Cardinals searching for impact bat in offseason
St. Louis may break tradition of avoiding high-price free agents
ST. LOUIS -- The need is as it was a year ago for the Cardinals, who again set out on an offseason search for an impact bat. The route toward that end, however, will likely take a different course, and the Cardinals will approach it by reevaluating the organizational blueprint that had, for so long, reaped sustained success and been the envy of so many.
Three years spent watching the playoffs affords time for such reflection. Some would even call it necessary.
"Eighty-eight wins was not good enough," president of baseball operations John Mozeliak said on Tuesday as he addressed myriad topics in an hour-long question-and-answer session with local media. "You've heard [principal owner] Mr. [Bill] DeWitt [Jr.] speak. He's not happy with where we are. He wants us to be better. He wants us back in the postseason, and I understand it. I hear it. And we'll try to look at ways to do that.
"As I look at the next few months, I certainly understand there's a lot of work to be done."
The call for more offense is a familiar one, as it was the team's primary objective last offseason. They sought to solve it through their pursuit of Giancarlo Stanton, until he invoked his no-trade clause. The Cardinals later pivoted and made a deal for another Marlins outfielder, Marcell Ozuna.
Ozuna's impact was noticeable, but not necessarily dynamic. A club that finished tied for fourth in the National League in runs per game (4.69) and home runs per game (1.27) was also inconsistent in that production. And so they will once again seek more.
Last year, the Cardinals, with a crowded roster and repetitive assets, chose to address the need via trade. Circumstances are different now. Significant financial flexibility and a free-agent market fertile with middle-of-the-order bats will push the organization to look hard in that direction.
The question that looms over them then becomes: How big will they go?
"We understand that there is opportunity in this market, and we have to be open-minded to see where that takes us," Mozeliak said. "We have a collection of really good players, but you've got to find a way to improve upon that. … And maybe the way to answer your question is we may have to take some risk."
This market offers two, in particular. Atop the list of available free-agent bats are shortstop Manny Machado and outfielder Bryce Harper. Both hit the open market at 26 years old and are expected to seek record-setting free-agent deals.
Financially, the Cardinals have the ability to enter the bidding. Their pursuit of Stanton a year ago proved the club is unafraid of taking on a long and costly contract for the right player.
And positionally, there could be a fit for either give the uncertainty the Cardinals have in right field and at third base. Fitting an impact bat into one of those two spots would be ideal. The club's need to better balance their offense by adding a left-handed hitter makes Harper particularly attractive.
The calculus, as it always is with these sorts of contract expectations, remains complex.
"When you talk about key names, these aren't one-year solutions," Mozeliak noted. "These are sort of long-term bets. I feel like a lot of times when you have these types of roundtables where we're talking, everybody is solely focused on next season and how that's going to impact the organization. But a lot of these types of opportunities are seven, eight, nine, 10 years down the road. That's something that, when you sit in my seat, you have to be pragmatic and understand what that might look like."
But perhaps that's what makes these two players especially intriguing fits. At their ages, the deals they sign will carry them through what should be prime years of production.
• Mozeliak: Ankiel 'very much committed' to return
Still, under DeWitt's ownership, the organization's preference has been to draft and develop its own cornerstone pieces. The Cards continue to churn out high-level pitching talent, but they haven't been so effective in producing elite position players. Jose Pujols and Yadier Molina were the most recent two, and they were both drafted nearly two decades ago.
Some of that is a consequence of being handcuffed by success. The Cardinals have picked higher than 18th overall in the MLB Draft just once (13th in 2008) since '98.
For most of this past decade, they've overcome that gap. Now, the Cardinals are reevaluating how to address it. That includes whether they can get back to competing for World Championships without a superstar.
"Well, we've won consistently since Albert left," Mozeliak said, referring to the run of postseason appearances the team made from 2012-15. "Now, have we won the big prize? No. Have we come close? Yes. Do I agree that we need some level of elite talent to compete at the highest level? Yeah, I'd accept that.
"Finding that type of franchise player or face of the franchise is something that we recognize we haven't had since Albert left. Yet, we still manage to win. It's a different way of building a club when you don't have it, and I do think it's a little harder."
And so that brings the Cardinals to this crossroads, one where they must decide if it's time to go in that direction they've long preferred to avoid. Wading into the deep end of the free-agent market would represent a high-risk, high-reward gamble. And being successful in such pursuits also will require convincing the player to chose St. Louis, something the club couldn't do with Jason Heyward, David Price or Stanton.
For now, all avenues that lead toward improvement remain on the table.
"Sometimes you need to force yourself to rethink or maybe zig and zag when you don't want to," Mozeliak said. "We try not to get into a position where we get into that comfort zone of that steady state."