ST. LOUIS -- For Cardinals president of baseball operations John Mozeliak, having virtual Winter Meetings this week means about the same number of calls and connections but less of the small talk that can lead to big deals seen at previous Winter Meetings.
But the biggest difference about this week is one that Mozeliak emphasized repeatedly Wednesday: Typically, now would be the time for teams to pick up speed on finalizing their roster for the upcoming season. That’s not the case this year.
“It really feels like January is going to be the new December,” Mozeliak said. “I think part of that is because of the uncertainty that still exists in the game, from our economy to what’s happening in our country to really understanding what some of the rules and changes may look like. I do think patience is going to be required through this. That’s how we’re going to approach it. But we know we have some tasks in front of us.”
Mozeliak spent an hour on Wednesday talking to reporters about what those tasks are and how they change based on the offseason climate. The first is trying to re-sign free agents Yadier Molina and Adam Wainwright, the battery that has defined the last decade for the Cardinals. Wainwright said Monday after he won the Roberto Clemente Award that he hasn’t been presented any offers from any team yet and acknowledged that free agents understand the slowed pace.
St. Louis is committed to bringing back its “legacy players,” as Mozeliak called Wainwright and Molina. Mozeliak acknowledged that having clarity on their returns would be helpful in determining how the next task on the list -- improving the offense -- can be solved. The Cardinals have expressed interest in adding a bat to inject power into a lineup that has not performed to expectations over the past two years.
“The biggest thing this team needs to do that would be different from last year would be from an offensive stance,” Mozeliak said. “So can we internally change the trajectory of how we performed, or is that going to have to come from a different place? Time will tell.”
The financial situation hangs over all of this. The Cardinals anticipate their payroll coming down from where it was a year ago after the pandemic cost the team its gate revenues and created doubt toward full ballparks in 2021. The club has about $110 million committed already, with Jack Flaherty and others due for raises in arbitration.
The challenge for the Cardinals -- and many clubs -- will be to find ways to improve on a budget.
“I am an advocate for fresh faces and trying to keep an environment that feels refreshing and new and exciting, but when you are entering an offseason like we are entering, and you have two legacy players that are entering free agency for, really, their first time, it poses a much different variable than just simple change for change’s sake,” Mozeliak said. “Then you couple in the pandemic, where you have a different type of economics or finances than you might normally have, you may not have the same flexibility as pre-pandemic thinking of being able to do that.
“Therein lies the problem. We have a lot of different variables that we’re trying to capture or resolve and still try to maintain that club that we’re excited about and believe in.”
Possible DH, platoons add other offensive options
National League teams don’t yet know whether there will be a designated hitter in their league next year, but they hope to find out one way or another soon. The Cardinals are approaching 2021 as if there won’t be a DH, but they want to be prepared to switch that approach. The DH adds another layer to what they can do to improve offense, opening other options and could provide a short-term power solution that wouldn’t abandon the outfielders they have. The Cardinals have remained firm in wanting to assess what their young players can give them before they move on, and the pandemic-shortened season didn’t give a full picture.
A DH can add power while also not taking playing time away from the players the Cardinals want to give an opportunity. So can focusing on platoon players by bringing in a left-handed bat to supplement the right-handed hitters the Cardinals have.
“One thing you have remind yourself too is, of the current team, especially when you’re talking about some of our younger outfielders and someone like a Tommy Edman or Andrew Knizner, these young players, it’s hard to judge their 2020 in many ways,” Mozeliak said. “You don’t want to give up or just not keep trying to see what we have there because last year was just tough to judge.
“To look at our team from those 60 games and determine we can’t get better or we will get better, that’s difficult. What I do believe in is the individual talent we have, and we certainly want to try to find ways to give them opportunities. That has not changed.”
Around the horn
• The Cardinals are expecting reliever Jordan Hicks (Tommy John surgery) and starter Miles Mikolas (flexor tendon surgery) to enter camp and have a normal Spring Training.
• Mozeliak did not rule out Carlos Martínez as a starter for 2021 but made it clear that the right-hander will have to earn his spot given Martínez’s inconsistent year last season and the arms the Cardinals have coming for the rotation, including Alex Reyes.
• The Cardinals likely won’t have an instructional camp in January like they typically do due to COVID-19 surges and the uncertainty of start times for Spring Training and the season.