MLB games after spending several months with Triple-A Memphis while trying to rediscover his stroke. “He has to make changes. When you think back to when he came up [in late July], he brought a lot of energy and some impact with his bat for about three weeks. Then, he regressed back to where he was prior to getting sent down. So, I think, for him, he’s got to figure out how to get back there, what he can do differently, and he’s obviously got to make some changes.

“Do you want someone that’s a defensive replacement at $9 million a year? No, that’s not ideal.”

What’s also not ideal is the specter of having to replace retired legends Albert Pujols and Yadier Molina. Back with the Cardinals for the first time since 2011, Pujols became one of the stories of the MLB season when he hit 24 home runs to push him to 703 long balls for his career. As for the departure of Molina, the Cardinals are in the market for a catcher for the first time in nearly two decades.

Acquiring a catcher -- either via a trade or free agency -- is a top priority. Not far behind that mission is finding another reliable bat that can hit fifth and provide some much-needed protection for superstars Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado. Even at 42 years old, Pujols filled that role last season, but the Cardinals' two MVP finalists slumped badly in the playoffs when Pujols was moved up to second in the order. Now, the mission is to find a player who can mesh well in the Cardinals lineup.

“You’re always looking for thump,” Mozeliak said. “Having some mode of experience that can fit in our lineup would be helpful. We are a little bit of a club where we have veteran guys and very young guys. Trying to find something in the middle of them would be helpful.”

Mozeliak will go into free agency armed with some extra capital to spend after the Cardinals drew 3.3 million fans in 2022, and they have plans of increasing their payroll. This past season, St. Louis ranked 15th in payroll at $164 million, but it was eighth in the NL and far behind teams such as the Mets, Dodgers, Phillies and Padres. The Cardinals' hope is to close that gulf by taking advantage of the $18 million in salaries coming off the books, Adam Wainwright agreeing to defer $10 million of his 2023 salary and larger limits on payroll.

Mozeliak’s mention of Edman and DeJong as the team’s shortstops would seem to suggest that the Cardinals will not be in the market for a shortstop -- the position with the deepest well of superstar talent. Carlos Correa, Trea Turner, Xander Bogaerts and Dansby Swanson are superstar players in the primes of their careers and will likely all land massive paydays.

Proven hitters such as Willson Contreras, Anthony Rizzo, Andrew Benintendi, J.D. Martinez, Josh Bell, Carlos Santana, Brandon Drury and Michael Conforto figure to fit the veteran profile the Cardinals will target.

Any offseason additions will be made with the thought that the organization’s top prospect, per MLB Pipeline -- outfielder Jordan Walker -- could push for a spot on the Opening Day roster with a strong spring.

Rather than adding a player who can only contribute as a DH, Mozeliak said he would prefer to keep the Cardinals' roster as one that features flexibility at every position. Then again, he wouldn’t mind finding someone who could deliver the same sort of thump that the retired Pujols provided while hitting 18 second-half home runs.

“I kind of liked the flexibility that we had this year built in,” Mozeliak said. “[Juan Yepez] could move around and [Alec] Burleson got opportunities. I would take a repeat of that [Pujols] type of performance. I’d be OK with that.”