SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- As a general rule, baseball executives are usually coy like high-stakes poker players this time of year in that they loathe the idea of tipping their hand or exposing their next moves. For the most part, they would rather say nothing than potentially reveal any facet of their strategy to better their clubs.
Cardinals president of baseball operations John Mozeliak shed the cloak-and-dagger routine for a brief time at the General Managers Meetings on Wednesday. After all, it’s not much of a secret how badly the Cardinals need “pitching, pitching, pitching,” as Mozeliak put it while his team was working to a 71-91 record and the first last-place divisional finish in 33 years.
“I think for us, our checklist is starter, starter, and then let's see what we look like,” Mozeliak said while shedding some light on how the organization intends to fill the three vacancies in its rotation. “We do have some position-player talent and depth there. So, we also do want to explore the trade market just in case we aren't successful on the [free-agent market].
“We certainly feel like we need at least two starters. I think we have some [bullpen] talent that we can arrange, but we're not going to close ourselves off to the reliever market. But we are going to take a more patient approach to that to allow other things to happen.”
Pitching, undoubtedly, will be at a premium this offseason as the free-agent market takes shape in the coming weeks. “Frenzy” was the word used on Wednesday by agent Scott Boras, who said at least seven clubs are seeking multiple starting pitchers this winter. That’s the case even though the top pitching option, Shohei Ohtani, is not scheduled to pitch in 2024 after having a second Tommy John surgery on his right elbow Sept .19. Mariners president of baseball operations Jerry Dipoto, whose squad boasts seven starting pitchers, confirmed the demand for pitching when he was asked about the number of teams seeking difference-making arms.
“Twenty-nine, and that’s normal,” said Dipoto, whose Mariners could be dealing from a position of strength if they swap pitching for hitting. “It was 29 at the [MLB Trade] Deadline, and it’ll be 29 this offseason. It will be the first question, or the first suggestion that's going to be made [to Seattle]. Everybody wants pitching. You’ve got 1,452 [innings], or thereabouts, to cover, so you better get them covered.”
For years, the Cardinals have feverishly worked to stay out of high-priced bidding wars with baseball’s deep-pocketed big-market teams in free agency. Instead, they have primarily used a draft-and-develop strategy as their talent lifeblood, and they have also worked to construct teams with strategic trades for top talents on teams unloading salaries. That strategy allowed them to acquire St. Louis cornerstones Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado and string together a National League-record-tying 15 consecutive winning seasons before this past season.
Pitching, or a lack of it, was the primary culprit, leading even Mozeliak to second-guess himself throughout this week as to what he would have done differently.
“With my own [shortcomings], I have no problem calling them out, and adding [pitching] depth and adding more pitching going into training camp, in hindsight, would have made more sense,” he said. “So, that’s what we’re trying to prepare for.”
Blake Snell, a frontrunner for the NL Cy Young Award, heads a free-agent pitching class that includes Aaron Nola, Jordan Montgomery, Sonny Gray and Eduardo Rodriguez. Japanese hurler Yoshinobu Yamamoto could command the highest salary because of his age (25) and strikeout stuff, and KBO player Erick Fedde’s profile is rising because of the pitching demand.
Because St. Louis needs to add multiple starting arms -- and retool a diminished bullpen -- Mozeliak used the word “prudent” in how the Cardinals must operate while putting the pieces to their pitching staff together. He is hopeful the 2024 payroll is close to what '23 was projected to be before the organization dealt away five pitchers in late July. With approximately $143 million already on the books, the Cardinals could have approximately $50 million to spend this offseason to add the kind of pitching they hope will rid themselves of the sour taste of '23.
Complicating matters, traditional powers such as the Yankees, Red Sox, Mets and Cubs will be battling St. Louis for pitching and to get back into the postseason.
“It’s helpful to look at the breadth of what’s available while also knowing that it’s going to be competitive,” Mozeliak said. “We feel like we’re a desirable place to be and an attractive club, regardless of this past season. We’re hopeful we can make improvements, but I’m not naïve. It’s going to be competitive, and it might be difficult, but we’ve certainly got to try.”